Talking With Matt Nichols, Oakland’s New Transportation Policy Director
12:09 PM PDT on May 22, 2015
Matt Nichols is Oakland's newly hired policy director for infrastructure and transportation. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf created the position to shepherd her proposed reorganization of transportation planning, design, engineering, and construction into one department, and to oversee the creation of a cohesive transportation policy. Nichols has been in his new job for about two months, and he's excited about this chance to formulate policies to guide infrastructure.
"It's a new way to ask the question for Oakland," he said. “Up until now, transportation has been a maintenance issue. Arguments for changes on the city's streets have come from the grassroots/advocacy level, and gone upwards. To have the mayor directing transportation policy is a great thing.”
“You can transform cities just through policy,” said Nichols. “It takes a bigger vision of the city--this isn't just about carrying out projects.”
Last week Mayor Schaaf submitted a budget proposal that, among other things, would create a new Department of Transportation. The proposal lists principles for the new department: safe streets for all, great neighborhoods, transportation options, economic development, and sustainable infrastructure. Supporting these principles will mean creating bike-friendly, pedestrian-friendly, transit-friendly streets -- where now many Oakland streets are wide roads that parallel freeways and present unsafe conditions for people who are not in cars. Supporting these principles will require a major shift away from business as usual.
“One thing we have learned,” said Nichols, “is that you just can't build enough car infrastructure. That's because, one, there's not enough money, and two, it doesn't work anyway.”
His first two goals are to create a more effective system for delivering transportation projects, and to find new resources. The two goals are interconnected, as the creation of a “project delivery pipeline” will help the city obtain more funding.
Nichols' first step is to shepherd the mayor's proposal for a new Department of Transportation, which was submitted to the city council last week, through the public process. To encourage public input on the budget process, the city is holding public forums in different neighborhoods, and has created a website that includes comparisons and graphics to help people understand the proposal. The website and workshop also provide several ways for the public to comment on the budget.
The proposal for a DOT is considered “budget neutral” in part because it takes advantage of new funding from the recently passed Alameda County sales tax Measure BB to create new positions. But also because it involves a reorganization of existing duties and positions. “It's a little of both, but primarily it's a reorganization,” said Nichols. “We have a lot of good people. They're working primarily in the public works department, which is a very large department. Many of them work on multiple types of projects—they work on storm drains and sewer projects and buildings and transportation.”
“I think that transportation as a profession is changing dramatically over the years and there's not enough focus on it [in the public works department],” he said. “That's not to say there aren't a lot of other legitimate needs--all the things a public works department does can pull people's attention off transportation.”
“There's nothing tremendously revolutionary about a reorganization,” said Nichols, “but two things will make this substantially different. First, we are going to be adding some new people. We have funding for something like ten to twelve new people. That includes a new department director, but we also are very interested in using data and analytics, to look at asset management in a more modern way.”
“That's partly just to to be more efficient and partly to be more equitable, to make sure we're repairing things in all parts of the city fairly.”
A newly reorganized department will also be able to dedicate staff to working in partnership with other agencies, including AC Transit and BART. “Oakland has some amazing transit resources,” Nichols pointed out. “Every BART line goes through Oakland. We have more BART stations than any other city, and there are more bus lines running on Broadway in Oakland than on Market Street in San Francisco.”
“We also have a lot of bicyclists, and we have massive goods movement through the port and the airport. We have freeways running all through Oakland.”
“We are the transportation hub of the region, if you look at all those resources, and the city could do a much better job of having an active working relationship with all those outside agencies,” he said. “We're doing some things right. We're working together with AC Transit to develop Bus Rapid Transit, and we're working with BART on transit oriented development; but I think we could do a lot better.”
And then of course there's the question of street condition. “It's true that the paving condition is really bad,” said Nichols. “Cars can wreck their suspension systems on potholes, and bicyclists can go head over heels. I think we need some new traffic engineers to accelerate the amount of paving we do. And in doing that paving, especially in the design phase, we need to take the opportunity to do complete streets design, and build in pedestrian safety, and bicycle and transit facilities.”
“Transit is another piece that, even with Complete Streets, often gets forgotten.”
Building capacity by expanding and reorganizing the department will not only allow the city to focus on these issues, but will, says Nichols, also allow the city to attract more resources. “Funding agencies know the importance of Oakland as a regional system,” he said. “I think that when we really show the data, and strengthen our project delivery, we stand to really do well.”
Measure BB will already provide the city of Oakland with about $12 million per year in guaranteed funding for things like transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects, and street repair. “But we also are listed in the Alameda County expenditure plan for hundreds of millions of dollars in projects: transit-oriented developments, freeway fixes, streets, bicycle plan implementation. And that's where I see the biggest opportunity. We need to have a project development pipeline.”
The transportation funding system has been changing in the last few years, says Nichols. It used to be that a project would get all of its funding at once, and then it could take years to move toward the construction phase. “Now, you get funding for preliminary engineering, then you come back in two years for funding for environmental clearance, then you come back later for construction design, and then you come back for your construction dollars.”
“It needs to be a conveyor built,” said Nichols. “You don't just get the project funded because you described it nicely. You have to have staff working on the pieces, and marching it forward, and showing that you can build towards the construction phase.”
“I really believe that we can bring in more outside funding if we get our house in order in a way that can deliver more projects,” he said. “We've got a good staff now that do a lot. But I don't think it's optimized. I think the staff could really benefit from complete streets training. We need to coordinate our traffic signal staff with pedestrian safety work at schools. I think our paving program can work with the community more, and we'd get a lot more improvements out of the deal.”
One key necessity going forward, said Nichols, is that people need to be involved in the process. “I hope people come out to the public meetings,” he said. “The opportunities are huge, and it is going to take the community to be involved over the years. We know our streets need repaving, but what else can they do for us? How can be make them into safe community spaces? How do we improve transit? That is going to take everybody, because it will take tradeoffs. Changes are not something that the city can impose, it's something that everyone has to come to.”
“There's a lot happening in Oakland,” he said, “with new development, the growing real estate market, and the attractiveness of Oakland within the Bay Area. I think we need to keep up in terms of transportation to make sure that places function right and feel right. We need better streets, plazas, bike lanes, pedestrian areas; I think that will help attract more jobs, and will support the new housing that's coming.”
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