$388 Million Streetscape Measure Could Deliver Complete Streets — or Not

San Francisco complete streets advocates have an opportunity tomorrow to ensure that the city prioritizes bike route repairs and sidewalk enhancements if voters pass a proposed street safety and streetscape improvement bond measure this November.

bike.route.pothole.jpgA safety hazard on bike route 40. Photo by Michael Rhodes.

The Department of Public Works is proposing a $388 million bond measure to fund street resurfacing and streetscape improvement projects for the next five years. The proposal currently includes $209 million for street repair and rehabilitation, $113 million for streetscape improvements such as corner bulb-outs, sidewalk widening, and pedestrian lighting along commercial corridors and other high-use areas, $24.9 for street structures repair and improvement, $30.6 million for ADA curb ramp repair and construction, and $10.1 for sidewalk repair.

The Budget and Finance Subcommittee of the Board of Supervisors will be discussing a resolution in support of the measure, sponsored by the Mayor and Supervisors Chiu, Dufty, Mar, Alioto-Pier and Campos, at its 10 a.m. meeting tomorrow.

In its current form, DPW’s bond proposal calls for the “presence of transit vehicles and bicycle traffic” to give a street “higher priority for maintenance.” The San Francisco Bike Coalition would like a more detailed, explicit commitment to repairing the bike network, and it is urging the Board to include language that would allocate 30 percent of the resurfacing funds for streets with existing bicycle facilities such as bike lanes or sharrows on them.

Neal Patel, SFBC’s community planner, said he views this as an opportunity to solidify DPW’s commitment to prioritizing the bike route network, and he was optimistic about increasing the proposal’s funding “from around 20 to 22 percent” for bike route repair to 30 percent.

Pedestrian advocates also found much to like about the proposal. “This is a historic opportunity to get a lot of funding for pedestrian improvements,” said Manish Champsee, president of Walk San Francisco.

Some complete streets advocates viewed the measure with greater concern, however. “Borrowing money when you’re in a structural imbalance can be a financial road to hell,” said Livable City’s Executive Director Tom Radulovich. “You’re not only deeper and deeper in terms of your infrastructure deficit pileup, you’re paying interest costs on the money you borrowed, so there’s actually less money available.”

“The logical way to pay for street improvements is the pay-as-you-go system, so the income you’re bringing in every year matches your expenditures over the long term,” said Radulovich. “It looks like a solution, but in reality is actually is digging us further into the hole.”

In addition to his concerns about finding sustainable sources of income for complete streets, Radulovich said that in the absence of finalized complete streets standards, the measure could lead to auto-oriented projects. “We have these horrible street standards in San Francisco – skinny sidewalks, wide roadways, no pedestrian amenities – our concern is that … they won’t be rebuilding incomplete streets as complete streets, but they’ll be rebuilding these auto-oriented, skinny sidewalk, dangerous streets as the same thing.”

Radulovich cited the repaving of Divisadero Street as a cautionary tale of. “Divisidero would be a great candidate for a road diet: take out that median, do one lane in each direction, then you could have wide sidewalks, you could have bike lanes, you could have all kinds of amenities,” said Radulovich. The median greening and repaving, he said, “mean quite likely when they put them in it actually took us further away from implementing a complete Divisidero solution.”

Still, SFBC and Walk SF view the bond as likely to go forward regardless, and thus as an opportunity to set a complete streets standard in practice that can be replicated in future projects.

Also at issue is a revision to the original proposal that adds $20 million in streetscape improvement funding to be used specifically for utility “undergrounding,” the process whereby pole-mounted, overhead wires are placed under the street to improve aesthetics and reliability. DPW would like to establish a policy in the bond that “any major streetscape improvement project will include undergrounding (where overhead wires exist),” according to its revised draft proposal. While utility undergrounding is popular with property owners for aesthetic reasons, the SFBC is urging the Board not to include this provision, since it could slow down safety-enhancing projects and increase their costs.

The proposed bond measure has strong support from the Board of Supervisors. So, regardless of their views on what Radulovich calls the “boom and bust cycle” of funding that bonds can create, advocates will want to make sure it doesn’t turn into a one-time infusion of money towards rebuilding roads to antiquated, auto-oriented standards.

Budget and Finance Subcommittee discussion of Safe Streets and Road Repair General Obligation Bonds, Wednesday June 17, 11 a.m., City Hall Room 250.