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Will the Bay Area Continue to Reduce Driving With Improved Transit?

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Commuters in SF and the East Bay are ditching cars faster than anyone in the nation, as evidenced by regular crowds packing on to BART at 19th Street in Oakland. Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

Commuters in the Bay Area ditched cars faster than in any other major metropolitan area between 2006 and 2013, according to a new U.S. Census report. With studies showing that car traffic in San Francisco is declining, the report is one more sign that efforts in SF and the region to attract commuters to transit, walking, and biking may be working.

The report looked at work trips in the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward Metropolitan Statistical Area. The Sacramento Bee summed up the findings:

Commuting by private car in the densely populated region, including carpooling, dropped from 73.6 percent of workers in 2006 to 69.8 percent seven years later, giving it the nation’s third highest level of alternative commuting.

Commuters in the New York City-centered metropolitan area were least likely to use private cars to get to their jobs in 2013, but even so, a majority – 56.9 percent – still did. Ithaca, NY, had the second lowest use of cars, 68.7 percent, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s not clear which modes of transport the 3.8 of commuters who ditched cars switched to, as the local breakdown wasn’t immediately available. Record-breaking transit ridership on BART and Caltrain have continued to make headlines over recent years (though, per capita, ridership has declined over the last 20 years).

“The Bay Area continues to be a leader in shifting away from driving and toward alternative transportation modes, particularly public transit, but we need to do much more,” Supervisor Scott Wiener, who sits on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, wrote in a Facebook post today.

Wiener emphasized the urgency of some of the major expansions envisioned for regional transit: “A second transbay tube, train service to the Transbay Transit Center, electrified Caltrain, more subway lines, and a lot more bus service everywhere.”

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TSP Rebooted: Bureaucratic Revamp Could Boost Transit and Livable Streets

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Photo: Sergio Ruiz via SF Planning

Photo: Sergio Ruiz via SF Planning

San Francisco agencies have re-introduced the Transportation Sustainability Program, a bureaucratic overhaul that could dramatically expedite improvements for walking, biking, and transit, while discouraging car parking in new developments.

In developing the program, SF planners are also nearing completion of the nation’s first major study showing that dedicated car parking encourages driving.

The TSP is three-pronged: It would overhaul SF’s development fee system to fund sustainable transportation upgrades, set mandated targets for developers to reduce driving caused by their projects, and replace the automobile-centric metric known as Level of Service (LOS), which would make environmental reviews both faster and more “meaningful,” planners say.

“If you’re moving people out of cars, you need to have the infrastructure for them to do things otherwise,” said Sarah Jones, the SF Planning Department’s director of environmental planning. “Each of these components can operate on its own, but we are working on them in an integrated way, because each of them really enhances the other.”

Originally expected to be adopted in 2013, the program has been fine-tuned since it was put on hold in late 2012 primarily for two reasons. At that time, the Board of Supervisors rejected a new fee system after a misinformation campaign, and the California legislature since passed a bill calling for the replacement of LOS as the state’s transportation metric.

The SFMTA, the Planning Department, and the SF County Transportation Authority are preparing to launch public outreach on the TSP within the coming months and institute the program in stages by the end of the year, said Jones.

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Mayor Lee Warms to Prop B Muni Funding Increase, Which He Opposed

Mayor Lee on another photo op Muni ride to yesterday’s press conference. Photo: Mayor’s Office/Twitter

Mayor Ed Lee held a press conference yesterday to mark a $48 million increase in transportation funding for Muni and safer streets. But the largest chunk of that increase, and the only one that resulted directly from political leadership, came from Supervisor Scott Wiener’s Proposition B — which Lee fervently opposed.

The funding increase “is a great thing for the eighth-largest transportation center in the country,” Lee told reporters yesterday, touting the boost it would bring to Muni vehicle maintenance and infrastructure. Lee was joined by Wiener, as well as Supervisors London Breed and Julie Christensen.

When the Board of Supervisors approved Prop B for the ballot last July, Lee threatened retribution for the six who voted for it, though he apparently never followed through.

At the time, the mayor called Wiener’s measure “disturbing” and said it “can be very damaging” to the city budget. “I have to hold the supervisors that did this accountable,” he told reporters. “Fiscally, it was not responsible to have done. It disbalances the budget, and it was not what we had all collaboratively agreed to do.”

Prop B passed with 61 percent of the vote in November, mandating an annual increase in funds for transportation and safer streets based on population growth. Since the measure also factors in the last 10 years of growth, it is expected to yield a $24.2 million increase this year.

