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Caltrans on the Hot Seat: Assembly Looks at State, Local Planning Tensions

It was the California State Assembly’s turn to review the recent State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI) report on Caltrans at a Transportation Committee hearing Monday.

Chair Bonnie Lowenthal addresses the Transportation Committee (find a video of the hearing here)

The discussion played out along the same lines as the Senate Transportation Committee hearing last month, where Professor Joel Rogers, who led the team that produced the report for the California Transportation Agency (CalSTA), presented his findings on the dysfunction at Caltrans.

Rogers drew questions from committee members when he cited the lack of coordination between local transportation planning agencies and Caltrans. 

Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo) was defensive of local planning. “Locals need a strong voice in the planning process,” she said. “I don’t see how the state has the resources or ability to do that kind of planning on the local level.”

Rogers was compelled to clarify himself several times. “I do not mean to imply that local control is a bad thing,” he said, but the report was “quite critical that the self-help counties build projects and then push all the maintenance onto Caltrans without doing anything like a lifecycle accounting on the actual costs.”

Professor Joel Rogers emphasizes a point to the Assembly Transportation Committee

Professor Joel Rogers emphasizes a point to the Assembly Transportation Committee

“We just don’t think local control has been well managed,” he said. “Caltrans needs to give locals the flexibility they need. What we heard over and over in our interviews was, ‘It’s such a drag dealing with Caltrans, we just try to go around them.’ As a state agency you don’t want a system that is deliberately at war with itself.”

Rogers skewered both Caltrans and the legislature in much the same words he used in the recent Senate hearing, where he criticized Caltrans for its “hypertrophic aversion to risk” that prevents it from being an effective partner. This time he evoked an appreciative, if sheepish, laugh from the committee members when he remarked that they had a hand in making Caltrans the dysfunctional organization it is today.

Two committee members, Assemblymembers Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) and Katcho Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo), seemed eager to move reforms along. ”What’s our plan of action? How can we be involved?” asked Daly.

“This needs to be taken care of on a much higher level than the local level,” Achadjian said. “Let’s not let this end up on a shelf. We need a follow up.”

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Senate Hearing Highlights Report on Caltrans’ Car-Centric Ways

Heckuva job, Caltrans. Image:##http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-124808/Traffic-on-the-Los-Angeles-freeways-is-frequently-bumper-to##Kids Britannica##

Heckuva job, Caltrans. Image:Kids Britannica

With a recent report calling out the need for Caltrans to focus less on building highways and more on letting cities build people-friendly streets, state legislators have an eye trained on the agency’s progress towards reform.

The California Senate’s Transportation and Housing Committee held a hearing yesterday to discuss the new report [PDF], conducted by the State Smart Transportation Initiative and commissioned by the California Transportation Agency (CalSTA), which was formed by Governor Jerry Brown and CalSTA Secretary Brian Kelly last year to oversee all of the state’s transportation agencies.

The report is sharply critical of Caltrans’ “archaic” practices when it comes to imposing automobile-centric design standards on city streets, and says the department should reform its risk-averse culture, which often prevents local city planners from implementing modern designs for bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets.

Two of the report’s authors, Joel Rogers and Eric Sundquist of SSTI, presented their findings to the committee, arguing that the way Caltrans is currently structured prevents it from helping meet state goals like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving transit networks, and building complete streets. A complete, systemic reorganization of the agency is their recommended solution.

The report asks a series of questions on whether the agency has the right tools “to help it achieve the mobility, safety, and environmental stewardship goals that are expected from California’s transportation system.” The answer, the authors conclude, is a resounding “no.”

“Caltrans’ operative mission and goals are out of step and work at cross purposes with the transportation needs and policy framework of the state,” Rogers told the Senate committee. “The skills and technical expertise of its staff are not congruent with modern demands.”

The report criticizes the “rule-bound” culture at the agency that causes employees to focus on avoiding risk rather than streamlining projects that provide cities better transit and safe streets for walking and biking. And, Rogers told the committee, “You, the Legislature, have a heavy hand in making Caltrans as dysfunctional as you now find it.”

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Gov’s Report to Caltrans: Get Out of the Way of Protected Bike Lanes

Caltrans needs to stop focusing so much on moving cars and let cities build safer street designs with protected bike lanes, says a new report commissioned by Governor Jerry Brown and CA Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly.

