BARTbarians at the Gate

Ferry supporters turned out in force to beat back a plan for diverting funding from anticipated bridge toll hikes to an envisioned Livermore BART extension. Guy Span enters the hall of mirrors that is Bay Area transportation policy planning to attempt an explanation of what happened and why.

Ferry Supporters Pack MTC Meeting—Beat Back Proposal to Divert Toll Funds to Livermore BART Extension

By Guy Span 
Published: October, 2002

Like Alice in Wonderland, your intrepid reporter found himself thrust into the incomprehensible workings of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). Attending a MTC meeting is a little bit like tuning into a soap opera, where everyone else is aware of what’s going on, but the first-time observer simply has no idea who shot John.

Having been warned by an emergency e-mail sent to the Bay Crossings e-mail list that the September 18th meeting was “critical” for ferry advocates, the first thing this reporter did was review the online agenda, discovering a number of yawnable items, such as Golden Gate Funding, Safe School Bus Act, Transit Link II, and the like. The only mildly suspicious item was in the “Committee Reports” section where the commissioners were actually going to vote (Danger! Danger! Will Robinson; they are going to do something). And the third item of the Legislation Committee was innocuously entitled “Proposed Principles to Develop a Toll Bridge Expenditure Plan.” Staff had recommended approval.

Still, the agenda appeared to be mostly harmless. However, rat sniffing was in order, and by digging deeper into the “Principles” section, it then became clearer that Regional Measure 1 (RM-1) projects were being proposed as a priority to receive the new toll funds. It turns out that RM-1 projects include the Bayfair–San Jose and Livermore corridors, i.e., more BART. So it appeared that the MTC was about to vote on the principles for applying the new $1 toll increase and BART extensions were high on the list!

The Bay Crossings e-mail had generated a standing room only turnout of ferry advocates, who joined with other transit advocates to protect their proposed projects from being drained by BART extensions. State Senator Don Perata (D-East Bay) was the first public speaker, calling for a collaborative approach to spending the money directly to mitigate congestion on the bridge. He was supportive of a wide range of projects including express bus lanes, the Dumbarton Railway Bridge project, ferry service, and others. He pointed out that BART needed to increase capacity through the tube and perform the seismic retrofit, not build more extensions, adding, “Anytime you’ve got a dollar lying around, everyone’s going to grab for it…”
A huge number of other speakers followed, basically echoing Senator Perata’s sentiments. Agencies were represented, including AC Transit, Water Transit, and others. After public comment, the commissioners discussed a number of issues, including whether the toll increase was a fee or a tax (the MTC lawyer said the line is blurred), and what a “nexus” to the bridge meant (the lawyer said it was anything connected to the bridge). Commissioner Scott Haggerty (Alameda Board of Supervisors) then spoke, saying people in Livermore had paid for BART and that it took him two and half hours to drive to San Francisco from Livermore, but it only took 20 minutes from Oakland on BART. “It’s wrong,” he said.

Commissioner Tom Ammiano (San Francisco Supervisor) then proposed a modification to the principles, saying any project would need a “clear nexus” to bridge congestion, but left in the paragraph relating to RM-1 funding. Only two voted against this modification (one being Haggerty). At this point, Haggerty was visibly upset with the way the meeting was going, complaining about transit service to Livermore. When the vote on the principles came up, Haggerty stopped to ask if he could vote against a proposition he had sponsored. Since it had been amended, this was allowed and he did indeed vote against it, but it passed with only two “no” votes.
The ferry advocates and others promptly left the meeting in good spirits. So what happened? Your reporter puzzled over this for a couple of days and finally collared an insider to get some more background on the soap opera plot. The answers were illuminating.

So here’s the rest of the story, according to our insider: Prior to the amendment sponsored by Ammiano, the “Principles,” with a staff recommendation for “Approval” as written, highlighted the RM-1 projects, which were mostly BART extensions. In turn, this meant the expenditure would then require a two-thirds vote. Apparently, almost everyone but your reporter (and the MTC attorney) were aware of recent legal rulings where the term “nexus” had been defined by the court to have a much narrower meaning than the “anything connected to” proposed by the MTC attorney. The nexus concept is critical because if the approved projects fail the “nexus” test, the toll increase would have to be considered as a new tax, not a fee, and require two-thirds vote, not a simple majority.

Thus, the infighting was indeed BART vs. other transit, with a subplot of achieving project nexus so the bridge toll increase would become a fee, not a tax. And since Livermore and San Jose BART extensions will likely fail the nexus test, the modified principles now exclude such BART extensions, regardless of the RM-1 language.
Supporters of the clear nexus approach note that this frees up capital dollars to pursue a wider range of projects, such as commuter trains, ferries, and express buses. These projects would have languished if the pro-BART language had passed, as BART extensions would have consumed most of the capital dollars and possibly risked passage, given the requirement for a two-thirds voting majority to impose the new toll as a tax.

Proponents of BART note that putting the issue out to a two-thirds vote is more democratic and that Livermore residents have been taxed for BART for over 30 years and still have no service. So, just like the soap opera, there were winners and losers, jilted paramours, and complex subplots. You could have attended this meeting, but without your copy of “Soap Opera Digest” it would not have been possible to figure out what happened. But the BARTbarians were at the gates and the supporters of ferries, buses, and trains carried the day.

Note: For those who would like more information, the MTC web site carries an archived copy of the audio record of this meeting.