Last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission voted 8-7 against providing $4 million in regional transit funds to cover the $9 million cost to SF Muni to provide free service for youth for 22 months. All of San Francisco’s representatives backed the proposal, which failed due to opposition from suburban-oriented East Bay members. The vote mirrors votes by other regional transit agencies like BART, where San Francisco interests are routinely outvoted by the East Bay’s pro-parking lot majority. Many bemoan the Bay Area’s many independent transit agencies, but regional bodies have poorly served public transit. And from Free Muni to once vaunted “regional” plans to end homelessness, such entities diminish San Francisco’s clout and weaken progressive agendas.

The 8-7 defeat of the free Muni for youth proposal was a heartbreaking setback for many San Francisco youth activists. They won citywide support for a goal that once seemed unlikely, and deserved to have the MTC back their efforts.

Political Cynicism

The youth were right to chant “Shame on you” at the eight commissioners who voted against them. These commissioners played the most cynical of games by claiming that they were all for free youth transit, but did not think it fair that San Francisco youth should get this benefit while others in the region did not.

Of course, had they had the opportunity to vote on a proposal to cover free transit for all such youth, the eight Commissioners would have found other reasons to reject it. Some would have argued (as they did last week) that such a proposal should be limited to low-income youth, or found another justification cloaking their true motive, which is denying funding programs primarily benefiting San Francisco.

We’ve been seeing this script played out by another regional transit agency, BART, for decades. San Francisco’s longtime representative Tom Radulovich has been a voice in the wilderness for common-sense strategies to improve BART service. But he usually loses out to East Bay representatives whose priorities are extending BART to low-density suburban locations and keeping BART parking lot prices low (it was only in the past decade that there were any parking fees at BART, a massive subsidy to drivers by a system allegedly committed to public transit).

Despite the obvious and longstanding failure of Bay Area regional transit agencies, many complain about why we have so many separate entities. In truth, San Francisco and public transit advocates region- wide would be better off eliminating public bodies like the MTC and instead distributing all funds to cities by formula.

In 2010, MTC allocated all $20 million of the region’s state transportation improvement funding to the biggest boondoggle of our time: the Oakland Airport Connector Project. This $484 million dollar project will get people from the Coliseum BART station to the airport in eight minutes, barely faster than the AirBART buses that have long brought achieved this goal at a tiny fraction of this cost.

Oakland Airport has 5.5 million fewer travelers than in 2007. Yet Connector proponents claim that traffic is so bad on the brief stretch from Coliseum Station to the airport that a $484 million BART extension is required. Public transit advocates, interfaith groups and Oakland youth pleaded with the MTC to instead improve the city’s beleaguered bus system, but this regional body ignored all of the evidence and common sense in approving yet another total unnecessary BART extension.

The most low-income residents – those who most need free MUNI and a better Oakland bus system – are also the group far less likely to be flying out of Oakland airport. But the MTC and BART Board have shown time and again that they do not care about the needs of the most public transit dependent, preferring to prioritize the interests of more affluent residents.

Regional “Solutions” to Homelessness

It's not just in transit where regional bodies do not work.

When homelessness became a major Bay Area problem in the 1980’s, there soon was an insistence that a “regional” solution was necessary. The goal was to encourage all Bay Area cities to provide housing, shelter or services, rather than imposing a disproportionate burden on Berkeley, San Francisco and other more progressive cities.

Foundations threw money at this “regional solution” goal, which always had one insurmountable obstacle: there was no regional entity that could compel Walnut Creek, Daly City or San Rafael to do its fair share. And if a magic wand allowed such a body to be created, we would have seen the same outcomes brought to us by the MTC and BART: effective but more costly programs promoted by San Francisco would have been passed over in exchange for Contra Costa, Marin and San Mateo’s strategy of “addressing” homelessness (shelters over permanent housing) on the cheap.

As it stands, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors has long shortchanged Berkeley and Oakland’s efforts to tackle homelessness. This suburban-controlled body has taken many actions (such as sharply limiting welfare grants) that have increased homelessness in both cities.

Progressives need less regional government, not more. I expect San Francisco’s youth activists to eventually turn the tide on free MUNI, but as long as we have regional bodies prioritizing pork barrel projects like the BART connector over improving public transit within cities, such entities should be recognized as obstacles to social justice.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.