Where do the PDA funds go now?

The future downtown station area will need some work. Image from City of San Rafael.

The future downtown station area will need some work. Image from City of San Rafael.

Now that the Civic Center Priority Development Area (PDA) has been rescinded, TAM is left with a bucket of PDA-designated cash and even fewer places put it. While Mayor Gary Phillips says downtown San Rafael’s PDA is a logical place to put it, none of the proposed projects in the area are at a stage where they need funding.

Part of the delay is due to San Rafael Public Works (DPW) Director Nader Mansourian’s reported insistence that any road alterations wait until after SMART starts service in 2016. As a result, anything that might disrupt a road’s or intersection’s capacity, or level of service (LOS) will have to wait until the needed capacity is known. That includes bike lanes, traffic lights, crosswalks, bus lanes, etc.

PDA funds must be dedicated to improving the transportation infrastructure within a PDA. While they can target projects outside of a PDA, the project must have a direct positive effect on transportation service within the PDA.

It’s up to the Council and staff to get a slate of needed improvements to the area, from the small to the large. Some possible proposals:

Study which projects in the Downtown Station Area Plan would and would not impact traffic. This is probably the most basic study that would need to be conducted, given that it will be three years before SMART runs and likely another year beyond that before traffic patterns start to emerge. This would give a slate of small projects that could be priced, studied, and built before the train.

Link traffic lights to the rail crossings, done in concert with SMART’s work on the rail crossings themselves. When trains start moving through downtown, they will need to coordinate with traffic flow By linking traffic lights to the crossings, San Rafael could prepare for the trains’ arrival today. The linkage will need to happen on Day One of train operations, and so cannot wait for traffic studies to even begin.

While they’re at it, link traffic lights to bus service. Buses currently crawl through downtown San Rafael, especially northbound trunk service like routes 71 and 101. By allowing traffic lights to sense approaching buses and turn green, a system called signal priority, San Rafael could improve speeds for all bus travelers and improve transit access to and through the downtown station area. While DPW will no doubt want a traffic study to find out precisely how the system should work after SMART, the study will only show how to tweak the system once SMART runs. Benefits could flow long before then.

Fix the Andersen Drive/SMART crossing. One of the principal barriers to getting SMART down to Larkspur is not the station or track but the at-grade intersection of SMART tracks and Andersen Drive. The angle of approach for the train is too shallow for state regulators and so will need to be fixed before the train can proceed south to the ferry terminal. Given that the problem was caused by San Rafael when they extended Andersen, it’s on San Rafael’s head to fix the $6 million problem.

Begin a comparison study of how people move through and shop in downtown. How do shoppers get to downtown? How many people move through downtown? This will give San Rafael planners a snapshot of how SMART and the Station Area Plan changes San Rafael and how to target improvements in the future.

The other pressing projects, even under-freeway parking garages (proposed by the Station Area Plan), will change traffic flow and so won’t pass Mansourian’s muster without a Council mandate. However, staff should draw up a decision tree and timetable for implementation of bike, parking, transit, and other traffic-impacting roadway improvements before SMART begins,

What else would be a good fit for TAM’s PDA-dedicated funds?

Note: I reached out to TAM to determine which of these projects are fundable with PDA money and which are not, but staff have been in a crunch time and haven’t been able to answer. I’ll post an update when they reply.

Regional democracy wouldn’t pan out for slow-growth

Unelected bureaucrats want to impose their will upon us, cry critics of Plan Bay Area. Nobody chose their town’s representative to the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), after all. We elected them to city councils, not the ABAG General Assembly or Executive Committee. Plan Bay Area, passed by these unelected appointees, then, is an affront to democracy and the fair people of the Bay Area.

This is, roughly, also the central thrust of a Marin Voice piece by Susan Kirsch, head of Sustainable TamAlmonte spokeswoman for Citizen Marin and Friends of Mill Valley.

So why not elect them?

Intriguingly, there was a plan about two years ago to create just such a body. SB 1149, by far-East Bay senator Mark DeSaulnier, would have created the Bay Area Regional Commission, or BARC. The bill, which died in committee last year, would have had 15 members, each elected from a district of equal population. BARC would have rolled the powers of ABAG, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) into a single agency.

