Balance sought in easing county traffic congestion 

As California regions begin to compete for billions of dollars in infrastructure bonds approved in November, state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, is hoping San Mateo County can create a winning package of solutions to local gridlock, growth and housing woes that will bring home the bacon.

Major players from the region’s transit, housing and municipal arenas gave Yee and Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, an earful during a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Bay Area Sustainable Development and Economic Progress on Thursday. The Bay Area employment market could increase by 31 percent by 2025 and the population by 23 percent by 2020, a sure-fire recipe for gridlock, according to a report from the Bay Area Council.

"This is one of the most important issues in the region for decades to come," Yee said Sunday. "The time to plan is now, because there are no quick solutions."

The growth predicted by the Bay Area Council will be fueled by San Mateo County’s placement as a hub of innovation in the biotechnology, high-tech and green technology fields, Yee said. The biotech industry in South San Francisco alone draws 40,000 people into the city daily, Councilwoman Karyn Matsumoto said.

Traffic and housing constraints may inhibit a technology boom on the Peninsula, according to Matt Gardner, president of the BayBio Institute.

That boom will "exacerbate our contribution to the Bay Area’s infrastructure challenges," Gardner said. More than half of all new biotech hires do not live near their jobs, and technology firms are not choosing to locate in Bay Area counties where housing is growing fastest, he added.

In particular, "We need housing for our entry-level workers," Gardner said.

One solution, rather than expanding the region’s freeways, would be to make more efficient use of existing highways by expanding carpool lanes and transit options such as trains, buses and ferries, said Therese McMillan, deputy director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

"We will have to triple capacity to keep up with local growth," said Bob Doty, director of Caltrain. Doty hopes to do that by converting Caltrain’s fleet to electric trains, but "the current regulatory environment does not allow it."

Many who attended the hearing are hopeful that a package of regional options — and consensus from all major players — will be the key to securing funding.

"There may never be enough money [to solve the problem]," said Henry Gardner, director of the Association of Bay Area Governments. "The question is, how do we maximize the money we have and convince the public we are using it well so they will approve more?"

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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