December 14, 2005 - From the December, 2005 issue

San Francisco Transit Leverages State, Federal Funds to Prepare for S.F.'s High-Density Future

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority administers the allocation of a local half-cent sales tax to transit operations and capital investments in the coterminous city and county of San Francisco. Perhaps most importantly, the SFCTA helps craft the vision and set the agenda for the transit future of San Francisco and the Bay Area. In this MIR interview, Executive Director Jose Luis Moscovich explains that the City's future will include greater population density and an honest accounting of the costs of sprawl.

Jose Luis Moscovich

As head of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, you have the responsibility of overseeing the wise investment of bond money as well as the management of city transit operations. Elaborate on the challenges you face in San Francisco.

I think that the biggest challenge is to leverage the local funds effectively. We administer a half-cent sales tax for transportation that the voters renewed in November of 2003 for 30 years, and that expenditure plan assumes a reasonable amount of leveraging of both state and federal funds. As you know, the state, because of the condition of the state highways account, has not been able to provide its share for quite some time now, and it looks as though it will not be able to unless some new revenue sources arise. And then of course we have to leverage federal funds as well. That's the most fundamental thing, because you don't get anything done if you cannot string together your funding plan the way you originally laid it out.

But beyond that, there are other challenges that we're facing that are quite significant and interesting at the same time. We are making huge commitments in transit infrastructure, and we are challenged now by simply the demographics of both growth and aging of the population. The Bay Area continues to grow. Housing is very expensive, and just in San Francisco we're supposed to add at least another 100,000 people in the next 20 years, and we essentially have no land to do that other than to increase density. So density is in our future, and the question is, where will it be accessible, what shape will it take, and what type of infrastructure are we going to need to support that additional population? The obvious answer is that we need to improve and extend our transit system.

If we don't lure people out of their cars, nothing else we do is going to work. We're just going to wind up with more congestion and more frustrated people and major impacts on the economy and the productivity of the city. So we must get ahead of the aging and population increase curve in terms of providing infrastructure. The idea that somehow we're going to go sell density to the neighborhoods without having the appropriate infrastructure in place and the appropriate funding to provide the service is simply not going to work. People are too sophisticated for that. Let us increase the density three-fold and then eventually build a subway? Nobody is going to buy that.

The USC Keston Institute hosted a conversation with Senator Don Perata about his proposed infrastructure bond measure. What are your thoughts on how we should best finance, with federal, state and local funding, our infrastructure going forward?

First of all, I would like to echo what some of the people at the Keston/Perata meeting said: the state bond needs to be a bigger idea. The bond is great, but the scale needs to be commensurate with the problem. At $10 billion, that's a down payment on what needs to be done. The main idea I have is that the role of the private sector needs to be revisited and incentivized significantly because that's one of the keys to finding the rest of the money to make this idea bigger. I don't see the private sector taking the majority of the risk on any major infrastructure undertaking – I see at best a 50/50 partnership. So if you look at the infrastructure needs of the state as a $100 or $150 billion package, you get pretty quick math about considering new funding sources.

The cities of California have been the engine of economic growth and prosperity, and the cities are again becoming the focus of a lot of innovation and activity and cultural and other exchanges that will be happening in the middle of the 21st century. And in order to make that happen we need to look again at how we deliver transportation in urban centers. The focus needs to be both on the goods movement side and on reinforcing infrastructure and alternatives to driving. We know that having the two most congested areas in the nation is not a distinction we really should aspire to. We should correct that and prevent other urban areas in the state from getting on that list, and the way to do that is to focus on urban infrastructure, not on exurban or on expansion of infrastructure to enable more sprawl. I think that's not a "bleeding-heart liberal" urban core activist statement. It is a basic economic argument: we will function better and more efficiently if we revamp and improve our urban infrastructure.

San Francisco City and County are coterminous; the City of San Francisco as much a part of the Bay Area region as Los Angeles city is part of its metropolitan area. What then is the interface, and what ought to be the interface between your transit responsibilities leading the SFCTA and the Bay Area's infrastructure needs?

The lack of coordination among suburban jurisdictions in terms of infrastructure is a huge problem that makes regions have a lot more internal friction than they should have. The main challenge in the interface is the fact that local jurisdictions control land use and therefore control the outcome on the transportation side.

I believe that there needs to be a closer link between the local land use decisions and the transportation consequences – local government cannot be completely off the hook when it comes to the transportation impacts it causes to the region. There needs to be some accommodation for the fact that a region functions as an economic unit and that choosing to favor a lifestyle that depends on the automobile is simply, with dwindling resources, becoming more of a luxury and that there needs to be some kind of price attached to that. It's not that it should not be allowed or that people should not be encouraged to live whichever way they like, but, in a free market environment, they should pay for it.

