“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
— John Muir
Investing in transportation by itself does not work. It works when you have supporting players like a nearby mix of homes, shops, jobs, interconnected bikeways, and other amenities. The Bay Area needs to make its transit system—trains, buses, roads, bike lanes, and sidewalks—more robust. And in a region with 7 million people and counting and with 101 cities, you can find a lot of different transportation projects to fund. Unfortunately, there’s only so much money to go around in these trying economic times. So how can we get the most bang for our transportation buck?
One way is to ensure that transportation dollars go toward cities that demonstrate their support for sustainable and equitable growth. These cities—that strive to create healthy communities with good jobs and affordable homes served by reliable public transit in walkable, bikeable neighborhoods—would make efficient use of any transit funds that come their way.
The One Bay Area Grant Program
Last May, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) approved the One Bay Area Grant Program with the goal of better linking transportation funding decisions to local land use. The grant funds were distributed to counties based on a formula that accounted for a county’s population, expected growth, and how well its cities have provided homes affordable to families of all income levels.
This past fall, each Bay Area county’s congestion management agency (CMA) started developing criteria for how it would distribute its share of the One Bay Area Grant funds to transit projects in different cities. Here’s how things played out in a couple of counties:
Santa Clara County
Santa Clara County’s CMA is the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Greenbelt Alliance—along with our partners: TransForm, Urban Habitat, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group—were alarmed to see that VTA’s original scoring criteria made absolutely no mention of land use. In other words, if transportation projects were evaluated under these criteria, cities would receive no points, and therefore no additional money, for creating more jobs and affordable homes near transit.
Perplexed by this setback, Greenbelt Alliance and our allies voiced our concerns to VTA and successfully advocated for changes to its criteria. Now, a proposed transportation project can receive up to 15 points (out of 100) based on how well that city does in creating jobs and homes—including affordable homes—near transit. This amendment will give Santa Clara County cities that are doing their part for sustainable, equitable development a better shot at getting the funding they need for their transportation projects.
The story in Alameda County is similar. Greenbelt Alliance participates in the Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Coalition, led by Urban Habitat. The Coalition’s purpose is to ensure that Alameda County’s One Bay Area Grant scoring distribution accounts for a city’s record in both producing new affordable homes as well as preserving existing affordable homes, which protects low-income families from being priced out of the market and being forced to move away.
The Alameda County Transportation Commission’s initial criteria only awarded 3 points (out of 100) to these equity considerations. But thanks to hard work by the Coalition, the County ended up voting to triple that, awarding 9 points to cities that create and preserve affordable housing.
Our work’s not done
The moral of this story is that it’s essential to keep transportation agencies on task and ensure they are making the most of limited transportation dollars by evaluating transit in conjunction with land use.
We still have a lot of work ahead of us. Establishing project scoring criteria is an important first step, but the rubber really meets the road (transportation pun intended!) when projects are actually chosen for funding. Land-use and housing issues are not transit agencies’ areas of expertise, so Greenbelt Alliance will stay very involved to make sure these concerns remain front and center as grant applications are submitted, projects are scored, and funding decisions are made in the spring. Stay tuned to find out which projects are chosen.
Senior Field Representative Michele Beasley contributed to this article.