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I Lunch for a Living
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Tables by the Bay
Flight of Fantasy

John M. Gioia, member, Contra Costa Board of Supervisors
I Lunch for a Living

Editorís note: This kicks off our latest editorial flight of fancy, in which we will occasionally lunch with folks of note and print interesting conversational snippets. We start off by visiting with John M. Gioia, a member of the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors, representing District 1. Gioiaís district includes the Richmond waterfront, all 37 miles of it, the most of any jurisdiction in the Bay Area. We met in the Marina Bay neighborhood of Richmond, at the splendid waterfront restaurant Salute.

BC: Youíre a lawyer, you could be making a lot more money. Instead,s taking all kinds of abuse. Why do this?

JG: My father was a high school civics and government teacher in Richmond for about 25 years. Once a week, he would have someone from the community, maybe a politician or a journalist, speak to his class. When I went to Cal, I was a political science major, and I knew I wanted to go to law school. My first political job while I was a senior at Berkeley was working on the staff of former County Supervisor Tom Powers, the same district that I now represent.

In addition to being a Supervisor, I serve on many other commissions including BCDC (Bay Conservation and Development Commission), the Association of Bay Area Governments Executive Board, and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. All told, there are over eight boards or commissions I serve on.

BC: So you must have a meeting every day.

JG: I spend easily between 60 and 80 hours a week at this job. I do this full-time, and I have a great time doing it. For me, thereís excitement in learning new issues, and thereís excitement in matching the politics with the policy. Politics is all about relationships. You can get a bad idea through if you have good relationships easier than you can get a good idea through with bad relationships. So if you have good issues, good ideas, and good relationships, youíve got unlimited possibilities.

BC: Richmond had an unfortunate experience with the ferry service, but plans are in the works to make it part of the regional ferry plan that is being proposed by WTA. Whatís Richmondís case for ferry service?

JG: I think Richmond is well situated for a number of reasons. Itís on the verge of some substantial economic growth. Talk about smart growth and the need to have more infill housing, Richmond is a perfect location for absorbing much of the Bay Areaís need for new economic and residential development. Richmond has the greatest number of underutilized and vacant parcels in Contra Costa County. Itís conveniently located, has great infrastructure, convenience to the highway ( I-580 and I-80), and relatively good transit connections. And, itís one of the closest communities to San Francisco with still reasonably priced land.

BC: Arenít a lot of folks in suburban East Contra Costa County in a bind because they bought homes on the basis of promises for highways that canít or wonít ever be built?

JG: I think Contra Costa is at the forefront of the growth debate in the state. Simply put, as the Bay Area grows, we need more housing to accommodate job growth. Contra Costaís Smart Growth Action Plan, authored by Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier and me, aims to stop suburban sprawl by encouraging development in our more urban areas and revitalize older communities like Richmond, San Pablo, Baypointe, and Pittsburg.

The future depends on figuring out how the Bay Area can accommodate the housing we will need in a way that is compatible with the environment, but also makes housing affordable.

Interestingly, a lot of the older cities in Contra Costa are along the waterfront. These are exactly the areas that we want to prioritize for economic and residential development because theyíre convenient, they have infrastructure, and they can absorb good growth. In Richmond a ferry could serve as an economic development tool. It can help spur greater economic development, which in turn, will fuel greater investment in revitalizing downtown Richmond.

But youíre right, I think East County needs, and should get, a BART extension and better road infrastructure. Like anything, itís all a competition for limited dollars. West Countyís transportation needs are very different than those of East County.

BC: But there are so many voters in the vast suburban areas of East Contra Costa County. Wonít it take many years of urban development until the urban voting population is sufficient to offset the influence of the eastern suburban demands for highways instead of mass transit?

JG: I donít want to put it so cynically, but I think that youíve cut through the political issues. One of the issues I raise all the time, and this is really important, is that we need to realize that in the Bay Area, we sink or swim as one region. We need the communities that are "haves," the tax-rich communities, as well as individuals who are wealthy, to care more about the "have-not" communities. For instance, if we want to improve overall quality of life, residents in the San Ramon Valley who complain about traffic and sprawl, need to help make it possible to have an improved quality of life in West Contra Costa County so that thereís greater development that can occur here, which benefits all residents.