A hypothetical BARC would realize significant savings by eliminating redundancies, have the legitimacy of being controlled by an elected body, and improve interagency coordination. Rather than passing Plan Bay Area through a body of officials elected to local government then appointed to regional government, it would have been passed by a body of officials elected to regional government full-time.

In case you’re wondering, a one-county-one-vote BARC would be illegal if the county representatives were elected. The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that electoral districts of special areas, like a BARC, must be of roughly equal population. The only way for us to get one-county-one-vote is through appointed boards, which how ABAG currently does things.

But one gets the feeling Kirsch and other activists in line with her would not be so enthusiastic about it. Rather than emphasize local control, a regional elected body would put the emphasis on the region instead. On top of that, Marin wouldn’t even get their own elected representative, given its small population. It would have to share one with Sonoma.

The push by Kirsch and others is really for local control and local democracy, not a regional democracy. If Plan Bay Area had been passed by a hypothetical BARC, I can only imagine they’d say they we’ve been outvoted by the rest of the region. Had it been put to a plebiscite, they’d likely say the same thing. After all, for residents of Kirsch’s tiny Tam Valley it is their world. Why would they cede control to people in Gilroy and Fairfield who have probably never even heard of Tam Valley?

While I support BARC in theory, given the regionalist perspectives of the other counties, I fear that it would only further embitter isolationist Marin. And, while I support the idea of putting Plan Bay Area to a regional plebiscite in theory, I fear the losing side would not embrace the result as legitimate, whether it passed or not. On top of that, it wouldn’t really address Kirsch’s underlying concern: that Plan Bay Area is not good policy for Marin or anywhere.

The way forward in regional governance is one I’ve said before: for Marin to create its own subregion. It would be able to have direct control over its regional housing needs allocation (RHNA), focusing development into the towns or areas most willing and able to take it. It would take control out of the hands of the region and into the hands of Marin’s governments.

Putting more democracy into the system won’t help Marin find self-determination, nor will it help the region address the concerns Kirsch and others raise. Bringing affordable housing decisions to Marin, however, will at least get that part back into the hands of our own elected officials.

Mid-week links: Marin Transit

Marin County

by jay d, on Flickr

The latest Marin Transit board meeting was one full of change and surprise. Amid increasing ridership (though it fell in June), MT posted a $1.5 million surplus, which will go into a rainy day fund. To keep ridership on the up and up, the agency hired a new communications and advertising consultant, who will manage MT’s branding, website, social media, and communications strategy. IJ reporter Nels Johnson, however, seemed to think the $300,000 consultant was taking the agency “for a spin.” And, in the name of efficiency, the MT board cut Route 222, which got less than 3 riders per hour in June. Elsewhere:

  • There was so much public comment about Marin’s new housing element that the Board of Supervisors had to postpone its debate until next week. (Patch) On a side note, whoever’s idea it was to bring in a saxophonist to lead the potentially rancorous crowd in singing, “There’s still a lot of love in Marin!” is brilliant. (IJ)
  • The Civic Center Drive upgrades look fabulous, but now that they aren’t in a PDA TAM may need to rescind its funding. (Patch)
  • A driver hit a bicyclist in Fairfax yesterday by turning left through a bike lane, sending the bicyclist to the hospital with a broken collar bone. Though the circumstances seem like they warranted an investigation or a failure-to-yield citation, the driver was not cited by police. (IJ)
  • The costs of demand-responsive bus service, promoted by Bob Silvestri as the ideal transit, make it an ineffective replacement for traditional bus service. (Listen Marin)
  • The lack of BART in Marin is apparently because we’re classist and racist and always have been. (The Grid) Except, y’know, that’s not at all why we don’t have BART.
  • TAM should take on all the causes of congestion on Highway 101, not just cars, according to Corte Madera Mayor Diane Furst. She sat on a working group to draft an alternative plan to flyovers on the freeway. (Marin Voice)
  • The Golden Gate Bridge will close for a full weekend next year for the installation of a new movable barrier. This will be the first time in the bridge’s history it will be closed for more than a few hours. (IJ)
  • Parking minimums can severely constrain construction, either driving up rents in the building or preventing new construction altogether and contributing to a housing shortage. Affordable housing advocates take note. (Sightline)

