Golden Gate Bridge sidewalk toll just the latest in a string of bad ideas

Like all bad ideas GGBHTD has, the idea of charging a toll on bicyclists and pedestrians crossing the Golden Gate Bridge has risen again from its apparent grave. As it has before, the proposal has raised the ire of bike coalitions on both sides of the bridge, not to mention smart growth organizations in San Francisco. Whether the project will go forward, however, is anyone’s guess.

The proposal is aimed at reducing a 5-year, $32.9 million deficit caused almost exclusively by the Doyle Drive reconstruction, one which will increase with the construction of a new parking garage at Larkspur Ferry Terminal. Already, GGBHTD has hiked tolls, continues to raise transit fares, and implemented paid parking at Larkspur.

But as it has with each of these measures, GGBHTD has divorced financial and policy considerations. A half-hearted $1 ferry parking charge has done nothing to ease parking demand. Transit fares are still rising faster than bridge tolls, ensuring congestion is here to stay.

A new charge on cyclists and pedestrians will mean fewer cyclists using the span as a commuter route and more cars, or bikes, on the road.

Each of these measures raises money, but none produce tangible benefits to the district’s customers. Without policy goals, it’s just a money squeeze.

GGBHTD’s budget and planning staff need to come up with policy goals that also generate revenue and pursue those first. I’ve discussed each on this blog before, but they bear repeating:

Create a variable, congestion-fighting toll. As demand increases, the toll increases. Thanks to all-electronic tolling, implementing the change would be trivial. If set up properly, the end result will be the end of traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, a significant boost to transit ridership, and a significant bump in toll revenue. As a bonus, it would likely correct the growing gap between the average toll and the average fare.

Charge a variable price for the Larkspur Ferry Terminal parking lot to ensure 20 percent of spaces are free by the end of the morning rush hour. By allowing spaces to be free for the midday, drivers will be able to park and use ferries that are generally exceptionally empty. GGBHTD will get a boost from parking and fare revenue. This will also obviate the need for a new $10 million parking garage on the Marin Airporter site.

If General Manager Denis Mulligan can’t get his team to meld policy and financial goals, it’s vital the board do what it can to stop the latest iteration of GGBHTD’s inept planning process.

The SMART station debate: who’s right?

2014's 65% design

2014’s 65% design

SMART’s “65%” designs for stations were recently unveiled and promptly criticized by some politicians, pundits, and the public for lacking amenities and inspiration. On the other hand, SMART has been defended by other elected officials and commentators for its frugality.

So which side is right? Both.

SMART has made some sound decisions with its stations, but it may also be blowing an important opportunity.

SMART’s good moves

Those who expected SMART to build new depot buildings or to occupy existing historic ones haven’t been paying attention.   The rail agency never promised to do those things. Depot buildings are nice but aren’t needed for contemporary rail services.

The same goes for bathrooms at stations. They were never promised by SMART, and the rail agency wisely opted to put them on the trains where they are more practical and won’t become a maintenance and security nightmare. Any attempt to bring bathroom back to the stations would be an expensive mistake.

SMART has also been unfairly knocked for its four-foot-high concrete platforms, mostly notably by Dick Spotswood, who called them “boneheaded” and blamed a previous SMART director. The concern about platform bulkiness is justified. However, to imply that there was an easy or cheap way around them is misguided.

The platform height was driven by SMART’s choice of a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) train that meets federal regulatory requirements, but had four foot high floors. The Japanese vehicle was reportedly $20 million cheaper than the next closest competitor, which had roughly two foot high floors. Spending millions more on a different type of train just to have platforms that were two feet shorter might have been tough to justify, which is why the SMART Board didn’t do that. It’s unlikely that the current SMART chief would have recommended any differently.

SMART’s weaknesses

Still, despite making reasonable calls on depots, bathrooms and platform heights, SMART’s current station designs are a functional and aesthetic disappointment. As a defense, SMART staff recently gave its directors a PowerPoint show complete with dull and bare rail station platforms. The message? Others have uninspiring stations too. By comparison, we are not so bad!

In reality, many rail agencies in the United States give serious consideration to passenger amenities and station design. They view bike parking in both racks and lockers as essential features, as seen here, here and here. Or, they have architectural appeal, as seen here, here, and here. Or, they have landscaping, real-time information, good signage, or clever lighting plans.