SF’s parking-protected bike lanes on John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park are technically illegal, according to Caltrans. Photo: Mark Dreger/Flickr

The report [PDF] calls out Caltrans’ “archaic” practices when it comes to imposing outdated, automobile-centric design standards on city streets in California, and says the department should reform its “culture of risk aversion and even fear,” which often prevents local city planners from implementing modern designs for bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets.

When agencies like the SF Municipal Transportation Agency want to implement protected bike lanes, they must take a legal risk since Caltrans hasn’t approved such designs, and design exceptions require “a painful and time-consuming process,” says the report, produced by the State Smart Transportation Initiative.

“Caltrans’ peculiar standards on bicycle facilities even pertain to locally owned streets, precluding some active transportation initiatives,” the report says. “The agency and department should support, or propose if no bill is forthcoming, legislation to end the archaic practice of imposing state rules on local streets for bicycle facilities.”

In a statement, TransForm said the report “offers a refreshingly candid and detailed critique, and more importantly points to a host of critical reforms.”

“The report recommends the direction come ‘from the top down and outside in,’ to avoid the long-standing status quo at Caltrans where bottom-up planning via staff just leads to ‘the culture endorsing itself,’” said TransForm.

Stuart Cohen, TransForm’s executive director and a member of Secretary Kelly’s CA Transportation Infrastructure Priorities workgroup, said that “this is not the first report slamming Caltrans” but that the critical difference comes from the ”tremendous leadership” of Governor Brown and Kelly, who commissioned the review.

“We asked for an honest assessment because we are committed to modernizing Caltrans and improving transportation for all Californians,” Kelly said in a statement.

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty issued a statement saying that “we see this as a tremendous opportunity to reassess our priorities and improve our performance.”

“We have some internal reforms already underway so we can hit the ground running,” he said.

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Proving to Caltrans That El Camino Real Can Be a Safer Street

El Camino Real & 25th Avenue, San Mateo

Shama Ayyad was struck killed by an SUV driver on October 5, 2013 while crossing El Camino Real in this crosswalk in San Mateo. The crossing distance is over 100 feet here. Photo: Google Maps.

Despite pockets of new development, El Camino Real remains a dangerous, car-oriented urban highway along most of the San Francisco Peninsula. If it can ever transform into a great street, it will have to become safer for walking and biking. And while enhancing walkability is a key goal of the Grand Boulevard Initiative – the long-term planning effort to improve El Camino Real between San Francisco and San Jose — redesigning a state road to prioritize safety is always a tough lift, since Caltrans design standards create a thick barrier of red tape. In response, San Mateo County planners are working on four demonstration projects to show how a redesigned boulevard will function.

El Camino Real is the deadliest street in the San Francisco Bay Area for pedestrians, according to a review of traffic fatalities conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting in April. Of the 59 people killed in traffic collisions on the street between 2002 and 2011, 37 — about two-thirds — were pedestrians. In comparison, only 22 percent of the 2,791 people killed in car crashes statewide in 2011 were pedestrians, according to Caltrans data.

Car-oriented commercial retail centers currently dominate along El Camino Real, but residential and office development is gradually filling in the corridor. With more destinations clustered together, walking, bicycling, and transit become increasingly practical for residents and workers.

“Improved walkability and transit are critical to allow El Camino to become the kind of environment that can accept growth without generating additional traffic,” said Egon Terplan, regional planning director for SPUR.

But as a state highway, the street is built primarily to accommodate large volumes of automobile traffic, using the same design standards that apply to freeways. The street’s current design gives little thought to the safety of people walking, bicycling, or accessing transit.

“How a street is designed has a very tangible effect on the number of injuries and deaths that occur,” said ST Mayer, director of health policy and planning for the San Mateo County Health System. “And El Camino has a high rate of bicycle and pedestrian injury.”

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SFMTA Installs Bike Lanes With Road Diet on Section of Outer Sloat

The SFMTA installed bike lanes on outer Sloat Boulevard last week, re-purposing two of the street’s six traffic lanes between the Great Highway and Skyline Boulevard next to the San Francisco Zoo.

This one-mile redesign was one of the latter projects to be installed as part of the SF Bike Plan. There’s still a gap between these bike lanes and the buffered bike lanes that run on Sloat between Everglade Drive and 19th Avenue, which were installed in January 2012 by Caltrans. Between Skyline and 19th Avenue, Caltrans has jurisdiction over Sloat because it’s part of Highway 35. Word from SFMTA staffers, however, is that they’re working on a plan with Caltrans to close the gap.

