Community Vision/Regional Action

Community Vision, Regional Action

Urbanist Article March 1, 2003

For decades, transportation investments have favored highway expansion to the far reaches of the Bay Area while cutbacks and neglect have been the norm for communities of color and the urban core. These investments have subsidized suburban sprawl while decreasing access to opportunities for those who rely on transit.

It also just doesn't work; over the next 20 years, driving on roads throughout the region is expected to skyrocket by an additional 62 million miles per day, an increase of 48%. This increase far exceeds the anticipated 19% population increase. Over 100,000 acres of open space and agricultural land will be developed and greenhouse gas emissions from the Bay Area will rise by over 40 million pounds per day. More than 50% of new jobs will be located in areas with infrequent or non-existent transit service.

These projected outcomes are downright unnerving, but the intertwined issues of transportation and land use are very complex, the planning horizons extremely long, and there is massive institutional inertia reinforced by entrenched special interests. Multiple attempts by environmental groups to affect the agenda with well-reasoned alternatives often fell onto ears that were already paved over by the highway lobby or by strong suburban constituents demanding more roads and BART.

When 20 environmental and community groups came together to found the Bay Area Transportation and Land Use Coalition (now shortened to Transportation and Land Use Coalition, TALC) in 1997, they tapped into an arena that was perfectly situated to bring together a regional coalition, for transportation is the only issue where the primary player is a regional agency.

There is also a massive amount of funding in transportation--$87 billion in the 25-year Regional Transportation Plan. That is likely to balloon by at least $18 billion over the next four years with anticipated funding from an increase in bridge tolls, renewal of county transportation sales taxes and other funding measures. An agenda of livable communities and social equity can find billions of dollars in transportation budgets.

In just under six years, TALC has gone from an ad-hoc gathering to a staffed collaboration of more than 90 environmental, social justice, community and labor organizations. The strength of our broad membership is enhanced by our commitment to policy development, public education efforts, and strategic media campaigns. Over the past five years, TALC's campaigns shifted over one billion dollars to sustainable transportation at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and in county transportation plans.

The basis for the success is part luck, serendipity and timing, and part dynamic leadership and perseverance from a few key member organizations especially the founding steering committee members, Greenbelt Alliance, Urban Habitat, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), Urban Ecology and the Surface Transportation Policy Project. TALC also faces a host of new obstacles as the collaboration matures and the backlash from the highway lobby grows.

United Behind Focused Campaigns
All nascent coalitions feel a tension between spending time on developing a strong foundation (finalizing governance, mission, platform, etc.) and running some short- or medium-term campaigns that can establish the collaboration and build relationships. TALC leaned heavily towards the latter, deciding to focus on MTC's 1998 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) with two primary campaigns.

The first, which primarily engaged the environmental and planning communities, was to initiate a regional visioning process. We had fun with this campaign, especially the June MTC meeting at which the draft RTP was released. We had been given an early version of the draft RTP, summarized the most horrendous outcomes in a media release, and had every media station cover the 249% increase in congestion that all three alternatives of the plan would reap. The outcome was an agreement by MTC to work with the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and TALC to initiate a regional smart growth visioning process (this "Regional Smart Growth Strategy" is now coming to a conclusion). But let's face it; a campaign to start a process can only build so much excitement.

With additional analysis, TALC identified a clear chink in the armor of the draft 1998 RTP: it would have forced four transit operators to expect a collective deficit of $375 million, resulting in some combination of fare increases and service cuts. At the same time, the plan included $10 billion for new road and highway projects. It offered a perfect opportunity for a campaign to unite environmentalists and social justice advocates.

As chair of the Coalition at the time, I asked our member organizations to identify the most environmentally destructive highway proposals in their county. We put together a proposal that would fully fund the transit operators by shifting funding for the highly-unpopular Hayward Bypass, the Steele Road extension that would destroy wetlands and farms in Sonoma County, and four other road projects around the region.

But when we introduced this "100% funding for transit" proposal at a meeting of MTC and the county transportation agencies, it was met with silence, broken only by a few snickers. Coalition leaders had succeeded in piercing MTC's technical shield, but didn't have the political firepower needed to get decision makers to listen to our suggestions.

