A reality check for Randy Warren’s climate change plan

A candidate for San Rafael City Council has a bold plan to cut transportation CO2 emissions: subsidize electric cars. While at surface it sounds reasonable enough, the plan would be expensive for little gain.

Take a look at candidate Randy Warren’s platform and you’ll find, under the climate change header, a description for Operation New Leaf.

For all the theories about what we can do to reduce greenhouse gasses from cars and light trucks, the reality is that the plans are speculation and hope.  Let’s aim instead for guaranteed results.  I propose Operation New Leaf, a plan to provide incentives for our out-of-county workforce to purchase zero emission cars for their commute to San Rafael. This plan targets workers who have held a San Rafael job for at least one year and live at least 20 miles away. The city would negotiate special rates with San Rafael car dealers, from whom the cars would have to be purchased or leased.  Participating workers would have to make a good faith pledge to do their workday shopping in San Rafael, so we improve our local economy and recover some operating costs via related sales tax.  We would target up to a 50% subsidy to the workers, with proper safeguards.  We then need to line up sponsors, whether from MTC or the private sector (including the car manufacturers themselves as a pilot program).  This is a complex proposal that requires a city study group, and I will encourage such study take place.  But until our legislature has the guts to set a date for banning the registration of new gas-powered cars, Operation New Leaf would produce instant and certain results in reducing greenhouse gasses.

The Census doesn’t estimate the source of in-commuting jobs by city, but we can estimate. There are roughly 43,000 jobs in the city. Of Marin jobs, a quarter are held by workers in counties at least 20 miles away from San Rafael (i.e., all but San Francisco and Contra Costa). Proportionally, that means about 7,760 San Rafael workers live about 20 miles away or more. With that in mind, I estimate the cost of Operation New Leaf at around $97 million, not including the cost to move an additional 1,000 cars to the city’s job centers and store them once they get there.

Would MTC help? Likely not, given their pursuit of multi-modal solutions to transportation problems. Would Nissan help so they could promote their electric Leaf? Probably not enough to make the project affordable. Would a change in drivers’ shopping habits offset the cost? Again, probably not enough to make it affordable to the city. Leasing the vehicles instead of buying them outright might put the cost into a more-affordable area around $10 million per year, but that’s still far more than San Rafael could carry.

Equally as unaffordable are the consequences.

The cost to congestion would be enormous, given that this would be like closing a traffic lane on Highway 101. And the cost to our built environment would be high, too. San Rafael would suddenly need to find parking for at least another 1,000 cars per day [see update below], not to mention charging stations for not just these 1,000 vehicles but the 10,000 others bought by people who already drive to the city.

This might be net-negative in greenhouse gas emissions, provided increased congestion doesn’t make the situation worse, but it wouldn’t be a panacea. Electric cars in California emit the equivalent CO2 of a 70mpg gasoline car. BART, in contrast, emits the equivalent of around 940mpg. It would also put those currently taking transit to work into harm’s way (driving kills 35,000 people per year), and fight downtown San Rafael’s efforts to expand its walkable downtown east of Highway 101.

To reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions, San Rafael ought to try to segment the travel market for trips under 2 miles, where most car trips are made. Some of those really are best done by car, but others are best done on foot or bike. How we build our roads and grow San Rafael should allow each mode to function best in balance with the others.

For walking, that means maintaining sidewalks and slowing down the perceived speed of cars, which can drive away foot traffic. For biking, it means building quality bike infrastructure that is safe for anyone age 8 to 80. For driving, it means encouraging people who don’t need to drive to leave the car at home and out of the way of other drivers. Even if a few percent of trips shift from car to another mode, that’s often enough to unlock traffic flow.

Or, if San Rafael really wants to spend millions of its own dollars on transportation, it could build a comprehensive Class I bicycle lane network for the whole city and Ross Valley with money to spare. It could provide free transit passes to in-commuters, cleaning up traffic while also cleaning the air. It could buy 48 hydrogen fuel-cell buses for Golden Gate Transit, or (for less money) retrofit Marin’s entire bus fleet to run on compressed natural gas.

Operation New Leaf doesn’t solve any problems faced by San Rafael; quite the opposite, it spends millions to exacerbate its existing problems. And, far from providing “guaranteed results,” it could add to congestion-related CO2 emissions, possibly even enough to offset the gains.

Electric cars are touted as the solution to our transportation emissions, but it ignores the other costs of pushing car-only infrastructure: parking, traffic, public safety, and car maintenance. The way to reduce Marin’s greenhouse gas emissions is to diversify away from an automobile monoculture, not to deepen it. And, in the meantime, we’d solve our transportation problems, too.

UPDATE AND CLARIFICATION: Some questions have arisen as to why more cars would be on the road under this scheme. Roughly 11 percent of Marin’s in-commuters take transit to work, and it’s reasonable to suspect slightly more take transit to San Rafael given the presence of the transit center. By subsidizing car ownership, it’s reasonable to assume a good chunk of them would choose to drive instead and add more vehicles to the city and Highway 101.

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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)

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.