Politics

  • San Rafael council candidate Randy Warren hits rival Maribeth Bushey-Lang hard, saying her need to recuse herself over issues like SMART make her unfit for service. (IJ)
  • The move to recall Supervisor Susan Adams failed to attract enough signatures, and Save Marinwood is not happy. Interestingly, no signatures were submitted to the county, so we’ll never know how far short the recall came. (IJ, Save Marinwood)
  • Paul Mamalakis examines the race for Novato City Council. (Advance)

Story update: San Rafael rescinds Civic Center PDA

As everyone no doubt heard, the San Rafael City Council voted last night to rescind the North San Rafael Priority Development Area (PDA) on a 3-2 vote. Mayor Gary Phillips and councilmembers Kate Colin and Damon Connolly voted to rescind. Councilmembers Andrew McCullough and Barbara Heller voted to keep the PDA.

Slow-growth activists decried the PDA as a high-density housing plan that would burden the city’s schools and water supply while destroying the drivable suburban character in the neighborhood. Urbanists and environmentalists said the PDA carries no strings whatsoever, that the housing guidelines were nonbinding suggestions, and was a way to fund improvements for the San Rafael that exists today.

At a county level, eyes now turn to the Strawberry PDA, which has come under attack by critics for much the same reasons other PDAs have. The argument will likely take much the same shape as it did last night, though it remains to be seen whether Supervisor Kate Sears will propose to remove the PDA or not. Given that she has not come under the same withering criticism Supervisor Susan Adams did over the Marinwood PDA, it may remain intact for the foreseeable future.

At a city level, the downtown San Rafael PDA also remains intact. Mayor Phillips and others who opposed the Civic Center PDA have said the housing suggestions make much more sense downtown and that regional money would do more good in that area anyway. Still, slow-growth advocates, convinced that the PDAs constitute a mandate for housing, are likely to attack this PDA, too. Council candidate Randy Warren, for one, has argued this designation should be rescinded, too.

A future post will look at how San Rafael and TAM could make lemonade out of the situation and the barriers to getting PDA-designated funds from TAM’s account into projects on the ground.

 

Politics threatens good policy in North San Rafael

There seems to be a majority forming on the San Rafael City Council to rescind the Civic Center Planned Development Area (PDA). At last week’s special session on the subject, three of the city’s five councilmembers (Mayor Gary Phillips, Councilmember Damon Connolly, and Councilmember Kate Colin) expressed opposition to the PDA.

While each expressed their own reasons for opposition, most swirled around the idea that, if we keep the PDA, San Rafael will be obligated to build massive quantities of affordable housing in an area that cannot support it. Fortunately, this is simply untrue.

What would the PDA actually do?

PDAs are an investment vehicle originally created by MTC. Cities tell regional agencies where they plan to focus population and job growth, and the region earmarks regional transportation money for those areas. In Marin, MTC requires that half of those regional transportation funds go the county’s PDAs. The other half can go to transportation projects anywhere in the county. While there is some talk in Sacramento to channel climate change transportation funds exclusively to PDAs, that proposal has not been finalized.

To help guide local planners, each PDA has a different “place-type” designation, which provides nonbinding guidelines about residential density and the quality of transit service. North San Rafael is a Transit Town Center, which MTC recommends should have or plan for between 3,000 and 7,500 housing units.

But, as a nonbinding recommendation, there is no obligation on San Rafael to actually zone for or build the recommended number of housing units. Rather, the recommendation is there to help San Rafael planners craft a local plan, which was done with the Station Area and General Plans.

There is concern about CEQA streamlining for affordable housing projects within PDAs, but the state doesn’t obligate the city or county to loosen its own environmental review processes. If the city decides a project shouldn’t receive CEQA streamlining, it won’t. This, as the only non-funding legal aspect of a PDA, is still well within the control of the city.

So what is the fear?

