Plan Bay Area update

by Bay Area Citizens

Dear Friends,

Since late April, we have been communicating with folks mostly by email, phone, and meetings, and want to give you an update here on developments with Bay Area Citizens since then, especially as it relates to Plan Bay Area.

Plan adoption, July 19, 2013

Just after midnight, Friday, July 19, 2013, ABAG and MTC voted to certify Plan Bay Area’s final Environmental Impact Review (EIR), and voted to adopt the Plan itself.  Remarkably, given the apparent lack of any real deliberation during the entire process by which this Plan has been promulgated, the votes by ABAG’s Executive Committee and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission were not unanimous.  Five unnamed ABAG Executive Committee members voted “no” on the Plan’s adoption, and one MTC Commissioner voted “no” as well.

Comments submitted

During the comment period of the draft Plan and on the Plan’s draft EIR, ABAG and MTC received hundreds of comment letters from individuals, organizations, cities, and other governmental agencies.  Bay Area Citizens has read many of these, including most of the more substantive ones.  Many of the comment letters were carefully documented and well reasoned, including those submitted by individual citizens.  The vast majority of the comment letters submitted by individual citizens and by far the majority of comment letters submitted overall raised grave concerns over the substance of the Plan and the deficiencies of the Plan’s process.

The majority of the cities’ comment letters raised concerns about the Plan as well.  The only group of letters that expressed any significant measure of support for the goals and policies of the Plan were those submitted by “stakeholder” organizations that have been funded and staffed to advocate for policies like those in Plan Bay Area.

Bay Area Citizens role

Bay Area Citizens members submitted a number of substantive comment letters, and we collaborated and communicated with dozens of other citizens who also submitted substantive and material comment letters on the Plan.

We also raised funds to commission comment letters from a number of nationally-respected experts in land use and transportation planning.  Our experts also collaborated with other nationally-respected experts who filed comment letters on their own behalf or for other organizations.   Our experts worked tirelessly and long—in some cases for little or no compensation—in order to submit analytically-sound and empirically-based assessments of the Plan and its analysis.  Citizens and cities provided the objective analysis that ABAG and MTC were required to provide to the public, but did not.

We received contributions from many people from throughout the Bay Area for this important effort to support informed decision making on the part of the public, and our largest donation was less than 7% of the total we raised for this effort.  But notwithstanding the great efforts on the part of citizens from around the Bay Area to fund and support our expert reports, and the great work of our experts themselves, the bulk of the comments submitted on the Plan and its EIR were from citizens and experts doing so on their own time and at their own expense.

What the comments establish

The overriding message of the comment letters was (1) the Plan’s high density housing mandates and additional mass transit subsidies won’t work, even to accomplish the Plan’s own stated objectives—while they are detrimental to the citizens, cities, and the Bay Area as a whole, and (2) the Plan’s analysis was irreparably flawed.

The Plan’s high density housing mandates and mass transit subsidies.

The Plan mandates that 80% of all new housing units be built in multistory, multifamily projects in crowded city centers near mass transit, and that 66% of all new jobs be located in these areas as well.  It also dramatically under funds roads and bridges in order to increase mass transit subsidies, particularly for rail systems—and proposes numerous new policy initiatives to make driving more expensive and inconvenient for Bay Area residents.  Together these represent significant and unnecessary restrictions on and how and where Bay Area residents can live and travel, and where they can work and locate their businesses. 

These policy elements also won’t work.  The Plan’s own analysis shows that the mandate that 80% of all new housing units must be built in multistory, multifamily projects in crowded city centers is not even remotely plausible, despite the massive new public subsidies that the Plan itself posits are necessary for these to be built.  ABAG and MTC also assert the Plan requires new regional redevelopment agencies with eminent domain powers that will be necessary to force existing residents and small businesses off of their existing locations in order to assemble the large parcels necessary to accomplish the planners’ plans.

The Plan’s analysis admits that forcing all these new residents to live in high density housing in crowded city centers near transit will have significant and irremediable health impacts.  Rather than to change the Plan and not force all these new residents to live this way, the Plan insists that these new housing units have air filtration, with no ground floor housing, and that housing units be placed as far away from transit as possible! 

The Plan and its analysis also offer no credible data to support their assumptions that locating housing next to jobs next to transit will lead to people giving up their cars and working at the jobs next to the housing units.  In fact, what data there is regarding policies like these shows that these outcomes won’t materialize.

The Plan also assumes that per capita transit ridership will skyrocket more than 90% over the next 30 years, notwithstanding that its mass transit policies simply continue the same types of initiatives that have been tried in the Bay Area for the last 30 years—initiatives that have led to a 10% decline in total transit ridership and a more than 30% decline in transit ridership in per capita terms.

Evidence was also offered in the comment letters showing that high density housing doesn’t decrease greenhouse gas emissions, nor does mass transit.  In fact, the comment letters showed that current generation automobiles and light trucks have a 20% advantage, on average, in energy consumption over mass transit.  Since the fuel efficiency of the passenger vehicle fleet will increase from 20 miles per gallon (MPG) in 2010 to 50 MPG in 2040 due to already on the books state and federal regulations, the energy efficiency gap between passenger vehicles and mass transit will widen substantially in the coming years.  The energy efficiency gap directly translates into a similar greenhouse gas emission advantage of current and future generations of passenger vehicles over mass transit.   Though some buses in large cities run full and hence are both energy and greenhouse gas efficient on a per passenger mile basis, this doesn’t mean that mass transit, on average, is similarly efficient—and it is not.  The Plan also does nothing to address the mobility needs of lower income Bay Area residents who are reliant on a well-functioning bus system to get to work, school, and other places.