Odd words from one of San Rafael’s council candidates

The campaign for San Rafael city council is starting to ramp up, with four candidates vying for two open seats. One of them, Randy Warren, has chosen to run on a platform of being a development conservative. Though not necessarily news on its own, his words on why he opposes affordable housing development shows that he doesn’t understand the politics and issues at hand. He still has a chance to catch up, but conservatives need a knowledgeable voice on the council, and right now he still has a way to go.

From his announcement press release:

[Randy Warren] believes the city’s Housing Element is gravely flawed.  The proposed affordable housing could end up not going to needy Marin residents but instead to people relocating from other areas around the Bay whose vast numbers could shut out San Rafael’s poor. “We need good quality jobs to support a growing population, and there is no viable plan at present to do that. Wishful thinking is not enough. We need to avoid related increases to unemployment and homelessness, and the risk they present in wage deflation.”

Affordable housing

The purpose of affordable housing is to do what he says it will: help those who work in Marin but can’t afford to live here find a home. I’m not a fan of the methods used by the state to promote affordable housing, namely the regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) process, but my problem with it has to do with its viability, not that it will do what it’s advertised to do. Warren implies there will be a bait-and-switch, where we build housing for Marinites only to find them filled by folks from elsewhere.

There is a huge amount of demand to live in Marin. This is seen not only in recent price spikes in housing and rent costs, but in our massive in-commuting population. Marin gets 45,000 in-commuters every day, mostly from Contra Costa and Sonoma but also from San Francisco and Alameda. Studies have shown that they typically take lower-paying jobs, either as service workers (housekeepers, shop clerks) or other professions (teachers, low-level office workers). They simply can’t afford a home in the county, especially if they’re trying to move here now, and so they in-commute.

Affordable housing is designed to reduce that amount of in-commuting, decreasing their cost of commuting and reducing the pressure on our roadways, not just to support Marin’s existing low-income residents who presumably already have homes.

Jobs

Even stranger, however, is that Warren, while insisting we don’t build affordable housing for non-Marinites, expresses concern that we aren’t creating enough jobs for a “growing population.” If we don’t, he warns, we’ll get increasing unemployment, homelessness, and wage deflation. I’m curious where this population growth would come from if not from beyond Marin, and why they’d come here if they didn’t have a job. Perhaps he’s talking about Marin’s children, but surely he understands that Marin’s demographics are such that it won’t grow without immigration. But let’s set this statement aside for a moment and focus on the jobs themselves.

First of all, Marin already has more jobs than it has workers. While 45,000 people commute to Marin every day, only 42,000 commute from Marin. In San Rafael itself, which is where Warren should concern himself, nearly 70 percent of jobs are held by out-of-towners. Marin, and especially his city, have more than enough jobs to support their own.

The problem, at least in the county at large, is that a great many of these jobs are not ones that many Marinites want or can afford to take. If we wanted to grow our jobs base, we would need to boost the number of high-paying professional jobs. That would mean drawing on the economic strength of San Francisco, developing places that are conducive to start-ups and innovation. Better transit connections for the predominantly car-free San Franciscans, as well as small housing units to keep Marin’s young singles in-county, are needed to attract those high-paying businesses to San Rafael.

Alas, Warren, according to the IJ, wants to remove the Downtown San Rafael Planned Development Area (PDA), the place that would be most conducive to creating such an urban job center. By removing the PDA he would put at risk the targeted transportation investments the area desperately needs: a new bus terminal, better bike lanes, better connectivity from the rest of Marin, San Francisco, and the East Bay. At the same stroke, he would make the area less attractive to new businesses that may want to come.

But Marin doesn’t have an unemployment problem. In fact, it has one of the strongest job markets in the state. Homelessness, while a problem, is not due to a lack of jobs. It’s due to a complicated web of issues ranging from a lack of mental health services to the inherent instability of homelessness itself. A strong progressive shift in the zoning code in larger cities to allow more single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) as well as for-profit, sanitary bunking situations (think something like a more permanent hostel) would go a long way to fighting the “homeless” aspect of homelessness, while better investments in city services would help alleviate the underlying instability and poverty.

As for his last statement, that a lack of jobs in a single city of 56,000 would result in wage deflation, it is such a leap that it is beyond me. San Rafael is part of a much broader region and county, and its job market is deeply integrated with theirs. As we already established, it is so integrated that barely more than 30 percent of its jobs are held by locals. It would take forces far beyond the scope of the San Rafael City Council to depress the city’s wages.

Not a promising start

These are odd and troubling statements from a serious candidate for city council. Development conservatives deserve a strong and articulate voice to represent their interests, someone who knows how cities operate in the region’s context. Warren misunderstands the purpose of affordable housing, does not grasp the connection between land use and transportation, and does not understand San Rafael’s job market.

Though I disagree with the development conservative position on a number of fronts, a knowledgeable councilmember could provide a needed skeptical eye to staff reports. He or she would be a valuable force and help shift the power of San Rafael from its departments to the council. I’m concerned, however, that Warren would be less of a check and more of a contrarian and populist, asking questions for their own sake and grandstanding instead of leading. At worst, he would isolate himself and bring discord to what is currently a collegial and effective body. I’d hate to see the problems of Sausalito replicated in Marin’s largest city.

But the race is still young, and perhaps Warren is just getting his campaign legs. Over time, I’m sure he’ll release more statements and say other things that will help refine our understanding of his views. But this is not a promising start.