With plenty of room for protected bike lanes, there seems to be a major missed opportunity on this stretch. But the Bike Plan was finished in 2005, when the SFMTA wasn’t generally as ambitious as it might be today (though the agency has upgraded a number of other Bike Plan projects since it was approved).

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Improving Daly City’s “Top of the Hill” for Walking and Transit

John Daly Boulevard and Mission Street are still car-centric roads, but that is starting to change for the better with the completion of the Centennial Transit Plaza, shown here under construction earlier this year. Photo: City of Daly City

Last Saturday, Daly City officials and residents convened to celebrate a newly built transit plaza, the centerpiece of the long-awaited $3.4 million Top of the Hill project, which includes a series of pedestrian and streetscape improvements along three blocks of Mission Street between John Daly Boulevard and Parkview Avenue. The project was constructed with $2.3 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and $700,000 from the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans).

Wider sidewalks, curb extensions, and new red-brick crosswalks on Mission Street at Vista Grande Avenue in Daly City. Photo: City of Daly City

Top of the Hill is the most significant street re-design project carried out to date as part of the Grand Boulevard Initiative, a collaboration between 19 different public entities that seeks to improve walking, biking, and transit, and to enable transit oriented development that can help reduce traffic congestion along El Camino Real from Daly City to San Jose.

Because San Mateo and San Francisco counties operate separate transit systems, bus riders traveling between Daly City and San Francisco are forced to transfer at the county line (except those riding SamTrans Bus 391, which serves downtown San Francisco). The new Centennial Transit Plaza, named in honor of the city’s 100th anniversary in 2011, is located on the northwest corner of John Daly Boulevard and Mission Street. It’s one of two important transfer locations in Daly City, serving 600 to 800 SamTrans bus riders every day. The other transfer location – between the SamTrans, Muni, and BART systems – is the Daly City BART Station, located a half-mile to the west.

People can now walk across Mission Street on the north side of the intersection, where a red-brick crosswalk replaced "No Ped Crossing" signs, to access the new transit plaza. Photos: Google Maps (left), City of Daly City (right).

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The Sorry State of Caltrans’ Dumbarton Bridge and Bay Trail

Debris on Dumbarton Bridge

Garbage and debris on the Dumbarton Bridge frequently reduce the usable width of the mixed-use path from eight feet to six feet. Photos: Andrew Boone

The Dumbarton Bridge, which connects Menlo Park in southern San Mateo County with Fremont in the East Bay, remains the only bridge that allows bicyclists and pedestrians to cross the San Francisco Bay from east to west, with an eight-foot wide path on its southern side. From the bridge, the path continues for three miles along Bayfront Expressway (Highway 84) through Menlo Park to Marsh Road. It’s an important biking and walking connection for both commuting and recreation.

Longitudinal cracks on the Bay Trail.

Longitudinal cracks on the Bay Trail near Marsh Road. These cracks can easily catch the front wheel of a bicycle, causing over-the-handlebars crashes.

Poor maintenance of the bridge path and Bay Trail by Caltrans, however, continue to discourage use. The bridge path is not swept often enough to keep it free of glass and other debris, which reduces the usable width of the path from the minimum eight feet required by Caltrans’ own Highway Design Manual. Occasionally, large objects such as car bumpers and plastic buckets litter the path. From mid-May to mid-June, large piles of highway debris blocked a two-foot section of the path. The culprit? After the roadway was cleaned, the garbage that had accumulated there was dumped onto the car-free path. Though the large items littering the path have been removed, glass shards and dirt remain.

John Fox, who has commuted by bike from Fremont to Stanford University for the last 13 years, finds the bumpy, pothole-filled conditions of Marshlands Road, used to access the bridge from the East Bay, a greater challenge. “That road is horrible, it’s like a cheese grater,” he said. “In the winter time a lot of us ride until dark, and then it’s pretty dangerous.”

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Park Areas Under Central Freeway Downsized to Retain Caltrans Parking

Left: The original vision for the conversion of a Caltrans parking lot into a dog run, basketball courts, and a playground. Right: The final plan, which will build only the dog run in order to retain most of the parking lot. Images: Department of Public Works

A plan to convert parking lots under the Central Freeway near Duboce and Valencia Streets into a skate park and dog run is moving forward, but it won’t include basketball courts or a children’s playground as originally envisioned by residents.

Because the city will have to lease the land from Caltrans, which owns and collects revenue from the existing parking lots, city officials involved in planning the long-delayed parks projects say budget constraints left them with no choice but to allow the state department of transportation to retain a large section of the parking lot at the expense of park space.