Then, in June 1998, community organizers from a group named Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency approached the Coalition. BOSS is an East Bay group that primarily provides services and shelter to homeless and very low-income clients, but it also has an experienced organizing team. BOSS's client survey indicated that inadequate transportation was one of their top concerns, and their organizers were struck by the sums of money in transportation budgets.

"We knew our communities had to get our fair share," said BOSS's former Community Organizing Team Director Dawn Phillips. Phillips was interested in TALC, but had some reservations about joining forces with the Coalition. "The Coalition looked like they were mostly white environmentalists, so it brought up fears about whether our issues would get lost in the shuffle," Phillips said.

TALC leaders met with BOSS and discussed the players, the politics, and how the money flows. We explained how transit advocates had to be involved "upstream" where the long-term decisions are made " how the advocates who protested bus cuts outside of AC Transit in 1995 really needed to have been involved in 1993, when operating funding to AC Transit was cut. An RTP that allowed $375 million of shortfalls would lead to deterioration of service and/or fare increases. The BOSS organizing team soon made the RTP their top priority.

The leadership at BOSS, for their part, had something powerful to offer the environmentalists: years of experience in community organizing and mobilization. The environmental groups in the Coalition could argue persuasively about the policy implications of spending money on transit rather than highways and turn some members out to meetings, but BOSS and other grassroots groups could deliver firsthand accounts of what bus service meant to their communities. In their hands, TALC's "100% funding for transit" proposal ceased being an abstract policy debate and became a discussion about people who would literally be trapped in their homes if they didn't have buses to get them to work, to school, or to the health clinic.

The newly energized Coalition groups began to educate, train, and mobilize local leaders to participate in hearings. Hundreds of transit users showed up at hearings that had formerly been dominated by developers and highway interests. They told the commissioners in personal terms about the impact of under-funded transit on their lives.

On the day MTC was scheduled to approve the RTP, Coalition groups packed the overflow room and coordinated testimony. MTC staff staunchly defended their plan and urged the commissioners not to accept the Coalition's recommendation. Fifty-six speakers -- ranging from Sierra Club leaders to homeless moms with their children in their arms -- called for 100% funding for transit. This broad support provided the political cover for the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to speak out in favor of the Coalition's recommendation. With every major media outlet in the region covering the vote, MTC commissioners for the first time rejected their own staff's recommendation and voted unanimously in favor of the TALC proposal.

Coalition Coalesces
This underdog victory convinced every Coalition member that the only way to win at a regional level was to unite the environmental and social justice groups behind a common agenda. At TALC's second summit in December 1998, over 200 organizational representatives and community advocates asked for TALC to initiate chapters in the South Bay, San Francisco, and the East Bay.

Bringing TALC's work to a county level, where many important transportation and land use decisions are made -- would require a whole new level of resources. A number of foundations stepped up to the plate. Hooper Brooks from the Surdna Foundation essentially challenged Bay Area foundations to match him, and Jane Rogers, who recently retired from The San Francisco Foundation, arranged for a gathering of Bay Area funders to learn about the Coalition.

Over the next year, TALC developed a long-term platform, created a democratic governance structure, and opened a South Bay office.

Jeff Hobson was hired as TALC's East Bay Coordinator and moved quickly into the center of the county's hottest debate. In 1998, Alameda County proposed a $1.4 billion transportation plan that would have funded a mix of highways, rail and bus programs. "Measure B" would have been funded by reauthorizing a half cent sales tax first passed in 1986. Transit advocates supported it for the large increase of funding to AC Transit over the 1986 measure. But the measure failed to get two-thirds of the vote after the Environmental Defense Fund, Greenbelt Alliance and the Sierra Club opposed it for the highway expansions.

If Measure B didn't pass on the next try in 2000, it would lead to devastating bus cuts since the 1986 sales tax, a primary source of AC Transit operating funds, would expire in 2002. TALC brought together BOSS, environmental groups, organizations like the League of Women Voters and many others to create a common platform and to work together for a greater share of funding for sustainable transportation.

After six months of intensive campaigning, both in meeting rooms and behind the scenes, the Alameda County Transportation Authority put a wedge between TALC's leaders. They agreed to increase transit funding by $90 million, but refused the environmental demands for additional bicycle and pedestrian funds or to remove the highway projects. BOSS and transit advocates wanted to declare victory--and their support for the measure. But this time they held back; there would be no support until all the members of TALC could agree it was a better plan. Ultimately this cohesiveness paid off: the Authority's final proposal added $186 million for public transit, paratransit for the elderly and disabled, bicycle and pedestrian safety, and funding for transit-oriented development.