The $48 million increase to the SFMTA’s budget also includes $7.2 million from the agency’s share of the general fund, a result of greater tax revenue from a booming economy. The other $16.7 million comes from a boost in development impact fees earmarked for street improvements, which resulted from an increase in building construction.

While that $48 million should help SF implement safer streets and better transit, the city could have raised much more had Lee been willing to ask car owners to chip in for the disproportionate costs they incur. However, the mayor passed up an estimated $77 million by repealing Sunday parking meters and abandoning his support for putting a vehicle license fee increase on the ballot.

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Wiener’s Prop B Yields More Money Than Expected for Muni, Safe Streets

SF voters may get more money than anticipated for better transit and safer streets from the passage of Proposition B, a measure crafted by Supervisor Scott Wiener to increase the share of general funds for transportation based on population growth.

Supervisor Scott Wiener. Photo: Aaron Bialick

With city coffers boosted by tax revenues resulting from a booming economy, Prop B is expected to yield $26 million in the next annual budget, 75 percent of which would go to Muni, with the remainder dedicated to pedestrian and bike safety upgrades. Originally, only $22 million was expected.

Of the nearly $19.5 million expected for Muni, most will cover the purchase of 18 new buses. The other $6.5 million will fund various street safety measures in pursuit of Vision Zero.

“It’s a really strong list,” said Wiener, “and it’s doing exactly what we intended Prop B to do — to improve Muni’s reliability and capacity in the face of a growing population, and to make street safety improvements as our streets become more crowded.”

Prop B instituted a city charter amendment mandating annual increases in the share of general funds set aside for transportation, based on population growth. The first increase of $26 million, which the Board of Supervisors must approve as part of the annual budget by July, accounts retroactively for the last ten years of growth. Commensurate increases are expected in the years to follow.

Wiener proposed the measure last year after Mayor Ed Lee dropped his support for a ballot measure to restore the local vehicle license fee to its longtime level of 2 percent. That was expected to yield an estimated $1 billion over 15 years, restoring a revenue stream cut by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mayor Lee can repeal the Prop B amendment if a VLF increase is passed by voters in 2016.

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Phil Matier Needs to Do His Homework on Transit and Bike Policy

Phil Matier, a pundit for KCBS and the SF Chronicle, has been betraying a rather stunning lack of policy knowledge recently, painting transit in the Bay Area as a boondoggle and wagging his finger at “bicycle lobbyists” for opposing a statewide mandatory helmet law.

Phil Matier. Photo: KCBS

In a KCBS radio segment this week, Matier did seem to understand the case against the mandatory helmet law proposed by State Senator Carol Liu:

[Bicycle lobbyists] feel that the requirement of helmets for adults would be another barrier to more people getting on bicycles and that it would be a disincentive. Safe or not, they seem to think it’s more important to get more people to ride their bikes.

The concept that Matier was apparently trying to convey is called “safety in numbers” — the well-documented phenomenon that biking is safer the more people are on bikes. As CA Bicycle Coalition has argued, helmet laws have been shown to only discourage bicycling, countering the safety in numbers effect. Focusing on helmets distracts from the implementation of changes that actually make streets safer and prevent crashes in the first place.

But then Matier went on to ignore that point and paint bike advocates as a constituency that just wants something for nothing:

San Francisco has already started to spend $3 million on bicycle awareness and will continue to do so for the next few years. This will include safety campaigns and improvements to bike lane infrastructure. The city has also called to increased citations to motorists by 50 percent in the next two years in an effort to cut down on injuries.

But when you turn it around on the bicycle groups, they don’t want to adhere to things like mandatory helmet wearing or even chipping in money on the new bike lanes. This is making state lawmakers and politicians wonder if this is a one-way street.

There’s a lot to unpack here. For one thing, the SFMTA has barely increased its bike spending in recent years, and $3 million remains only about 2 percent of the agency’s total budget.

Matier is also dead wrong when he claims that people who bike don’t “chip in on new bike lanes.” The vast majority of funding for local street infrastructure, including bike lanes, comes from general taxes paid by everyone. People who bike instead of drive also impose much less in the way of maintenance costs on the street system.

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CA Active Transportation Program Funding Unchanged for Next Two Years

Although Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed FY 2015 budget showed a decrease in the line item for the Active Transportation Program (ATP), Caltrans Budget Chief Steven Keck assured the California Transportation Commission at its meeting last week that the change was technical and the funding level would be the same as last year’s.

The Complete Streets plan for San Pablo Avenue in Albany, CA, won a grant from the Active Transportation Program in the 2014 allocation. Image: Wallace Roberts & Todd, via City of Albany

Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty later confirmed that “as of today going forward, our plan is: no change in the ATP budget.”

While the funding is not being cut from 2014 levels, there is still concern that the need to improve conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists is far greater than the funding provided in the ATP.