“The City Parking Area is a vital revenue component to making the entire lease structure with Caltrans feasible; thus helping to fund the projects and keep them moving forward,” wrote Gloria Chan, a spokesperson for the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, in a February email to residents. ”Without this revenue, we would not be able to plug the funding gap needed for these projects.”

D6 Supervisor Jane Kim introduced legislation this week to establish agreements between Caltrans and city agencies to move the project forward, and construction on the skate and dog parks are expected to begin this summer. She praised the project planners, but made no comment on the downsizing.

The SF Examiner reported details of the deal last month:

Under the terms of the lease deal, Caltrans will receive $10,000 a month for 20 years, with rent increasing by 2 percent every year. The Recreation and Park Department — the agency in charge of maintaining the park — will pay $85,000 a year for the site. Public Works will pay $66,000 a year.

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After Death of Hanren Chang, Meager Safety Fixes May Not Come for 2 Years

Friends and family mourning the death of Hanren Chang, a 17-year-old Lowell High School student who was killed on Sloat Boulevard last Saturday night by driver 29-year-old Kieran Brewer, are calling for safety fixes to prevent future deaths on the excessively-wide speedway. Brewer was arraigned yesterday on felony charges of DUI and felony vehicular manslaughter.

Hanren Chang. Photo via Change.org

Some safety improvements are already in the works for three intersections on Sloat, including the one where Chang was killed — but they’re not scheduled to be implemented for at least another 18 months, according to a memo from the SF County Transportation Authority [PDF]. The Board of Supervisors coincidentally approved a $797,000 federal grant on Tuesday to plan and construct sidewalk bulb-outs and flashing pedestrian beacons, and adjourned the meeting in honor of Chang. But as the SF Chronicle reported today, the plan is only set to be designed by the end of the next fiscal year — June 2014 — and built within a year after that.

Caltrans, which has jurisdiction over state Highway 35 (which includes Sloat), did implement a road diet in January 2012 on the stretch where Chang was killed, converting two lanes to buffered bike lanes and installing more visible crosswalk designs and signage.

But Sloat, where drivers are invited to speed on an excessively wide roadway, remains a deadly place for pedestrians, as Anyan Cheng, a close friend of Chang’s who launched a petition for safety improvements, told the Chronicle. ”It’s like a freeway in a residential area,” she said. “People don’t stop for you. Drivers don’t see you.”

As Streetsblog has reported, 54-year-old Feng Lian Zhu was killed by a driver in January 2010 on Sloat near Forest View Drive — the same intersection where Chang was killed. In 2011, 33 traffic crashes occurred at Sloat intersections, according to police data. In those crashes, two pedestrians were injured at Everglade Drive and 44th Avenue, and two bicycle riders were injured at 19th Avenue, also a state highway.

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Mayor’s Transpo Chief: “Let’s Be San Francisco and Take Down the Freeway”

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The 280 freeway looking from Potrero Hill, where it divides the neighborhood from Mission Bay. Photo: Michael Patrick/Flickr

The idea of removing the northern section of Highway 280 near Mission Bay is gaining more traction as planners look for ideal ways to usher in high-speed rail and transit-oriented development in downtown San Francisco.

At a SPUR forum yesterday, Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director, Gillian Gillett, sketched out a proposal to follow in the footsteps of the removals of the Embarcadero Freeway and a section of the Central Freeway, which revitalized the neighborhoods the roads used to divide. As Adina Levin at Green Caltrain reported, Gillett argued that replacing the elevated portion of I-280 with a street-level boulevard, from its current terminus at 4th and King Streets south to 16th Street, would improve the livability of the area, open up land to develop new neighborhoods, provide funding through real estate revenue, and open up engineering solutions to facilitate the extension of Caltrain and CA High-Speed Rail to the planned Transbay Transit Center.

If the freeway is left to stand, its pillars would present an engineering obstacle to running the train tracks undergound, meaning the only other feasible way to allow rail tracks to safely and expediently cross 16th Street would be to dip 16th underneath the tracks. And that would make the intersection — a gateway to Mission Bay — even more hostile for people walking and biking than it already is.

As past cases have shown, creating a surface street where that part of I-280 now stands and integrating it into the neighborhood would actually reduce overall car traffic. In a moment that would make the city’s mid-20th Century freeway protesters proud, Gillett told the crowd, “Let’s be San Francisco and take down the freeway.”

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe called the proposal “an exciting opportunity to re-orient our city around sustainable public transportation and create a more walkable city.”

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