Anti-development (“slow growth”) activists in North San Rafael are concerned that the PDA creates an obligation to the city to zone for thousands more housing units than it could actually support, clogging streets, stuffing classrooms, and putting people in harm’s way along busy, high-speed arterial streets. We don’t have the water, don’t have the class space, don’t have the road space, and don’t have the tax revenue to take in so many new people.

But the PDA doesn’t obligate a thing. Mayor Phillips Councilmember Colin had another answer to that. They said it would be dishonest to use a place-type with a higher housing guideline than could realistically be put into the area without adverse impacts to existing residents.

As a nonbinding guideline, then, it would make sense for the city to simply downgrade the PDA to a level that falls in line with the existing level of housing development.  In fact, this is precisely what Councilmember Andrew McCullough proposed, and is one of the optional resolutions for Monday’s council meeting.

Why would we want a PDA?

Because North San Rafael has over $25 million in transportation needs, and the city is considering raising a sales tax because it can’t fund its existing obligations. It needs some extra funds if it wants to improve the neighborhood’s roads.

In fact, one project is very likely to be funded with PDA money: the proposed improvements to the Civic Center campus. Without the PDA, the $3 million project will be ineligible for regional money, and TAM will be forced to shift those funds to another PDA in the county.

But beyond that, a theme of those who spoke in favor of the PDA was that the neighborhood was unfriendly and unsafe for people walking or biking. Given the relative lack of bike lanes, bad connections to regional and local transit, and missing or crumbling sidewalks, it’s a wonder people haven’t been killed. Drivers, too, need to battle with congestion. They have been patiently waiting for a new freeway interchange for years.

All this could be funded by regional transportation dollars, or would need to compete with projects in the rest of the county. The PDA, as a funding tool, would put these projects on a fast track for approval and funding. Removing the PDA would likely cut the neighborhood off for years.

Politics, not policy, is at work

So the PDA doesn’t obligate any development, doesn’t obligate any zoning, and provides a way to make North San Rafael safer for kids to walk to school and commuters to get to the bus. If the PDA does start to obligate the city to do things it does not want to do, or even if it’s threatened, the city could rescind the PDA with no problem at that point. So why is the council voting on Monday? Alas, it’s about politics, not policy.

It’s an election year. Councilmember Damon Connolly is running against Susan Adams and Councilmember Kate Colin is fighting for her seat against slow-growth candidate Randy Warren. The county’s slow growth movement has fought against PDAs as a proxy for their fight against Plan Bay Area.

By setting themselves up against the North San Rafael PDA, Connolly and Colin are betting they can inoculate themselves against attacks from that camp. At first glance, that seems like a safe bet. Polling from One Bay Area shows that those with anti-development sentiment are more passionate about the issue and are more likely to vote than their counterparts.

Yet they are forgetting that Marinites want choices in how they travel and how they live. It’s not as easy a sell on the campaign trail, but it would be the way for Mayor Phillips and Councilmember Colin to knock the wind out of the slow-growth lobby.

The best compromise is to vote for downgrading the PDA. While it won’t satisfy those who lead the movement, it will show that the council is concerned about density and height while balancing it against transportation improvements North San Rafael desperately needs.

A fragmented BABS is bad for the region

UPDATE: Bay Area Bike Share has confirmed that you can, indeed, dock bikes between any participating city. It’s unclear why Peter Colijn was unable to dock his bike.

UPDATED UPDATE: Well, the BABS website has been updated saying that San Francisco and the rest of the system are separate, in that you can’t bike from SF to other parts of the system, nor vice versa. But if you wanted to, say, bike from San Jose to Mountain View, you could dock your bike.

It took less than a week for an intrepid bicyclist to decide it was time to ride a Bay Area Bike Share (BABS) bike from San Francisco to Mountain View. Given our region’s strong corps of Bicyclists, it was only a matter of time, really.

But when the bicyclist, Peter Colijn, got to Mountain View, he couldn’t dock his bike. It seems BABS has set up not just different clusters of stations, but different systems altogether, where bikes from different clusters won’t dock at another cluster’s stations. This does not bode well for BABS.