In 2011, SMART developed station concepts with input from the public. That process was not a boundless invitation to imagine “dream stations” as some revisionists have recently implied. In fact, the designers at the time conservatively suggested that platforms use the same elements across all stations for brand identity and ease of maintenance. Moreover, the original designs were not radically different from the current ones, in that they envisioned simple platforms with a few key elements. However, they did pay attention to some important details.

The 2011 SMART station design

The 2011 SMART station design

Fist, they attempted to soften the stark visual impact of the four-foot concrete box platforms for better aesthetics, to minimize a large and blank graffiti canvas, and to improve safety in case of a passenger fall. This was done with planters and broad staircases on the backside of platforms. The current design ditches those things, and for safety will rely on a guardrail on the backside of platforms. It’s not clear what that guardrail will look like since it’s absent from simulated image of the 65% design. The simulation also gives a poor indication of just how high and bunker-like the platforms are going to be.

The original designs had shelters with better dimensions for weather protection. At roughly 7 feet high instead of 9 feet high, they were better equipped to keep the rain out, and were longer to protect more people. They were designed with power connections and mounts on the underside for lighting, speakers, security cameras, or other elements that SMART might need in the future. The new shelters merely shift those considerations and costs to the jerry-rigged future.

The original designs included both bicycle racks and lockers, real-time information, a more thorough signage and lighting plan for safety and security, and more attractive aesthetic.

In the face of arguments that better options exist, including those already developed by SMART itself, some SMART staff have responded that they simply can’t afford it. To make up for perceived short-comings, however, SMART is allowing local jurisdictions to pay for improvements themselves.

This approach is short-sighted.

Better design can be worth it

Passenger amenities probably represent around 1% of total project costs. Reducing the quality of these elements produces a tiny fraction of savings. Moreover, to create new generic designs, SMART had to pay consultants AECOM and FMG Architects, reducing savings further. A very small amount is being gained the short term by giving up attention to detail and a lot could be lost in the long run.

Having quality elements at stations should be thought of as a revenue booster. While SMART’s operations will be subsidized, the rail agency is still expecting few million dollars from passenger fares each year. Over twenty years, that expected money totals well over a hundred million dollars. To capture those dollars, SMART will need riders and to capture riders it will help to create a positive impression. A very small amount of money invested in quality stations now, combined with a better approach to design quality, will buoy revenues later on.

If trains can be nice, why not stations?

Some have suggested that SMART should strive for “bare bones” minimalism. However, this philosophy stands in stark contrast to SMART’s decisions about its trains. The rail agency is spending hundreds of thousands, or perhaps in the low millions of dollars, to make the noses of its trains swooped instead of flat and to paint its trains green. Is this a waste? No. The trains will define SMART for a generation. It is common sense (and de rigueur in the private sector) to put at least some portion of a product’s budget into to making that product appealing to consumers. This principle being applied to SMART trains should also apply to its stations.

Beyond the imperative of attracting riders, SMART also needs to keep the general public supportive of its project, including those who will never ride. At some point in the future, SMART will need to re-authorize its quarter cent sales tax to continue running its service. If station are a source of community pride, instead of a sore spot, it will make that task considerably easier.

Cities pay more, but for what?

For local elected officials who understand the importance of good stations and want something better the road ahead is blurry. SMART has offered to allow cities to pay for upgrades, but it’s not clear what that means in practice.

It would be wildly inefficient for multiple cities to hire their own consultants to re-design stations. It could also result in a crazy hodge-podge that detracts from a consistent SMART identity. Allowing cities lots of freedom to customize platforms could force SMART to assume maintenance responsibility and liability for a host of elements that it didn’t choose or design. It also might also force SMART to incorporate station features at a very late date, which would add cost.

To cut down on these risks, SMART could control the process by developing station upgrades itself and then offering them to cities for a price. This would certainly be more coherent and cost-effective, even though it would ironically involve SMART paying money to consultants to do station design work for yet a third time.

Either way, the decision to let cities customize stations is raising expectations far more than the first round of station design work in 2011. That process focused on coming up with a quality template that all jurisdictions could live with while keeping designs fairly consistent for SMART’s long term benefit. The new process offer a weak design but implies that anything might be possible for cities, as long as they pay. In the end, either SMART could end up with long-term station headaches or cities could end up with frustratingly limited choices.

