Summer recess for Plan Bay Area

It’s been a couple of months since we posted an update on the Plan Bay Area process. After the big vote in May to adopt the One Bay Area grant program and the Preferred Scenario for Plan Bay Area, the next step was last month. On July 19, ABAG and MTC chose alternatives to study in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The five alternative scenarios to be studied (pdf) are:

  1. No project. Required by law, the “no project” alternative shows what would happen to the region if the region developed according to cities’ currently-adopted plans.  Note that many of these “current” plans are actually from the 1990s or even older.
  2. Jobs-Housing Connection. Also known as the “Preferred Scenario” that the agencies adopted back in May. Includes 80% of new homes and 66% of new jobs in Priority Development Areas, or PDAs – places near transit where cities are voluntarily planning for new growth.
  3. Transit Priority Focus. This alternative studies greater development in “Transit Priority Project” areas – all places in the region near frequent transit (not just the voluntary PDAs).  On the transportation side, it increases investment in transit service – particularly BART and AC Transit in Alameda County – partly through higher tolls during peak hours on the Bay Bridge. Excitingly, it will also study what would happen if fees were charged for developing in places that require lots of driving to get around.
  4. Enhanced Network of Communities.  Seeks to eliminate workers commuting in to the Bay Area from other regions – plans for a higher number of new homes than the other scenarios.  Includes significant investment in the PDAs and transportation network.  Links funds given to cities to city action to reduce regulatory constraints to building new homes and jobs.
  5. Environment, Equity and Jobs. Maximizes affordable housing in opportunity areas – places with good schools, high levels of low-income workers commuting in, and a shortage of affordable homes – including outside PDAs.  Includes increased transit service to Communities of Concern – places with significant transportation needs for low-income, people of color, disabled, and senior households.  Also includes road pricing – a tax on each mile driven – with an exemption for low-income drivers.

In addition to environmental review, the scenarios will also undergo a social equity analysis and an economic analysis.

What might the analysis show?
There are both good things and a few dangerous things that could come out of the analysis.  For instance:

  1. The “no project” alternative – with fewer total homes built in the region, and less development in walkable neighborhoods near transit – will almost certainly show negative impacts in all three “E’s” (environment, equity and economy).  Fewer homes built here means more people will continue to commute long distances to jobs – leading to more driving-related pollution and higher combined household costs for housing and transportation – and that fewer jobs will be created in the Bay Area (see my favorite quote about this dynamic in this post).  And less development in walkable neighborhoods near transit means more pollution and higher household costs as well.  This alternative will likely fail to meet the greenhouse gas emission reduction target set through SB 375 (for the Bay Area, 15% per-capita reduction by 2035) and therefore be ineligible to be adopted as Plan Bay Area.
  2. We expect analysis of the Transit Priority Focus alternative to clearly show that developing in all places near frequent transit is environmentally beneficial.
  3. The Enhanced Network of Communities will likely show that more homes in the Bay Area increases the region’s ability to attract jobs, since employers want to locate in places where they can attract top talent, and talented employees want affordable homes in nice locations.  Interestingly, the business community specifically requested that the region study an alternative that plans for more homes in the region because they understand that connection between housing and jobs. Also, in general, more homes in the Bay Area is good for the environment – if more people have a chance to live closer to Bay Area jobs, they’ll have shorter commutes – and less pollution from driving – than if they continued commuting in from out of the region.  Plus living in the Bay Area, with its naturally temperate climate, generally means less energy use for heating and air conditioning.
  4. I’m a bit wary about the phrase “reducing constraints on development” in the Enhanced Network of Communities alternative. On the one hand, if by “reducing constraints” they mean things like increasing height limits near transit and downtown, we’re all in favor of that – and analysis will probably show environmental benefits.  On the other hand, if “reducing constraints” means loosening urban growth boundaries and developing on our precious open spaces, polls repeatedly show that’s not an outcome that most Bay Area residents want to see.  Paradoxically, there’s a chance that environmental review might show that more sprawl is good for the environment with respect to driving-related air pollution due to people living closer to jobs (even on greenfields). We’ll have to watch to make sure the environmental analysis clearly shows the many more negative impacts of paving over farms and wetlands for more sprawl.
  5. The Environment, Equity and Jobs scenario will almost certainly show that providing more affordable homes in jobs-rich places (especially places with high levels of low-income workers commuting in) will be good for the environment (pdf) and good for the economy (pdf) as well as good for quality of life. And from previous studies I’ve seen, an analysis of the political hot potato of road pricing – specifically a tax on Vehicle Miles Traveled, or VMT – will show that that technique has a greater effect on reducing driving-related pollution than any other possible action.

In addition to analyzing the impacts of the plan, the EIR must also suggest mitigation measures to decrease those impacts.  One idea we’re excited about is the concept of a Regional Advanced Mitigation Program (pdf), or RAMP, to mitigate impacts of new transportation projects on open space.  Normally, each transportation project’s sponsor is in charge of figuring out and implementing the mitigation plan for their project – how many acres of natural lands will be impacted by new road lanes, where can land be purchased to make up for those impacts, how much will it cost, etc.  Under RAMP, the region as a whole would decide together how much land will need to be purchased to mitigate the impacts of  all the projects in the plan.  After deciding which lands are most important to be conserved, the region would purchase those lands up front – in advance.  That saves time and hassle for each individual transportation project manager when they’re trying to move their project forward, and saves money by purchasing land early, before real estate values rise.  We hope to see MTC pursue a RAMP program for the Bay Area.

What might change in the real world as a result of the analysis?
Many of us engaged in this process have hopes that the results of the environmental analysis will lead to changes, both in the plan itself and in actions that cities choose to take.  It remains to be seen how much the results of the environmental review will actually change the final version of Plan Bay Area that gets adopted in spring 2013.  And the jury is still out on how much impact the Plan will have on day-to-day land-use decisions in cities and towns.

In general, I hope the EIR process – and the eventual adoption of Plan Bay Area – leads to more homes built in our existing cities and towns near transit and downtown, and more affordable homes built in the places that need them the most.  I hope that, as a result of those new homes, the Bay Area is better able to attract and retain high-quality jobs.  And I hope that we continue to protect our iconic natural landscapes that provide us with clean water, scenery and wildlife, and fresh local food.

Timeline – what’s next?
Now the Plan Bay Area process goes into a bit of a hibernation period.  ABAG and MTC will spend the next several months preparing the EIR and the formal Draft Plan, both of which are scheduled to be released for public review on December 14.  Stay tuned for our take on the EIR results later in the year.

But not everything in the land-use and transportation realm is on summer break. In August, MTC will gear up to develop the program framework and guidelines for the new conservation grant program, with the goal of adopting the guidelines in late fall and calling for grant applications in early 2013.  County Congestion Management Agencies have already started working on the criteria they’ll use to distribute their One Bay Area grant funds to transportation projects in their county.  And of course cities are continuing with work creating the local land-use plans that are the building blocks of great neighborhoods throughout the region.

Homepage photo courtesy of Phil Bouchard via Flickr.

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