As BABS expands, the clusters will get close enough that users could easily ride from one to the other.  By splitting what purports to be a unified system into chunks, riders won’t be able to do what it clearly seems like they should be able to do: ride across city lines. It will make rebalancing more difficult in the future, too, as the bikes won’t be interchangeable with one another.

There is a simpler reason why this is a bad idea: people will do dumb and unusual things with BABS, and splitting the system up will exacerbate the consequences.

As a long-time observer of Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare (CaBi) program, which uses the same technology as BABS, I can say that I’ve seen just about everything. People take out their bikes for the day, lock them to bike racks, take them on the Metro, bring them into the office, and all sorts of other things you definitely shouldn’t do with a bike share bike. (CaBi has assured me and others in DC that they are very willing to cut overage fees, especially for bikes out more than 24 hours, when people didn’t understand the system.)

The same thing will happen in the San Francisco Bay Area. People will take the bikes on Caltrain, do long-distance group rides, and other things that will cost them a great deal in overage charges, often unwittingly. If users can’t dock their bikes in different cities, they’ll get double pain. Not only will they get hit with overage fees, but they’ll be stranded with the wrong bike in the wrong area.

I suspect BABS separated the systems to make rebalancing easier. There’s no way for a cluster’s bikes to migrate away from it, so each city keeps its “fair share” of bikes. But this doesn’t account for users’ creativity or lack of knowledge about the system.

BABS should give people allowance to do things outside how they want users to ideally use their system. Let the hardcore cyclists do their marathon runs and brag about them on Strava – it’s free publicity! Let the inexperienced and the tourist take the bikes on Caltrain or ride them from San Jose to Mountain View. It would be easier to pick up bikes that people ride to the “wrong” place on BABS’ own time than to force innocent users to travel all the way back to wherever they came from. It would certainly beat the bad the publicity of an angry customer who, quite understandably, thought that all BABS stations were the same.

I have an email out to BAAQMD, BABS’ manager, to find out which clusters are interoperable and which aren’t. A comment on Cyclicious says Palo Alto and Mountain View bikes are interoperable, but I don’t know anything beyond that. See update above.

Bike share for the ferry terminals

Last week, Bay area Bike Share (BABS) launched to some fanfare. Caltrain commuters and residents in a few neighborhoods along the Peninsula and in San Francisco can now bike to or from transit, making the first and last mile a bit easier.

Calls for a broader bike share program to serve the East Bay, more Peninsula neighborhoods, and the whole of San Francisco have risen ever since the limited scope of the project was announced.

Advocates should add Vallejo and Larkspur-San Rafael to their list. As the outer ends of the Bay Area’s ferry service, they desperately need some way to bridge that last mile. Bike share is how to do it.

Why ferries?

A chronic problem with ferry service in the Bay Area is the lack of bi-directional demand. Though many San Franciscans work in Marin and Solano, it’s tough to get reliable transit service to their employment centers. Golden Gate Transit buses depart hourly heading north, even in the morning commute hour. SolTrans buses don’t even offer reverse-commute service.

While there is ferry service to Larkspur and Vallejo, there aren’t many jobs within walking distance of the terminals. Driving, then, is often the only viable mode, closing off those jobs available from car-less San Franciscans.

BABS stations could change that.

In Vallejo, the principal would be similar to the Caltrain satellite systems, like in Palo Alto. Scatter a few stations around the downtown, with a large one at the ferry terminal, and you’ve created is an easy way for commuters to head to or from the ferry terminal without the need to drive or to bring their own bike.

In Larkspur, the ferry terminal’s distance from downtown San Rafael, the county’s employment hub, means a more creative solution is needed.

A large BABS station at the ferry terminal, another in Greenbrae, and a few scattered around downtown San Rafael would allow reverse-commuters to use it as their last mile and draw San Rafael into the mindset of San Franciscans as a place to go.

As a bonus, both the Vallejo and Larkspur-San Rafael systems would boost ferry access. In Marin especially, it would boost access to the ferry for SF-bound riders and overcome the terminal’s poor transit service.

And, for both systems, it would improve access to biking in areas that could use some alternative transportation.