Am I arguing for a Soviet-style five-year plan where the Metropolitan Planning Organization takes over and dictates how big your house can be or how much of a garden it can have? No, not really. I'm just suggesting that there should be a way that local jurisdictions can choose to do whatever they want, but that there's a price scale for it. And so if you choose a more infrastructure-intensive settlement pattern, you pay for the differential.

Federal financial support for transportation is best evidenced in authorizations - i.e. T3. In MIR's November interview of Congressman Earl Blumenauer, he focussed on lessons California should learn from T3. He also began soliciting thoughts on what jurisdictions should be advocating in the next round of funding. How did San Francisco fare this year re T3? What federal funding streams and mechanisms would be most helpful to S.F.?

San Francisco did well. We are very lucky to have Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of course, and our senators have always been stalwarts for Bay Area projects, so we have several major projects moving forward. SAFETEA-LU is great, but it's also a problem because now we know exactly what the limits are in terms of available funding. So we have to look to the future to what the reasonable role should be for the federal government. Just as the state needs to step up its infrastructure investment, the federal government has retreated from some areas of investment in infrastructure.


I think that as the population ages and the nature of the entire economy of the country changes and urban areas are revitalized you have even more of a question about what the role of the federal government should be, a role that changed drastically in the 1980s, and that is a conversation that we ought to start having now.

We need to consider some of the potential sources of revenue that could allow the local, state, and federal governments to rethink and expand their role in dealing with these services, including all of the streamlining ideas that are floating around, whether it's delivery methods like design-build but also pricing, whether it's paying a price for land-use decisions or paying a price for traveling at a certain time of day or for parking at a certain location, we haven't explored pricing in much depth.

Comment, if you would, on London, England's, congestion pricing policy for central city travel and whether this approach might be appropriate to use in urban centers, including San Francisco?

I just spent a significant amount of time with the folks from London at the ITS World conference a couple weeks ago in San Francisco, and we have applied for a federal grant to study the possibility of implementing that in San Francisco. In London, so far it's an unmitigated success. It's generating right now a net 70 or 80 million pounds per year; that's after expenses. That's an astounding amount of money that's poured right back into the transportation system. They are on the third or fourth independent audit of business activity, and essentially it's fairly neutral.

All the predictions that business would leave or lose their clients have been proven wrong. The place is more vibrant and more viable because congestion has decreased. It's definitely working, and it's generated a wave of other innovations. Stockholm is going forward with it; Rome already has something in place. It's happening in Europe because it makes good business sense. It's not some kind of a crazy activist idea. Pricing is the next frontier, and I think it is inevitable that it will come to the US in all of those different forms now that the technology can support it.

The SFCTA is considering a corridor bus rapid transit system that looks a lot like L.A. Metro's Rapid Bus and Orange Line. Elaborate on expected value added of rapid transit and what you've learned from other locales that have adopted it as a means for reducing congestion.

The L.A. experience is very interesting. You know, we tend to think of L.A. as totally car-based and unable to provide a competitive transit alternative. But the reality is that L.A. has made incredible strides in the last decades, and it is ahead of us in the bus rapid transit arena. So we are talking to them and learning from their experience. We have three prime candidates here: Geary, Van Ness and Potrero avenues; we put them in the expenditure plan for the sales tax. There's an incredible amount of interest in moving those forward in the short term.

For us, the coup is that we see bus rapid transit as allowing to re-define the image of transit. BRT can be more than just a viable alternative, it can be a highly desirable alternative in urban areas. Mayor Gavin Newsom has made greening the city a hallmark of his administration. He wants to see the city look beautiful and incorporate more green aspects to it, and we see a great marriage there in the remaking of our streets for BRT and the greening of our streets at the same time.

California is the equivalent of a nation-state with almost 40 million people. Yet metropolitan centers such as San Francisco and L.A. often compete rather than collaborate on advocating for transit and infrastructure funds from federal and state sources. Comment, if you feel comfortable doing so, on this regional competition and how collaboration might best be achieved on a capital plan for investment that will serve our metropolitan areas well into the 21st century.

We have a lot more in common than we have in terms of differences. Most of the differences are part of mythology. We have very similar rates of productivity, car ownership, even density, and there is nothing really other than parochialism that stands in the way of California cities being able to truly put together a package that gets away with murder in Washington. But, of course, it has to start at the local level.

We need to be able to establish, build, and maintain those partnerships so that we can give our representatives in Washington the sort of consensus packages that they can then go fight for. They are so effective when they have good consensus from the locals. There's no reason why we can't do it statewide. We've done it to an extent on the issue of California as a donor state, but I think we can do more.

One key is to finally crack that code of how we bring in the private sector. Particularly with a Republican administration, there's been a lot of emphasis on the role of the private sector. I think a package from California that includes a major push for private-sector administration, financing, construction, and so on would be incredibly successful in Washington because the volume and scale of what we could be doing is so phenomenal.


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