Re-thinking the approach

All of this highlights the wisdom of doing stations right in the first place. In retrospect, developing a design with input from the public and local jurisdictions a few years ago was a prudent way of avoiding today’s disappointment, political grief, and extra consultant work. At the moment, however, SMART seems to view discussions of its station designs as a hassle rather than an opportunity.

While financial contributions from cities would be helpful, SMART has a political and financial incentive (and a small window) to do stations right. Consequently, it should take the lead in developing better designs, whether it involves dusting off the older ones or coming up with new ones. That effort should involve transparency, input from cities, a rabid attention to details, and a design that’s focused on SMART’s balance sheet over the long run.

Missing buses continue on GGT

Despite promises to the contrary, Golden Gate Transit’s personnel woes have continued. Despite yet another opportunity to make their schedule match their personnel for a second time, GGT cancelled a run of Route 54 on Friday and another this morning. What started as a headache is fast becoming a glaring indictment of GGT’s scheduling and personnel management.

In June, GGT’s drivers announced that, thanks to scheduling changes, the agency would not have enough drivers to meet its scheduling obligations. Soon, riders who went through the hoops to get text and email alerts started receiving cancellation notices the morning of their ride. For people who catch the same bus every day, this was frustrating. Questions mushroomed: if GGT knew it couldn’t meet its new scheduling obligations, why did it bother to write an unrealistic schedule?

Not to worry, said GGT. We’re hiring more drivers, so in September cancellations will be a thing of the past. In the interim, the agency permanently cancelled four morning and four evening runs on the 4, 24, and 54.

Still, the unscheduled cancellations mounted, so that up to 7 runs would be cancelled in a single morning.

With the release of its fall schedule and the graduation of its new class of drivers, GGT had a chance to put its terrible summer behind it. Yet, both the scheduled cancelations as well as the unscheduled cancellations continue.

That they continue raises some troubling questions about GGT’s approach to customer service, scheduling, and personnel. Were schedulers informed of how many drivers to expect on a given day? Were they instructed to exceed standard personnel schedule padding? Or, did personnel managers not know how many drivers to expect? No answer to these questions would shine well on the agency.

GGT needs to get its house in order, and fast. Transit riders need consistency to plan their morning. With constant cancellations despite promises to the contrary, GGT is simply driving away the riders it is supposed to serve.

New service comes to GGT today, but nothing restored

The latest schedule adjustment to GGT’s buses goes into effect today, and it offers mixed news for commuters. While GGT did expand service between San Francisco and Sonoma on the 101X, service cuts from earlier this summer remain in effect. In short, this adjustment is somewhat of a wash.

­The cut runs

To deal with ongoing personnel shortages, GGT cut eight commuter runs: one in the morning and evening on Route 4, two in the morning and evening on the 24, and one in the morning and evening on the 54. People weren’t too pleased, but it was better than unplanned cancellations the morning of. (These continued, but at least they became more rare.)

The new schedule doesn’t restore any of these runs. Though the latest crop of drivers, who start today, were supposed to have alleviated the service cuts, apparently GGT thought they should assign drivers elsewhere.

Elsewhere in the schedule, Route 2’s first run (5:15am) was folded into Route 4’s first (5:10am, which is rescheduled to 4:58am). Both runs used to arrive at San Francisco at the same time, so consolidating saves a bit of money and manpower. Route 70’s 4:30am run, which left from the San Rafael Transit Center, was also cancelled, as the first 27 duplicates the run just five minutes later.

The new runs

Route 92, the only real commuter bus from San Francisco to Marin, added two northbound morning runs to Marin City. Route 93, the San Francisco shuttle route, added two new evening runs to its schedule. Route 23 has a few new school service runs to White Hill Middle School, too.

The bigger deal is the new 101X evening trip. The 101X uses a different route than the other commuters and functions as a solid express bus for Sonoma residents. By added a new trip at 5:35pm, the 101X is a much better, and faster, bus for commuters and San Francisco daytrippers from Sonoma.

Bottom line

GGT is tweaking its schedule in smart ways around the edges, as it does every quarter. From the standpoint of customer service, I’m not keen on inconsistent service patterns, like running Route 4 through Marin City and Sausalito just once in the morning. While they do make operational sense, customers crave consistency. Signage, maps, and other wayfinding devices all must show the inconsistent routing, which could easily lead to more confusion.

(Someone might recall seeing the Route 4 symbol on their stop in Sausalito and take a more regular 4 up to Mill Valley, completely bypassing their home and get pissed at GGT.)

