Trail Voices: Steve Heminger
"Trail Voices" highlights the work of rail-trail supporters around the country. Our interview subjects are anyone from high-level urban planners to local volunteers, and no contribution to the trails, hiking and bicycling movement is too big or too small—dedication comes in all sizes. We could never tell all the personal stories that make rail-trails a success, but we can share a few of the voices behind the movement.
For May, we caught up with Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area. Steve helps allocate more than $1 billion annually for regional transportation in the Bay Area. He was appointed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to serve on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations.
Steve enjoys trails when he's on vacation and visiting Oregon. But for the most part he's in the Bay Area on the bus and on the train. When asked about off-the-trail activities, he jokingly laments, "I don't have time for hobbies. I wish I could. I'm a suffering public servant!"
What is a metropolitan planning organization (MPO)?
The answer varies from place to place. At a minimum, an MPO is a planning organization that referees competing urban interests—in terms of roads, transit, bikes and walking, but also geographically and demographically in terms of income class. A lot of MPOs like mine go well beyond that and allocate funds. We run the 511 traveler information system, we operate the call box and tow truck services here on the region's freeways, and we run the FasTrak program, the automated toll collection system. We also have a transit smartcard we're rolling out called TransLink, which is a way to pay your fare with a single card.
What role does your MPO, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, play in funding and implementing active transportation (walking and biking) infrastructure in the San Francisco Bay Area?
One of our major responsibilities has to do with our toll bridges. We administer all bridge revenue from the seven bridges we work with (owned by California). We are also actively involved in planning and oversight of new bridge construction. Some of those bridges have had bicycle and pedestrian access for years, like the Golden Gate Bridge (not state-owned) that has had a sidewalk since it opened in the 1930s. We're involved in putting new bicycle/pedestrian paths on the Carquinez, Benicia and the east span of the San Francisco-Bay Bridges. We are also working with our sister agency, the Association of Bay Area Governments, to build the Bay Trail—currently a bunch of lines on a map.
Also, our Transportation for Livable Communities program is a general initiative to improve livability in a lot of our especially urban core communities that are revitalizing and redeveloping. A lot of that money ends up in transit-oriented development. But a lot is also spent on pedestrian and bicycle improvements and access to transit and neighborhoods.
What are some active transportation challenges or opportunities unique to the San Francisco Bay area?
We're probably one of the most diverse regions in terms of topography and physical constraints. I live in San Francisco which, to be candid, is a tough place to bike. The weather isn't always that great, it's very hilly, and it's very congested, so we have some places where integrating bike access is quite difficult. We have other places, like Berkeley and Stanford, that are almost ideal because of the terrain, climate and population.
Additionally, transportation funding here is extraordinarily competitive. We don't have a lot of inactive constituencies. Everybody is well aware of funding opportunities, and is trying to elbow the other guy out of the way. Sometimes outsiders look at the Bay Area and wonder what got into our water.
With metropolitan congestion and gas prices on upward trends, will MPOs embrace active transportation as an element of an overall plan to meet these challenges?
I think they will, but I don't know if it's about gas prices or the shortage of funds or climate change. We've got people in a lot of urban areas in their 20s and 30s who are much more amenable to walking and biking than the generation before them. Climate change, gas prices and other factors may reinforce that demand, but fundamentally, in transportation where there's a demand there will be some effort to supply.
I tend to look at bicycle and pedestrian issues as a question of access. If we're going to spend $5 billion building the new eastern half of the Bay Bridge, why shouldn't it provide access to non-motorized trips, since we're building it for one hundred years at such an enormous cost? Integrating bicycle and pedestrian concerns into other transportation infrastructure and projects, whether it's roads or public transit, is a major focus of our effort.
Given competing priorities, could MPOs typically afford to allocate more resources to walking and biking?
I'm sure most MPOs would like to allocate more money to all modes. But part of a referee's job is calling a pitch a ball or a strike. In the Bay Area, we're spending 80 percent of available funds over the next two decades just to maintain existing infrastructure.
The Federal Highway Administration did a study about five years ago of the nation's top 20 metropolitan areas and their MPO plans. The Bay Area was at the top in terms of funds spent on maintenance, but most regions were well above 50 percent. Aging infrastructure in most metropolitan areas is going to make the environment for expansion—whether for road, transit, bike or pedestrian—a lot more competitive.
What are some of the more compelling arguments advocates can use to encourage their governing bodies to give higher priority to walking and biking?
I think the way into the argument is by linking walking and biking with community vitality, livability and public health. All modes should have access. Even in an area as developed as ours, some communities still don't have sidewalks. Something that fundamental ought to be provided so that people who want to walk and bike can do so.
You served on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. What were some of the commission's key findings?
I group our principal findings into the three R's: the first is that we need to reform the way we do transportation, from how we select the projects to how we deliver them. Second, we need to restructure the federal program, which now has more than 100 different spending categories. We proposed a dramatic consolidation of those categories into 10 new areas that we think meet the test of national interest. And the third is revenue, where we recommended a significant increase in the federal gas tax.
Why were walking and biking so marginalized in the commission's report?
Our responsibility was to discover the policy areas that command national interest for federal investment. When certain issues command national attention, some are by definition more regional and local in scope. It's not to say that those are less important—just that they are the responsibility of a different level of government. That's where we ended up on the question of bicycle and pedestrian access. In all likelihood, walking and biking will play a large and growing role in one of the programs we recommended in metropolitan mobility. But that will be up to metropolitan officials, and I think that's where it belongs. I expect there will be a robust debate about that recommendation, because there are explicit programs at the federal level now that address trails, but our finding was that those are more properly addressed at a different level of government.
Metropolitan mobility is complex because it's so site-specific. While I think flexibility ought to continue, what's missing today is accountability. If the federal program is to invest in metropolitan areas, and we're trying to achieve greater mobility, less congestion and less CO2 emissions, then we ought to set some targets and go after them.