The Failure of Me-First Transportation Planning

If you had a few billion dollars to spend on transportation, where would you spend it?

In the 1990s, Orange County spent its billions expanding its own stretch of the Interstate 5 freeway to 22 lanes in the widest places. But as you cross the border from Orange County into Los Angeles County, the I-5 slims down to just six lanes. Orange County didn’t spend a dime widening the highway in LA County, just because it was in LA County. Now the traffic jams stretch back from the county line for miles. The I-5 in Orange County is the fifth most congested roadway in California, and it is Orange County citizens who are paying the price.

Orange County’s failed freeway widening is just one example of the “me-first” approach to transportation planning. They built projects that were in their county, rather than those that would have the greatest positive impact on their county’s commutes. They tried to focus exclusively on their own transportation problems without acknowledging that their transportation problems were regional in nature, and required regional solutions.

Unfortunately, when it comes to making transportation decisions, the Bay Area is almost as me-first as Orange County. Over the past 40 years, our regional transportation policy has largely been a prioritized list of all the local projects demanded by the nine counties and 101 cities. But adding together lots of me-first projects ends up pulling our transportation networks apart, rather than stitching them together more effectively. Me-first puts we last.

BART’s historical pattern of investment is a good example. In the past couple decades, the region has built extension after expensive extension on the edge of the system. This December, the latest of these expensive extensions will open in south Fremont near the Santa Clara county line. This new extension cost $890 million to build, and will cost over $12 million annually to operate.

This extension — and many of BART’s other end-of-line extensions — are the Bay Area version of Orange County’s failed freeway widening program. The new station in south Fremont will funnel more and more riders into an already overloaded BART system, without fundamentally increasing the capacity of the core system to accommodate them. Not only will this increase the crowding for those living in Fremont, but for all BART riders throughout the Bay Area.

Overcrowding is not just about discomfort. Trains have gotten so full that oftentimes folks have to wait for several trains to go by before getting on. The platforms in downtown San Francisco are nearing overcapacity under normal conditions, so that when trains are delayed riders need to be turned away from coming down onto the platform so they don’t get pushed out onto the track. Like with highways, as BART gets more jammed we increase the chance that small incidents lead to big delays.

That’s a poor result from an $890 million investment. But the true cost of me-first planning is revealed when we look at how else the $890 million could have been spent. For the same price as the extension, the region could have replaced BART’s 1960s-vintage train control system — its brain — which is holding BART back from running more trains, and at higher speeds.

Some would argue that me-first transportation planning is inevitable — the result of our democratic system. But there are too many examples of citizens rising above their individual demands for us not to continue reaching for greater communal goals. Even BART, under a dynamic new general manager and a refreshed Board of Directors, is starting to put we-first.

Last month, for instance, BART finally started down the path to replacing its train control system brain. This investment can’t come a day too early. The new brain would increase the subway’s peak capacity by almost 30,000 riders, almost six times more than the 5,000 extra daily riders expected from the new south Fremont extension. In addition to many more folks being able to ride BART, more people would want to ride BART. The whole system would become faster and more reliable, and all riders would be able to enjoy more space and less of their neighbor’s armpit. Traffic across the Bay’s bridges would even speed up as more folks would leave their cars at home or in the BART parking lot.

Many of the best we-first investments are those that, like upgrading BART’s train control system, increase the capacity and resiliency of our entire regional transportation network rather than stretching it thinner or creating new bottlenecks. Advocating solely for our narrow self-interest pulls our infrastructure apart rather than knitting it together into a system that functions for all. It is only by thinking at the regional level that we can truly reduce the congestion that is plaguing our commutes.

Over the next few years, BART and Bay Area governments will raise billions of dollars for our transportation network by issuing bonds and authorizing sales taxes. As we pick which projects to fund, let us break free of the me-first thinking of Orange County’s failed freeway widenings. Let us reject those shiny local transportation projects that supposedly help our commutes, but often times do just the opposite. We must make the investments to upgrade our entire transportation networks to be more flexible, resilient, and reliable. It is only by thinking we-first, that we can make the smart investments to truly reduce the traffic and crowding that curse all of our commutes.

Nick Josefowitz serves on the BART Board of Directors.

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