Market relief for transit cash crunch

The 19 most important transportation projects in the Bay Area are facing a $2.3 billion shortfall in construction costs, and the funding gap will continue growing larger as long as building expenses keep rising while the projects are delayed.

Put at risk by the ongoing delays are such important projects as the new Muni Central Subway, the Transbay Terminal and the long-awaited electrification of Caltrain, which would all significantly enhance Bay Area transportation during the next 25 years.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which coordinates distribution of federal and state public transit and highway money for the nine-county greater Bay Area, has a priority list of regional projects. However, it has always been an inescapable fact of government that there can never be enough money on hand to fulfill all the public needs that compete for funding.

MTC senior planner James Corless freely admitted in an Examiner story last Thursday that politics plays a role in deciding which project gets funded first, when money arrives from Sacramento or Washington. Of course it is no secret that political clout can often be more important than the worthiness of a particular project when the appropriations pie is sliced.

For this reason, it is vital that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission be as transparent as possible throughout the process of funding its priorities. Having said this, it must be pointed out that exclusively going after a constantly bigger share of available public money just blindly ignores the tremendous progress that could come from opening up more of the transit business to free-market competition. And we are not talking merely about large-scale capital expenditures such as the private toll highways that have achieved considerable success in the East.

A low-investment supplement that could make public transportation far more convenient and practical would be a widespread adoption of private jitney service. Jitneys are generally van-sized vehicles that will pick up and drop off passengers anywhere along a pre-set route. They were widely used in numerous cities for years, but were ultimately killed off by determined lobbying from the “official” transit lines, which argued that jitneys were inherently unsafe and improperly insured.

Such complaints are blatant nonsense. It would obviously be an easy matter to impose regulations requiring safe late-model vehicles and full insurance. And one of the best things about the jitney business is that it could be affordably entered by neighborhood entrepreneurs, providing job opportunities where most needed. Jitney routes would also produce additional tax revenues for hard-pressed city budgets.

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