Bay Area Growth Impacting Aging Transportation System

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By Alice Yin

The Bay Area’s growing economy and population are taking a toll on the region’s aging transportation system, according to panelists at the June local chapter meeting of corporate real estate trade association CoreNet Global.

Running on existing infrastructure that dates back to the early 1900s, the Bay Area is at a standstill, the three panelists said. The unstable highway and public transit system cannot keep up with the region’s growth.

“All the infrastructure that you see is matured,” said panelist Bijan Sartipi, director of the California Department of Transportation’s District 4, which covers the Bay Area. “It is aged and suffering from decades of neglect.”

A 2011 Caltrans assessment concluded that the next decade would face a $295 billion funding gap between expected revenue and funds needed to maintain California’s transportation system. Gov. Jerry Brown predicted a $59 billion need for maintenance on highways alone in the next 10 years.

[contextly_sidebar id=”ekqUdPC744y1AFVLckKZjq0xyHlfYnNo”] This lag hits the Bay Area hard due to its swelling population. Traffic has worn down the roads and bridges, Sartipi said, and the region’s commuters, 70 percent of whom prefer highways to public transit, can expect more congestion to come.

“Transportation is always chasing development,” Sartipi said. “We need to change and plan better for where we live and work, and we need a transportation system that supports it.”

Operating on funds that only meet a third of what the state needs, California has already pushed for changes. Sartipi shared projects from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which serves the nine Bay Area counties, including building a regional express lane network by 2035, converting existing lanes into toll lanes and lobbying for a mileage-based user fee.

Panelist Randy Rentschler, director of legislation and public affairs at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said the Bay Area’s population should bear a tax increase to help pay for road and highway improvements.

The gas tax “needs to be sustained over a great period of time,” Rentschler said. “If we don’t, we’re doing disservice to generations that are coming after us.”

The symptoms ailing the region, however, reflect society more than the quality of Caltrans, Rentschler said. The Bay Area is dealing with rapid growth but with exhaustible resources.

This is because the region comprises more than 100 towns that are not working together, Rentschler said. Thus, developers do not build enough housing where it is most needed—next to transit—which helps lead to staggering rent prices. And as housing supply faces pressure, infrastructure suffers with it. “Transportation is a symptom of a problem: the housing-jobs imbalance that exists,” Rentschler said.

Panelist Cynthia Kroll, chief economist of the Association of Bay Area Governments, touched on the aforementioned housing issues in the Bay Area’s volatile economy.

Population continues to grow with an ever-expanding labor force. However, housing formation has slowed since the bubble burst, which led to an overall decrease in income, she said.

When the economy began to revive, construction in areas with the most housing pressure lagged behind. Job growth centralized in certain places, building up to a transportation problem, Kroll said. Today’s Bay Area sees masses of commuters going from county to county in traffic each workday.

MTC and ABAG proposed the long-range strategy Plan Bay Area to seek priority development areas for housing development based on where jobs are. These areas were located in industrial areas, near feasible public transportation.

However, Kroll said Plan Bay Area is not a one-step solution. There is no right forecast for even the next decade when it comes to job projection, she said. The proposals that target growth areas will be redone every two to four years, according to Kroll.

Right now, the only thing certain is that the Bay Area’s roadways have run their course. The transportation system gifted to the current generation is at the end of its life, Rentschler said. It has reached an age with “more aging pains than growing pains.”

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