Supervisor Gioia with son and friend ferrying to a ballgame

BC: Why not higher gas taxes? Wouldnít that be the best way to limit automobile use and pay for mass transit at the same time?

JG: I think an increase in the gas tax is not inappropriate. I just wonder how much you have to raise it. There are two issues. How much would you have to raise it to really make a difference in peopleís behavior? Raising it would help to raise additional revenue for transit and transportion projects and also discourage automobile use. When I served on the East Bay MUD Water District Board, we had all these debates about how much do you have to raise the price of water to get people to conserve? I was also involved when we developed the four-tier rate structure that wasnít very popular with people in Central Contra Costa because they had big lots, lots of grass, hot weather, versus the smaller lots and cooler weather in the Oakland-Berkeley-Richmond area. But that was a legitimate and effective way to get people to conserve. Thereís also the price elasticity issue, particularly with water. You have to raise it substantially in order to get people to conserve because itís such a relatively small expenditure. With gasoline, you would have to figure out whatís the right amount to raise it to achieve the desired effect of getting more people out of their cars. But I think any increase in the cost of gasoline has to be coupled with investing additional resources in making transit more convenient and more affordable.

BC: One of the more cynical arguments put forward against gas tax increases, and, for that matter, bridge toll increases, is that poor people will suffer for the two or three years itíll take for the new revenues to result in improved public transit system.

JG: There is a legitimate concern when you raise certain taxes; some will have a negative effect on lower income individuals. An increased gas tax has that potential. Bus transit is a preferred mode of transportation in many lower income communities where individuals donít own a car. However, we donít have convenient and accessible bus transit for many of those communities, so we end up having to put welfare to work dollars on top of transportation dollars to get bus routes expanded to take people to jobs. I think that for lower income communities, transit needs to be affordable and convenient. Give people an option. Now, the low income individual can only get to work by car because thereís no available transit. Raising the gas tax substantially is going to impact their ability. But then thereís a large segment of the population that have other options available to them but donít avail themselves of those options because the price of driving is seemingly cheaper. I think raising the gas tax by some amount is a good thing. The goal would be to take that increased revenue and invest it in other transit infrastructure and, hopefully, change peopleís behavior.

BC: Public transit usage has been steadily dropping for the last quarter century, down to about 6 percent of the population, while over 90 percent of transportation dollars are being spent on public transit. Are we making the best use of our transit dollars when we spend so much on a public transit system that nobody uses?

JG: How we apportion transportation funding will differ by the needs of each community. The bottom line, though, is that people will not turn more towards public transit until you make it as convenient as getting in a car. Thatís a challenge. We face a behavior obstacleóCalifornians are in love with their cars. To make ferries successful, you need a good feeder bus service, so you need to invest in a good bus system to get you to the ferry, and then a bus system from the ferry terminal to your destination.

BC: But isnít there a Catch-22 here? Youíre saying that we need to make the public transit as attractive as possible. But in order to do that, you need billions upon billions of dollars, and the only way you can come up with that money is by raising taxes, which no one wants.

JG: Raising bridge tolls is an appropriate mechanism. Weíve been so heavy on road infrastructure for so many years that we havenít placed the same kind of investment in making transit alternatives more convenient. One of the big problems is that there are so many different transit agencies in the Bay Area that donít cooperate or that donít coordinate their efforts.

Itís just a question of coming up with the right package.

BC: Are we going to have to wait until the number of people that live in suburban areas like East Contra Costa metastasizes to the point that they just become gridlocked? Or, is it possible that the political community can challenge the voters to do the bold thing, to make a big sacrifice, something that would actually counteract their automobile use, a $5-a-gallon tax on gas, a $20 bridge toll?

JG: This isnít going to happen easily. The hope is that people understand that itís in both their self-interest and the community interest to change the way we grow here in the Bay Area. You know, my district is the most diverse district in the county. It ranges from Kensington, which is the most educated community in the United States, to North Richmond, which is one of the poorest communities in the United States, with one of the highest rates of unemployment. Yet, those two communities in Contra Costa County share common goals and were the top two communities to vote yes for a sales tax measure for our libraries. So two very diverse communities both agreed we need to pay more taxes to invest in our libraries.