The 101X is a savvy move by GGT, which is trying to improve connectivity between Sonoma and San Francisco.

But none of that balances out the insult to riders that are the supposedly temporarily cancelled runs on 4, 24, and 54. Now that there are more drivers, GGT should return to the brand of high-quality and reliable service it has built over the past 40 years. No matter how clever the adjustments to other routes are, the loss of service on these three popular routes is deeply felt by riders.

Be sure to pick up a copy of the new route guide on the bus today, and tweet your impressions with the new service to @theGreaterMarin, @GoldenGateBus, or both.

Delay tactics plague the county housing element

by Lotus Carroll, on Flickr

by Lotus Carroll, on Flickr

As the county comes down the home stretch of approving its housing element (HE), opponents of the element, led by Marin Against Density (MAD) and Community Venture Partners (CVP) have taken up a tactic of delay. Calling the effectively two-year process a fast-track giveaway to developers, they have called for extending the process out from the end of January to the end of next May.The delay is simple political posturing. Opponents should return to debate over substance, not timetables.

The current HE finds its roots in the 2013 County Housing Element, passed before Plan Bay Area and its raft of tweaks to affordable housing policy in the region. In essence, the county copied the list of affordable housing sites from the 2013 element, developed after an intense yearlong debate, into the 2014 element.

This has opponents crying foul. The 2013 element was based on an old housing needs assessment, when the region required the county to find room for affordable 781 units. The 2014 element needs to only find space for about 185 units. By copying over the last element’s list to the current list, opponents argue the county is accommodating many more homes than the state requires.

This position glosses over the effect of the 2013 element: the Housing Element simply identifies sites already zoned for housing.   The affordable housing sites declared to the state through that element are in the general plan today. Whether the county lists these sites or not, these sites’ legal status will remain unchanged.  The opponents’ argument, that this increases housing opportunities in Marin, is flat wrong.

To fight this, opponents are apparently planning on delay tactics.

Led by Community Venture Partners (CVP), an anti-Smart Growth nonprofit run by Bob Silvestri, opponents are arguing the county timetable is a “fast-track.” First, they were upset that the county was submitting the element to HCD for review without apparently realizing the review was non-binding. CVP declared on their website:

On Monday, August 25th, the Draft of the Marin County “Housing Element” (HE) for the 2015-2023 planning cycle will have its final review by the Planning Commission before being sent to the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) in Sacramento.

The Planning Commission will actually hold their last hearing on November 17 to review feedback from HCD, followed by at least two hearings by the Board of Supervisors that have yet to be scheduled. CVP goes on:

The County is fast-tracking the review, submittal and approval of the HE unnecessarily. The County has until May 31st of 2015 to gain final certification of the HE from HCD, without risk of penalty of any kind.

CVP is mistaken here, too. While Marin would not be subject to state penalties, MTC has declared it will prioritize regional transportation funding for cities and counties that submit their HE by January 31, 2015. CVP is gambling the county can challenge MTC’s rulemaking, but that’s hardly “without risk of penalty of any kind.”

Testimony from MAD supporters at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting indicate the aim isn’t to allow more time for public comment but to give opponents a chance to organize. They begged the supervisors to do what the Larkspur City Council did with their Station Area Plan: accede to opponents’ demands. If the county does not, CVP has issued a fundraising appeal for a $15,000 legal team to sue the county over the HE.

From a political standpoint, MAD and CVP are working with a shrewd strategy. A delay that allows them to organize hands them a victory and momentum, which will make the extra four months of organizing that much more effective. As well, a delay keeps housing in the news. The unusual back-to-back Housing Element processes has served as kindling to their cause. Keeping the news cycle on housing will help them maintain the angry fires for a bit longer, which will bleed into the next election cycle.

Unfortunately for the county, this strategy is terribly unproductive. Rather than focus on solutions to the regional housing shortage, CVP and MAD have chosen to set themselves up as populist outsiders. CVP’s policy proposals, such as they are, are buried beneath cries of an unjust fast-track bureaucracy. And, by using a strategy of delay, both CVP and MAD are placing their own political needs above the county’s policy needs. They are putting millions of dollars in regional, state, and federal transportation funds at risk for political gain; whatever legal mess comes from it will be left to taxpayer-funded county lawyers.

There are sites within the Housing Element that deserve scrutiny because of their location. However, this is not a reason to delay the HE or to put county transportation funds at risk. Democracy must be about compromise, not threats of lawsuit.

