An Open Letter to Aaron Peskin

Peskin3Dear Supervisor Peskin:

Last month the SF Board of Supervisors, acting as the SF County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), took back $9.6 million it had previously allocated to help pay for sending the Caltrain trains into SF’s new Salesforce Transit Center. According to the San Francisco Examiner the reason for this was to avoid paying for the “expansion planning” of the Transit Center. But the $9.6 million in question was not for expanding the Phase I Transit Center, it was for completing the preliminary engineering design of the Phase II Downtown Caltrain Extension Project (DTX). According to the Examiner the reason given for blocking the DTX funding was to hold the leadership of the Transit Center project (presumably meaning the Transbay Joint Powers Authority and Staff, and the SF County Transportation Authority’s own well-funded oversight staff) “accountable for alleged mismanagement of the $2.2 billion Transit Center”.

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How Caltrans Administers its Roadway Projects

CaltrainArticleCalifornia Senate Bill 1 was signed by Governor Jerry Brown on April 28, 2017.  State Prop 6 would have rescinded SB 1 but it was defeated by the voters of California on November 6, 2018. For this reason SB1 will continue to raise $0.12 a gallon in additional gas taxes. It is estimated that by 2020 this new funding source will be raising $5.1 billion a year in new State revenues, 2/3rd of which has been earmarked for road projects.

Given this large new source of funding now would be a good time to take a close look at how Caltrans spends its roadway money. One way of assessing Caltrans efficiency relative to that of other states is to compare its administration and engineering costs (soft costs) to construction costs. The table below shows California’s soft costs as a percentage of construction costs in comparison with those of other large and populous states:

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An Open Letter to SFMTA Director

Dear Ed…

Thanks for attending and joining in at the September 29th Transportation Forum. Your participation was clearly appreciated. The outline below was what BATWG had expected to present at the Forum. The proposals reflect some of what’s needed to strengthen the SFMTA and improve the City’s response to its overall transportation problem. We hope they are of use:

A. The SFMTA Board

Granting the MTA immunity from day-to-day political influences (through SF Prop E adopted in 1999 and SF Prop A adopted in 2007) was probably a good idea. However 4-year terms for appointed local officials is too long. The elected Mayor and Supervisors should be able to intercede when necessary every two years. The terms of the MTA  Board members should be reduced from 4 years to 2. Being an MTA Board member is a difficult and demanding job. All seven members of the MTA Board must therefore be strong and committed individuals. Continue reading

A Letter to MTC Commissioners and ABAG Executive Board Members

To MTC Commissioners and ABAG Executive Board members:

An important and difficult decision is before you; namely, the selection of the next MTC Executive Director. The Region is currently afflicted with chronic gridlock and a badly disconnected patchwork of trains, buses and boats. To ensure that the best possible candidates are identified and screened for the job, BATWG strongly recommends that this important selection be pursuant to a thorough and professional national search conducted by objective individuals highly experienced in the field. The process should also be informed by input from the MTC Board, ABAG, the local jurisdictions, the transit agencies and other stakeholders.

In an effort to inform the selection process we cite the successful tenure of Paul C. Watt, MTC’s first Executive Director. Here are some of the qualities that helped Mr. Watt to introduce and successfully promote the concept of regionalism to the Greater Bay Area. Continue reading

DTX Update

The extension of Caltrain into downtown San Francisco is currently derailed.

trainNineteen years have passed since the passage of SF Prop H. On November 9, 1999, 69.3% of the voters defined the downtown extension of Caltrain (DTX) as San Francisco’s No. One transportation priority. The first Federal grant allocated to help build the Transbay Transit Center/Downtown Extension Project arrived two decades ago. In 2010 the Obama Administration approved an additional $400 million to pay for the construction of the huge 70-foot deep passenger train station beneath Transbay Transit Center (now called Sales Force Transit Center) at First and Mission Streets. The State of California kicked in by transferring 19 acres of State-owned downtown San Francisco land to the City, which has brought about the construction of 19 separate high rise buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Center.

August saw the opening of the SFTC. Despite the recent structural “challenges”, all who have passed through the facility have applauded its open and inviting design. In addition its unique rooftop public park has quickly become a neighborhood icon, a popular lunch destination for nearby office workers and a major stopping point for tourists and many others. But something’s missing. There are no trains and, as a result San Francisco’s outstanding high-volume intermodal terminal appears destined to operate at far below its design capacity for years if not decades to come.