Even if the Plan’s high density housing and mass transit subsidies work as ABAG and MTC claim they will, those draconian policy initiatives will only lead to a 1.2% difference in greenhouse gas emissions in 2040 over doing nothing at all.  Draft EIR Table 3.1-28, p. 3.1-59.

The Plan’s analysis was irreparably flawed.

The number of facially wrong assumptions and models employed by ABAG and MTC to justify and analyze their Plan is breathtaking and deeply disturbing.  Just a few examples—of too many to mention—should suffice to illustrate just how improper ABAG and MTC’s analysis was.

The draft EIR at p. 2.5-24 claims that it will take “a 25 to 35 percent reduction from current emission levels” to reach the statutorily required 1990 levels for greenhouse gas emissions.  ABAG and MTC are fully aware, and have been aware all along during their analysis, that this assumption is completely and totally inaccurate.  In fact, ABAG and MTC know that current models for greenhouse gas emissions for both California and the US show that we are at or about 1990 levels now, and on a continuing path downward.  These are declines that cannot be attributed to slow economic growth alone, and do not take into account the vast reductions that will occur in coming years due to new state and federal MPG regulations.

ABAG and MTC also completely ignored the impact of California MPG regulations on greenhouse gas emissions when they purportedly decided between their selected alternatives.  However, they know the impact of those MPG regulations will dwarf by orders of magnitude (14-20 times or more) the paltry differences that ABAG and MTC claim will result from their draconian policy initiatives versus not doing those policy initiatives at all.  ABAG and MTC argue that the governing statute requires them to ignore those MPG regulations, despite the plain text of the statute requiring them to do otherwise.  And, when it is convenient for them do so, as when considering the adverse health effects of the Plan’s high density housing mandates, ABAG and MTC cheerfully claim credit for the pollutant reductions due to those same MPG regulations that they ignore when they are selecting their high density housing mass transit heavy Plan. 

Shockingly, ABAG and MTC ignore most of the impacts of those California MPG regulations on the Plan’s budget as well.  The most important part of the budget is the funds that come from gas tax revenues, as those are the funds that MTC has the most discretionary control over.  Gas tax revenues are a function of the amount of gallons of gasoline used, as well as the retail price of gas (assuming gas tax rates are kept constant). 

ABAG and MTC’s own internal models require the conclusion that by 2035 that 32% fewer gallons of gasoline will used by passenger vehicles in the Bay Area than were used in 2010, even after adjusting for additional miles driven by new residents—just from the impact of the first set of California MPG regulations.  And, simple, undisputable calculations based on the second set of California MPG regulations, also on the books and final during the analysis of the Plan, indicates that gallons of gasoline used by passenger vehicles will be approximately 50% less in 2035 or 2040 over what they were in 2010.

So, do ABAG and MTC report a 50% decline in gas tax revenues in their budget for 2035 or 2040?  Of course not.  They “mitigate” these inevitable declines by ignoring most of the declines, then assuming that the retail price of gas will increase over the next 30 years by vastly higher rates than the Plan’s assumed rate of inflation.  As a result, the problem of 50% fewer gallons of gas used by passenger vehicles in the later years of the Plan is “solved,” and the Plan reports continuing increases in gas tax revenues, in defiance of reality, and in utter disregard for proper budgeting and forecasting practices. 

MTC and ABAG’s lack of response

Needless to say, none of what the comments establish above was addressed or considered by ABAG and MTC.  No changes in the analysis were offered, and no modifications to the Plan were considered.

ABAG and MTC staff, for their part, simply ignored the comments that questioned the Plan in their reports to the public and to the ABAG Executive Board and the MTC commissioners.  Their “Summary of Public Comments” submitted orally and in writing on June 14, 2013, spent much of its time discussing a public opinion survey where the agencies asked residents whether they would be in favor of a Plan that helped the economy and the environment, and made housing more affordable, then spent most of the rest of the time discussing comments submitted by other government agencies.  Their “Summary of Public Comments” only touched briefly on the substantive concerns raised in the overwhelming majority of the comment letters by discussing what they characterized as “information or statements” made by the public about the Plan that required “correction” or “clarification.”

ABAG and MTC’s responses to comments in the Final EIR were similarly deficient.  They lost fifteen letters entirely, and it wasn’t until Bay Area Citizens repeatedly urged the agencies to look through their records to find missing comment letters that they found those missing letters.  The responses to the issues raised in individual comment letters provided by ABAG and MTC were astonishingly dismissive in many cases.  This lack of responsiveness by the agencies was a fitting, though sad, end to a several year process where citizen concerns, citizen input, and the substantive issues citizens raised, were completely ignored. 

What’s next for Bay Area Citizens

Given the importance of the substantive issues raised by citizens about this Plan which were completely ignored, and the grave and irreversible impact of the Plan’s policies on all Bay Area residents, Bay Area Citizens is carefully evaluating what we can and should do going forward, including the possibility of filing suit against ABAG and MTC on behalf of our members and in the public interest.