Image Credit: Bay Bridge [photo by Daiwei Lu for Unsplash]
Bay Area drivers know all too well how desperately we need to improve our transportation infrastructure. Roads, bridges, and transit systems are jammed and crumbling. Meanwhile, transportation expenses are the second-highest household cost for working families—higher than food and healthcare. Californians are faced with two questions: how should we fund transportation projects, and what are real, meaningful improvements to our mobility in the Bay Area?
Funding Transportation Improvements
Although state spending increased by $9 billion in 2016 and 2015—and $36 billion over the past five years—not one additional dime of that went to transportation improvements. Worse, the legislature raided billions in transportation funds year after year.
One proposal for addressing our transportation needs was to increase gas taxes and car fees. The proposal passed last year as SB 1. This law raised gas taxes by 70% and vehicle registration fees 47% to 330%, depending on the value of the car.
The SB1 tax increase is indexed to inflation, meaning that the taxes and fees will increase automatically in future years without any voter or legislative input, and with no limit on how high the increases can go. These increases come with no reforms for how the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) should spend your dollars more wisely, and no reforms to or termination of the California high-speed rail project.
SB 1 also continues to allow the legislature to raid existing transportation revenue streams for spending unrelated to transportation. The legislation also prohibits the use of new gas and car taxes to build a single new road or highway to relieve congestion.
For these reasons, I opposed SB 1. My colleagues and I introduced an alternative: the Traffic Relief and Road Improvement Act (AB 496). The bill provided $5.6 billion annually—more than the SB 1 proposal—for transportation and transit improvements, without raising a single tax or fee on Californians. AB 496 dedicated billions of dollars Californians are already paying (such as vehicle sales taxes and truck weight fees) to roads and transit. Our plan also included an aggressive program to relieve congestion, devoting 30% of the funding to expanding road capacity and getting drivers out of traffic.
Our plan also established a transportation inspector general, added accountability measures and reforms to CalTrans spending, and required independent audits for major transportation projects, including high-speed rail. I also authored a complementary measure, AB 1363, to ensure that all transportation revenues go only to transportation projects. Unfortunately, neither AB 1363 nor AB 496 came up for a vote, and SB 1 became law. California voters will have an opportunity to weigh in on SB 1 in November with Proposition 6.
Meaningful Investments in Transportation
Ending BART Strikes
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system is invaluable to Bay Area commuters. Almost half a million people ride BART each working day. There have been five labor strikes in BART history; they created havoc for riders, jammed Bay Area roads, cost $73 million a day in lost economic activity, and caused environmental damage through greater carbon emissions. The first bill I introduced in the legislature would have prevented future BART strikes in a way that is fair to workers and riders. The legislature recently voted down measures to end the threat of future BART strikes, but I continue to believe stopping strikes would bring much-needed stability to BART.
The Altamont Pass between the San Joaquin Valley and the Tri-Valley in the East Bay area serves as a critical transportation route for commuters and commercial trucks. Traveling between these two megaregions, however, can take hours due to traffic congestion on Interstate 580, which is expected to increase by up to 60% from 2013 levels by 2040. Without having an alternate means of transportation, drivers will continue to spend even more time sitting in traffic on I-580.
I authored bipartisan legislation, AB 758, to create a rail authority to connect BART and Altamont Corridor Expressway (ACE) commuter trains in the Tri-Valley. This authority will connect the two transit systems to relieve traffic congestion, improve air quality, and lower commute times throughout the Bay Area. In fact, connecting BART and ACE through seamless transfer in the Tri-Valley will take 30,000 cars off I-580 every commute day. This is why a recent report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, “Tri-Valley Rising,” found that “the single most impactful event for Tri-Valley transportation occurred when Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill 758 into law in October 2017.” Full implementation of AB 758 is another example of smarter transportation improvements for the Bay Area.
Autonomous Shuttle Solutions
Another solution to mobility is the deployment of autonomous shuttles to connect neighborhoods, job centers, and transit in a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way. Under two of my bills, AB 1592 and AB 1444, autonomous shuttles are now being tested at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, Bishop Ranch Office Park, and Dublin/Pleasanton BART station. These shuttles ultimately can connect commuters in suburban areas, like Lamorinda and the Tri-Valley, to BART and job centers without relying on limited BART parking and congesting roadways.
Expanding BART Parking
An additional initiative I have undertaken is to build more BART parking. Through collaboration with Alameda County and my office, a new parking structure will break ground this fall at the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station, adding 650-700 additional parking spaces to this major station. The parking lot will be a state-of-the-art convertible structure. If parking is no longer needed in the future as technology advances, the structure can be turned into additional housing or commercial space.
Californians have choices on how to fund transportation, and what types of projects in the Bay Area improve mobility. The key to these choices is bipartisan cooperation that gets the job done and puts party politics aside. That will continue to be my goal.
About the Author
Catharine Baker has represented California’s 16th Assembly District since 2014. Before joining the Assembly, she worked as an attorney, advising small businesses, individuals, and nonprofits. Catharine earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a law degree from UC Berkeley. Catharine is married to her college sweetheart Dan; the two live in Dublin with their two children.
California Proposition 6 failed in the November 2018 election. The narrow margin of 55% of the voters against and 45% in favor reflects the challenges ahead for future legislation.