—–

Coalition for a Livable Marin (CALM) has a new petition out that asks the Board of Supervisors to respect the original timetable for approving the HE and support the housing element more broadly. Emails from CALM have asked supporters to make their concerns known in a way that doesn’t put the county’s future at risk. I and other steering committee members of CALM have pushed to include more about the organization’s stances against greenfield development and auto-oriented density.

What you can do today is sign up for CALM’s newsletter and sign the petition to the Board of Supervisors.

High-speed SMART

"Unit 395008 at Ebbsfleet International" by Sunil060902 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Javelin.

The trains SMART will use are relatively slow. While they have a top speed of 79 miles per hour, their federally-mandated tank-like structure means a very long acceleration and long deceleration. Each stop will be a significant time suck.

In 20-30 years, when SMART replaces its trains, it may have a chance to do things differently. How much speed could we realistically wring out of the SMART system? Quite a bit.

The fastest commuter trains on the market are the British Rail Class 395, nicknamed the Javelin. They operate around London and – for the nerds – have a maximum operating speed of 140mph, compared to 79mph for SMART’s trains.

With these trains, which would involve electrifying the tracks and upgrading them to 140mph for the low, low cost of $978 million or so, SMART will be able to make the trip from Cloverdale to Larkspur Landing in about 49 minutes, down from 93 minutes. Novato to Larkspur would be, of course, quite a bit less – just 11 minutes, down from 27 minutes. Exact times might vary based on dwell – how long the trains wait for people to get on and off.

Fast SMART

High-speed SMART travel times

For Sonoma commuters, the Santa Rosa-Petaluma trip would be cut to 12 minutes.

If SMART soars over the Golden Gate, down Geary, and to the Transbay Terminal (for just $5-10 billion more!), travel times will be significantly cut there, too. From Transbay, it would be 6 minutes to Sausalito, 18 minutes to San Rafael, 26 minutes from Novato, and 68 minutes from Cloverdale. This includes local subway stops along Geary. Depending on how

A super-fast SMART, in other words, would fully integrate the North Bay into the rest of the Bay Area. That it would beat drive times along the entire 101 corridor would provide a powerful incentive to leave cars at home. It would transform the whole North Bay.

Despite that, as my statements about the high cost of this upgrade may betray, I’m not keen for this. The Bay Area has significant transit needs, such as BRT on El Camino Real, the evolution of Caltrain into a mass transit line, Dumbarton Rail, a second Transbay Tube, and, of course, the Geary Subway. Each one of these is huge and expensive, and each of them serve more people than SMART.

But it is interesting to imagine how transformative SMART could be with the right equipment, and the right rails.

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Unplanned cancellations continue to plague GGT

Well that was fast.

Not even one day after permanently eliminating four morning commuter bus departures to prevent unplanned cancellations, Golden Gate Transit (GGT) had three unplanned cancellations, all on Novato’s Route 54. It amounted to a 30 percent reduction in service on a popular and necessary route, forcing some riders to stand for the almost 90 minute trip.

Wait, catch me up – what’s going on?

Ever since releasing their newest schedule, GGT has been cancelling departures on a number of commuter routes. It claims this is because of higher-than-expected driver attrition, but the agency’s drivers were apparently aware of the problem even before the new schedule was released. Rather than create a schedule that fits the driver pool available, GGT planned for the unscheduled cancellations.

The next driver class, which will graduate in September, are supposed to alleviate the pain. In the interim, GGT created scheduled cancellations on routes 4, 24, and 54. These scheduled cancellations, which went into effect today, were meant to put a stop to the uncertainty by right-sizing the number of departures to the number of typically available drivers.

Despite scheduling cancellations, the GGT’s online schedules haven’t changed. One presumes they’re also still on Google Maps. I don’t doubt this is confusing and frustrating new riders.

But it didn’t work?

Apparently not. With four scheduled cancellations and three unscheduled cancellations, GGT was apparently down seven drivers – far more than normal. Before this, GGT would only cancel up to three departures per day. This is unprecedented.

Consistent commuter bus schedules are vital to maintaining a one- or no-car household. By cancelling routes, GGT is forcing hundreds of families to reevaluate whether this service is reliable enough to use for a regular commute. It must, must staunch the bleeding now, before it does even more damage to itself. GGT worked hard for decades to build a reputation for reliability, and now it’s burning it down for no reason other than its own negligence.

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