The longer the extension of Caltrain is delayed, the more the Sales Force Transit Center (SFTC) will come to be regarded as a betrayal of public trust, an improper use of State and Federal transportation grants and a waste of money.

unnamedOn the bright side, when the trains finally do get to downtown San Francisco there will be an immediate mode shift from auto travel to train travel. When the tens of thousands of new train riders begin passing through the new Transit Center and underground pedestrian ramps to the heart of the Financial District and the Market Street subways, the SFTC will come to life and take its place among the great passenger rail melting pots of the world. The creation of a comfortable and reliable passenger rail alternative to the ever growing number of daily automobiles flooding onto San Francisco’s streets is long overdue. Continue reading

VMT in place of LOS…..or VMT and LOS?

“On September 27, 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 743 into law and started a process that changes transportation impact analysis as part of CEQA compliance. These changes will include elimination of auto delay, level of service (LOS), and other similar measures of vehicular capacity or traffic congestion as a basis for determining significant impacts for land use projects and plans in California. Further, parking impacts will not be considered significant impacts on the environment for select development projects within infill areas with nearby frequent transit service. According to SB 743, these changes to current practice were necessary to more appropriately balance the needs of congestion management with statewide goals related to infill development, promotion of public health through active transportation, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”  Fehr and Peers, Transportation Consultants.

Level of Service (LOS):  Almost every city dweller knows that real estate developments, if allowed to proceed without corollary transportation improvements, soon leads to major traffic problems or undesirable street changes or both.  In an attempt to avoid this problem a “Level of Service” (LOS) rating system was widely used in the past as a means of determining the projected traffic impacts of proposed developments on nearby intersections, streets and highways. Pursuant to the LOS measurement system, the various degrees of projected traffic congestion and intersection backups were assigned letters of the alphabet.  An intersection or roadway with only light traffic and few if any significant backups was assigned a grade of “A”.  As the letters progressed the problems got worse.  A grade of LOS “E” or “F” signaled serious and excessive future traffic congestion.  Knowing these effects early in a prospective development’s design phase gave… or at least should have given… planners and municipal officials a useful tool for controlling the situation by requiring developers to adjust their designs and their project plans to avoid destructive impacts on nearby roadways. That’s the way LOS should have worked.  Unfortunately,  the way it too often did work was to provide developers with a handy means of pressuring planners and local officials into increasing the auto-carrying capacity of nearby streets and roadways.  This perverted way of applying the LOS measure caused a great amount of damage to cities like San Francisco.  As defined under SB 743, LOS is no longer used and developers are now free to ignore LOS effects when preparing their EIR’s.  It is now envisioned that Vehicle Miles Travel (VMT) will be the new way of assessing the effects of growth and development in California.

Vehicle Miles Traveled(VMT).  In recent decades the Legislators and others became increasingly aware of how excessive automobile use was causing environmental damage in terms of fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and nightmarish traffic congestion.  As a result there was an increasing interest in placing limits on the amount of driving that could occur in a given region. Measuring VMT in crowded places like the Bay Area, it was reasoned, would provide what was needed to keep track of the vehicle miles traveled and then impose restraints on driving when and as necessary.  With VMT, local and regional officials, instead of continuing to saddle most travelers with only the driving option, would now be able to determine the amount of VMT in various parts of the region and then apply constraints as necessary.  The anticipated result is to bring about a more appropriate mix of train, bus, boat, bicycle and car travel.

The Right Combination:  Adding the VMT safeguard was both warranted and necessary.  The excessive use of automobiles in the Bay Area is now obvious to anyone with a brain.  However, in eliminating LOS entirely, SB 743 went too far.  It’s true that in the past LOS was often misused by developers to pressure public officials into increasing the capacity of streets to handle more traffic, usually at the expense of other city values.  However, that doesn’t mean that LOS, if used properly, couldn’t remain an important means of ascertaining the projected congestion-producing effects of a proposed development on its immediate surroundings.  Armed with that information officials would then be in a position to require that the developer make changes as necessary to avoid the problem.  The cumulative transportation effects of local and regional growth of whatever type could and should be measured and controlled by VMT.  The streets and highways near proposed developments could and should be protected by the proper use of LOS.  In other words it’s not LOS or VMT, it’s LOS and VMT.  The SB 743 decision to eliminate LOS as a measuring tool should be corrected forthwith.

This article was featured in Newsletter Issue 5. Click here to go back to the newsletter.