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San Francisco Struggles to Finance and Build Livable Streets

0613_Folsom_PhotoSim_02_small.jpgFolsom Street simulation with elements of the Better Streets Plan. Photo: SF Planning Department

As San Francisco's Better Streets Plan (BSP) street design manual nears environmental certification, many questions remain about financing street maintenance and how all of the agencies responsible for the city's streets will work together to improve conditions for transit, walking, and bicycling, one of the primary goals of the three year BSP planning process.

The baseline problem of inter-agency cooperation is clear to the city, as evidenced by a Controller's Office study, commissioned in conjunction with the BSP, which is expected to be finished by February. In the
Controller's memo announcing the study [PDF], the office acknowledged the lack of a
formal framework "to allow and encourage City departments to negotiate
project prioritization and project designs and make necessary
compromises (at the department level) to support citywide goals. The
Transit First Policy, Better Streets Policy and the Complete Streets
Policy provide direction on the balance of transportation modes in the
public right of way however guidance regarding the implementation of these policies is absent."

For Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of the non-profit Livable City, a lack of coordination among the city family responsible for the streets is one of the major obstacles to making our city more livable. Citing reports on the failure of the agencies
to cooperate and improve the streets going back to the Willie Brown era [PDF], Radulovich said that even the boundaries of certain neighborhoods are different for different agencies. "SoMa to the Department of Public Works should mean SoMa to the MTA, and to Planning and to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority."

Some city leaders are confident the BSP will resolve these problems. At a forum hosted by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) this week, David Alumbaugh, Deputy Director of the San Francisco Planning Department, acknowledged that San Francisco's streets have fallen behind other world-class cities. "Our streets have simply become so degraded that we can’t consider ourselves leaders any more," he said.

One of the solutions, however, is formalizing the BSP and making sure that it is used diligently by all agencies when streets are renovated or repaved.

"There's been a trend in the past few years toward cities putting together and creating these street design manuals," said Planning's Adam Varat, one of the lead writers of the BSP, at the SPUR forum. "[They] are guiding documents for all users who make changes or improvements in public ROW (Right of Way) for how streets ought to be designed."

Varat pointed to a number of U.S. cities that have street design manuals that inspired San Francisco's. In Chicago's Streetscape Guidelines Booklet, Varat lauded the straightforward and consistent guidelines that ensure streets must be improved during construction and renovation, though he also cautioned the uniformity of those guidelines reflects Chicago's needs and might not be a fit for San Francisco, given the tenor of public involvement in street design and implementation here.

From Seattle's Right of Way Improvement Manual, Varat praised the simple online user interface with extensive data on street treatments and individual components. In New York City, Varat noted, the Street Design Manual looks at full ROW, not just sidewalks, though he said its
high level guidelines don’t drill down to specifics and it's not codified
and specific enough to make sure streets are built as recommended in the guidelines.

Good plans aside, how the city delivers street improvements will depend on the agencies all working together and thinking creatively, particularly with the current budget crisis. One of the first challenges the city will face is figuring out how to finance routine maintenance, let alone innovative street treatments that make up the BSP.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and Board of Supervisor's President David Chiu yesterday announced the creation of a Street Resurfacing Finance Working Group to identify a long term, sustainable and viable plan to fund the city’s street infrastructure.

In San Francisco, the average Pavement Condition Index (PCI) score is 63 of out a possible 100. The city needs $515 million over the next 10 years to prevent a decline and
$751 million to improve the condition of the streets. If the city can't identify funding, the PCI will drop to 57 over the next five years and to 53 over the next ten years.

“This is an extremely critical time for the future of our infrastructure," said Ed Reiskin, Director of the Department of Public Works (DPW).

Assuming the working group identifies funding, the next hurdle will be how to rebuild the streets without relying on old standards. As the Controller's study memo notes, "existing purchasing and contracting systems reinforce traditional design and materials motivated by risk and maintenance cost reduction. The city has a limited capacity for weighing the costs and benefits of a specific design, particularly novel designs."

DPW's Reiskin also pointed to the economic impact of good streets, saying, "San Francisco’s economy is dependent on our streets and public rights
of way; we must work together now to find a sustainable solution to
improving the condition of these valuable public assets."

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