And the commissioners seem to agree.

Commissioner Yvonne Burke expressed surprise that there wasn’t more of a fuss kicked up at the meeting. Commissioner Carl Guardino was the only speaker who called attention to the program’s paltry funding, noting that the need for it “greatly outstrips the amount of funding available.”

The ATP allocates most of the state’s funding targeted at increasing walking and bicycling. It was created by statute [PDF] in 2013, combining state and federal funding for bicycle infrastructure, Safe Routes to Schools, and other similar funds into a single pot. In its first two-year cycle, it awarded a total of a little over $350 million for 267 projects throughout the state.

Tracing the sources of money in the ATP can be tricky. Early budget proposals typically incorporate some uncertainty about funding levels, since calculating the state’s revenues from taxes can be an inaccurate science. Other budgetary practices, like last year’s repayment of $9 million that had been borrowed from the ATP’s precursor, the Bicycle Transportation Account, further muddy the waters.

Whatever the reasons for it, the confusion over an issue as simple as “how much money will the state be spending on walking and bicycling infrastructure” adds to the impression that Caltrans is not a very transparent organization.

At last week’s meeting, commission staff presented and discussed draft revisions to the program guidelines [PDF] for the second two-year cycle of funding, set to begin in June.

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Study Quantifies How Unbalanced SF’s Car-Centric Streets Are

SF’s streets are mostly devoted to cars, but a new report confirms that general taxpayers pick up most for the tab for drivers. Photo: Cesar Chavez Street by Aaron Bialick

Any doubts that most of San Francisco’s public space is consumed by private automobiles, whether moving or stored, could probably be put to rest with a quick glance at the city’s car-dominated streets. But a new study pulls together some eye-opening numbers about just how unbalanced SF’s priorities have been in allocating street space, prioritizing cars over people, and in charging drivers little relative to the costs they incur.

Here are some of the highlights from the San Francisco Modal Equity Study [PDF], published by the Transportation Choices for Sustainable Communities Research and Policy Institute:

  • Parking lanes in San Francisco constitute 15 percent of the paved roadway area, equal to real estate valued between $8 and $35 billion.
  • Street parking in San Francisco totals 902 miles in length, six times longer than the 143 miles of bike lanes.
  • 75 percent of all bike lane miles were built since 2000.
  • Bicycling constitutes four percent of trips, but only 1.4 percent of roadway space is dedicated to bicycle lanes.
  • There are 36 lane miles of dedicated transit lanes, but 211 lanes miles of freeway lanes.
  • General tax revenues, not user fees, pay 75 percent of roadway maintenance costs in San Francisco.
  • The federal gas tax, in inflation-adjusted dollars, is at its lowest point since 1983, when the Reagan administration doubled it.

The parking count figures came from an SFMTA census report published in May, which showed that SF’s 275,450 on-street parking spaces are enough to parallel-park a line of cars 60 miles longer than California’s entire 840-mile coastline. Ninety percent of those spaces are free at all times. In total, SF has 441,950 publicly-accessible car parking spaces. Private parking spaces, like those in residential garages, haven’t been counted at all.

The report provides some perspective for those who say “restoring transportation balance” in SF means giving even greater priority to cars, enshrining free parking, and building even more parking garages. That backwards view has spawned Proposition L, which will go before voters in tomorrow’s election.

This new report has some useful stats to counter misconceptions commonly thrown around in discussions about streets. You’ve heard this before: Bicyclists don’t pay enough for the construction of bike lanes, right? In reality, most of the costs of our streets — bike lanes, parking lanes, traffic lanes, and all — are covered by the general public, and to a greater extent than in prior decades. Yet people who use the streets but don’t drive impose lower costs, which saves the public money.

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Supes Stand Up to Transbay Developers, Approve Original Rail Funding Deal

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The Board of Supervisors yesterday unanimously approved the original agreement to fund Transbay District transportation upgrades, like the downtown rail extension to the Transbay Transit Center, through development charges. Although supervisors had announced a compromise agreement two weeks ago, some developers apparently backed out of it. City Hall officials decided to move forward with the original agreement, since those developers threatened to file a lawsuit either way.

A rendering of the Transbay Transit Center and surrounding high-rise development to come, via TransbayCenter.org

The disagreement arose after Transbay developers began to fight the establishment of a special property tax, called a Mello-Roos tax district, which they had agreed to in 2012 to help fund local infrastructure projects, like the extension of Caltrain and California high-speed rail to the Transbay Center. The developers, who still must approve the Mello-Roos agreement in a vote, hired former Mayor Willie Brown to lobby for a lower tax rate, since property values (and thus projected taxes) have skyrocketed in recent years.