Sierra Club leaders were still hesitant to support the measure even though it had just 18% for highways, versus 61% in the 1986 measure. But a year of interaction and meeting directly with BOSS and other transit users made them realize the devastating impacts that would come if this measure did not pass this time around.

In the end, Sierra Club endorsed the measure, and when TALC held a press conference to announce our unified support, four of the five county supervisors also attended to announce their support. TALC then led a massive grassroots effort, signing on over 300 organizations. The 1998 Measure B had split the environmental and social justice community and failed with 58% of the vote. In 2000, Measure B received a record-breaking 81% of the vote.

Lessons: How We Are Doing It
In retrospect, there are a few key components to TALC's successes including:

Focus on long-term objectives but run winnable campaigns. Our long-term platform lets member groups know that their issues will be addressed. But working on campaigns and winning together, consistently, has kept the member groups energized for the long haul.

Make the problems real, and the solutions realistic. In both campaigns described above, TALC has not just responded to policy proposals, we have developed clear alternatives to the status quo. Many of our reports help identify and quantify problems, whether it's the flight of jobs to the suburbs or the transportation barriers to health access for low-income communities. All of them offer realistic, implementable solutions.

The classic case is TALC's 120-page World Class Transit for the Bay Area. A product of 13 months of research and analysis by Coalition members, the report offers a bold vision for fixing our transportation problems. It specifies $12 billion of cost-effective projects that would provide transit that is fast, convenient, affordable, and could be ready within just a few years from the time they are funded. Released at SPUR, World Class Transit was covered by every major media outlet in the region.

Know how and when the money flows.

World Class Transit, along with our other reports, have served as the basis for the Coalition's advocacy, allowing TALC to enter regional debates quickly with a clear joint platform. In February 2001, when MTC leaders asked TALC and members of the California Alliance for Jobs (a.k.a. highway lobby) to discuss input into the 2001 RTP, we handed out a nine-point platform, catching the opposition flat-footed. By December 2001, some of our victories included a pilot program to provide free AC Transit passes to low-income youth, a tripling of funding for MTC's smart growth incentive program that has been a model for agencies around the country trying to stem sprawl, and inclusion of of the Caltrain extension to a beautiful new Transbay Terminal.

Beat them in the media. Bringing hundreds of people to MTC's meetings created a major psychological shift, but the only way truly to create power was with media exposure. TALC doesn't just publicize our own events and reports, but makes sure that the media know when big decisions are made. With five television cameras and every major paper attending the 1998 RTP meeting, the number of people anticipating the decision at MTC swelled from 100 to over 3,000,000.

New Challenges
Backlash from the highway lobby. The California Alliance for Jobs was not particularly amused by our nine-point platform. They responded in March 2001 by hiring two new staff to counter our efforts, running radio ads denouncing us as "the custodians of congestion" and obtaining the domain names of our acronym at the time, and (That stunt prompted our name shortening to TALC.)

Organizing in the suburbs. The Coalition model of uniting environmental and social justice groups has worked well in the inner Bay Area, but this falls apart as we go into suburban settings where there are fewer, and weaker, organizations. Greenbelt Alliance has mastered local organizing by opening four field offices. TALC's recent successes in this arena have come by organizing new constituencies, primarily the faith and labor communities. TALC's hope of replicating Greenbelt 's field office model now seems more distant as the fundraising climate has deteriorated and we have reduced our staff size.


Desire to work on land use, which typically does not have a regional lever. For the past five years, TALC has organized regionally on the Smart Growth Strategy and on ABAG's fair share housing allocations. But with these regional arenas now complete, all of the relevant land use policy will be made at the local level, with some potentially important state legislation. TALC's structure and limited staffing means we are not well-suited to focus on an individual community's land use. TALC is now going through a strategic planning process on these issues, which may result in a focus on key transit-oriented developments, and development of tools to assist community groups.


Building a coalition can be based on common visions, and on the growing need to work together to overcome the power of entrenched special interests. But sustaining a coalition is possible only when the member groups are willing to learn from each other, to compromise, to accept a range of tactics and styles. spur logo
About the Authors: Stuart Cohen is executive director of the California Futures Network.

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