Highway Safety Projects Ineligible for Highway Funds in San Mateo County

Shoulder of Highway 1 Coastside San Mateo County
Walking or biking in this shoulder on Highway 1 is often the only option available to get between coast-side towns in San Mateo County without driving. Photo: Matt Hansen, Peninsula Press

San Mateo County’s Mid-Coast Multi-Modal Trail just barely made it into the list of Pedestrian and Bicycle Program projects approved for funding by the Transportation Authority (TA)’s Board of Directors last Thursday. Despite this step forward, building the trail will be difficult thanks in large part to restrictions on how TA funds can be spent, which hamper walking and biking projects.

The $165,000 allocated to the mid-coast trail will only pay for the engineering design and environmental review of the first of four phases, from Half Moon Bay to El Granada. Funds to actually construct the trail and design the three remaining sections to the north, from El Granada to Montara, haven’t yet been identified.

“The coast-side trail is among the most important projects to my constituents since I’ve been elected,” said Supervisor Don Horsley in March. “And this is the first opportunity we’ve had to apply for funding.”

This trail has been recommended by several transportation planning studies over the past ten years, most recently by the 2010 Highway 1 Safety and Mobility Improvement Study, which cites improved safety for people walking and bicycling and a reduction of traffic on Highway 1 among its benefits.

During its March 4 review of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Program projects, the TA’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee (CAC) “noted concerns regarding safety, traffic congestion, access to schools, and access for people who don’t have cars as strong reasons in support of the Mid-Coast Multi-Modal Trail.”

But this type of project — infrastructure that reduces highway congestion by providing safe alternatives to driving — is surprisingly difficult to fund in San Mateo County.

Bike lanes (left) or bike/ped trails (right) don’t qualify for the TA’s Highway Program funds, even if they are located along a highway or at an interchange as in these examples. Photos: Andrew Boone (left), Google Maps (right)

The TA’s Highway Program, which spent $82 million in 2012, only accepts projects that increase highway capacity for cars, despite its stated intent to “reduce commute corridor congestion.” Improving transit service and creating safe street networks for walking and bicycling can also reduce highway traffic and congestion, but these types of projects are automatically disqualified.

“The program intent is to reduce congestion on commute corridors,” wrote Project Manager Aiden Hughes in September 2012, to explain why the Alpine Road & Highway 280 striping project (which includes bike lanes) and the Ralston Corridor Study (which includes better walking and biking safety among its goals) weren’t recommended for funding from the Highway Program. “There is no defined relationship to bicycles, pedestrians, or Complete Streets,” he wrote.

But just months later in early January 2013, the county’s Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted a Complete Streets Policy, which does define the relationship of the county’s existing transportation programs to bicycles and pedestrians. The new policy directs “all relevant departments” to include feasible infrastructure in all street construction projects in the county to “enable improved travel” for all users, stating:

Complete Streets infrastructure sufficient to enable improved travel along and across the right-of-way for each category of users shall be considered, where feasible, into all planning, funding, design, approval, and implementation processes for construction, reconstruction, retrofit, alteration, or repair of streets.

The TA’s Highway Program is required to include in its projects infrastructure that also makes walking and bicycling safe, where applicable and feasible. But the TA still disqualifies projects from the program that improve safety while at the same time reducing vehicle traffic congestion.

Ralston Childrens Bridge Over Highway 101
Highway bridges like the Ralston Avenue Ped/Bike Bridge over Highway 101 aren’t considered “highway projects” by the TA because they improve safety for people walking and biking. Photo: Andrew Boone

The Mid-Coast Multi-Modal Trail, for example, would be immediately adjacent to Highway 1 on its east side, allowing some shorter vehicle trips to be directly substituted with walking or bicycling trips, thus reducing car traffic and congestion on the highway.

Multi-use paths — even ones located within the highway’s right-of-way like the mid-coast trail — do too much to improve safety for people walking and bicycling and are therefore exclusively considered “pedestrian and bicycle projects,” not “highway projects.” As a result they qualify for only one-tenth of the funds available for highway expansion projects.

Belmont’s Ralston Corridor Study, being finalized this month by consultants, will recommend changes on Ralston Avenue to speed up commutes for drivers travelling between Highways 280 and 101, as well as new sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes to improve safety. This study was rejected for Highway Program funding in 2012 after scoring poorly compared to other highway projects, because it “emphasized support for bicycle and pedestrian movement along with the overall improvement to the Ralston Corridor,” according to TA staff.

Rejecting projects because they include ped/bike safety improvements is exactly the opposite of what the county’s Complete Streets Policy requires — that infrastructure improvements to make walking and bicycling safer are considered and included in every project, where feasible.

“Complete Streets is an emerging policy issue that addresses overall movement of people including autos, transit, bicycles, and pedestrians. Staff will return to the Board to discuss the need for policy change regarding this issue,” wrote TA staff in October 2012.

18 months later, no clear guidance has been provided regarding Complete Streets policy, and traffic safety projects continue to be penalized in the agency’s funding programs.

  • Nathanael

    Sounds like someone should sue the Transportation Authority for violating the County ordinances. Maybe that might wake them up.

  • NoeValleyJim

    “But this type of project — infrastructure that reduces highway congestion by providing safe alternatives to driving — is surprisingly difficult to fund in San Mateo County.”

    No one should be surprised by this, San Mateo county has traditionally been hostile to rapid transit, bicycling and walking. They voted against joining the BART District in 1963, which is the main reason it is so hard to get from San Francisco to Silicon Valley today.

  • Eric

    Even if the TA has an expenditure plan they have to stick to, under the new policy, they can use “Highway Program” funds to construct complete streets.

    Also, “El Grenada” is spelled “El Granada”.

  • Affen_Theater

    Contrary to popular myth, San Mateo Co. never voted against joining BART. See: http://www.bayrailalliance.org/question/why-didnt-we-get-bart-through-san-mateo-county-in-the-1960s-when-it-was-cheaper

  • NoeValleyJim

    “Hundreds of meetings were held in the District communities to encourage local citizen participation in the development of routes and station locations. By midsummer, 1961, the final plan was submitted to the supervisors of the five District counties for approval. San Mateo County Supervisors were cool to the plan. Citing the high costs of a new system-plus adequate existing service from Southern Pacific commuter trains – they voted to withdraw their county from the District in December 1961.”

    – See more at: http://www.bart.gov/about/history#sthash.tWxq6pmN.dpuf

    “1961: San Mateo County supervisors vote to leave BART, saying their voters would be paying taxes to carry mainly Santa Clara County residents. Real estate agent David Bohannon influenced the supervisors to drop out, fearing it would affect planned development along I-280.”

    http://www.mercurynews.com/bart/ci_5162648

    That sounds like a vote to me.

  • Affen_Theater

    I’m aware of BART’s about page and other sources (such as the SJ Merc who parrot it) … but if you research it more deeply, you will find that SMCo. Supes declined to put BART on the ballot. No formal vote was ever taken. In the past, I’ve heard and read that this and the loss of Marin actually saved BART since these counties’ voters would caused the regional vote to fail.

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