“Kudos to the Supervisors for supporting the original Mello-Roos agreement, rather than delaying the vote again or agreeing to further concessions,” said Livable City Director Tom Radulovich. “Any project of this size is going to be subject to lawsuits and threats of lawsuits. Shame on these developers for seeking to reap all the benefits of the Transbay project, their beneficial re-zoning, and San Francisco’s booming land values, without any portion of this enormous windfall going towards the public good.”

Under the compromise agreement announced two weeks ago, the developers would have paid the same maximum of $1.4 billion in taxes, but spread over 37 years instead of 30. Supervisor Scott Wiener said this would have retained “every penny” of the original deal, but some said the economics would’ve worked out in the developers’ favor. The SF Chronicle penned an editorial on Sunday blasting the “unwarranted tax break to developers” and “huge giveaway”:

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Supes, Mayor Get Developers to Pay Nearly Full Tax for Transbay Rail

Developers agreed to pay nearly the full property assessment rates to help fund transportation projects in the Transbay Transit Center District, under an agreement announced by the Board of Supervisors yesterday. Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee stood their ground against the developers, who hired former mayor Willie Brown as a lobbyist to try to lower the rates on the special infrastructure tax district, known as a Mello-Roos District. The move threatened to cut funds from the extension of Caltrain and high-speed rail downtown into the Transbay Center under construction.

A rendering of the Transbay Transit Center and surrounding high-rise development to come, via TransbayCenter.org

The SF Chronicle reports:

Under the agreement, the city will still collect up to $1.4 billion in taxes from property owners around the new transit center for the Caltrain, and possibly high-speed rail, connection. But the revenue would come in over 37 years instead of 30 after city officials agreed to extend the life of the tax district to make it more palatable for the property owners.

Even though the rates hadn’t changed from 0.55 percent of property values, developers complained that the skyrocketing value of real estate in downtown had increased the maximum project revenues in the district from $400 million to $1.4 billion.

The Board of Supervisors won’t vote on final approval of the agreement for another two weeks while the details are worked out, but members said it looks solid at first glance. Supervisors Scott Wiener and Jane Kim lauded the agreement, and credited Mayor Lee for standing firm against the developers’ attempts.

“I’m not referring to this as a compromise, because the [Transbay Joint Powers Authority] is getting all the money that we were seeking,” said Wiener.

Mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey told the Chronicle on Monday, “The city believes that the special tax rates that the developers are being asked to pay are more than fair considering they are taking advantage of a very significant increase in height limits for their buildings offered under the transit center district plan.”

The developers apparently backed down on their threats to sue the city if it didn’t assess the property values at their 2007 rates rather than current ones. Before the agreement was reached in a closed session, Wiener said, “If [a lawsuit is] what has to happen, so be it. I don’t think we should cave in.”

“I don’t think much of the legal claim that’s being asserted,” said Wiener. “I think it’s pretty clear that the valuation was not going to be at the bottom of the recession.”

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Developers Don’t Want to Pay for Caltrain/HSR Extension to Transbay Center

Developers who are building towers around the Transbay Transit Center in SoMa are fighting to reduce a special property tax that will be levied on developments in the area. The biggest loser could be the downtown rail extension to bring Caltrain and California high-speed rail into the terminal, as more of the funds for the regional rail hub and other long-term projects would have to come from taxpayers.

A rendering of the Transbay Transit Center and surrounding high-rise development to come, via TransbayCenter.org

The group of developers is backed by former mayor Willie Brown, who registered as an official lobbyist to work for them in July (he also recently lobbied “pro bono” for AnsoldoBreda, the manufacturer of Muni’s current train fleet). Brown previously helped create the Transbay Joint Powers Authority to oversee the massive package of projects centered around what’s been called the “Grand Central of the West,” expected to open in 2017.

SF Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross reported in July:

Brown confirmed for us that he is representing Boston Properties — builder of the 61-story Salesforce Tower — and more than a half dozen other property owners.

In exchange for the city allowing them to increase the height and density of their projects, the property owners agreed two years ago to be assessed up to $400 million to help pay for a Transbay Transit Center rooftop park and other public improvements to the area.

Only now, thanks to skyrocketing property values and changes in the city’s methodology for calculating the assessments, the developers — paying into what’s known as a Mello-Roos special district — could face up to $1.4 billion in charges.

The Board of Supervisors was expected to approve the agreement creating the Mello-Roos district on Tuesday, but D6 Supervisor Jane Kim postponed the item one week. “We wanted additional time to be able to brief all of the offices on this issue, but also talk to the multiple parties involved,” Kim said at the meeting.

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