I Lunch for a Living
M. Gioia, member, Contra Costa Board of Supervisors
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
BC: Youíre a lawyer, you could
be making a lot more money. Instead,s taking all kinds of abuse. Why
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.