Rail~Volution: All-Things-Rail Conference Comes to San Francisco

Press-Release-Header-1200x565Some 1,200 planners, engineers, managers and transit journalists crowded into the San Francisco Hyatt Regency this week for the Rail~Volution conference. From the conference press release:

The…conference brings together thought leaders and innovators to discuss the relationship between public transit and land-use, examine best practices in transit-oriented development, and look at how to maintain diversity and inclusion in the face of a changing urban landscape. With 22 mobile workshops and over 75 thought-provoking presentation and discussion sessions, the conference goes beyond the traditional sit-and-listen experience. Workshops will focus on such topics as “Anti-Displacement: Tools for Preserving Affordability Near Transit,” “Hot Topics in Streetcar Systems” and “All Hail Car Sharing! Shared Use Mobility From an Environmental Perspective.” Other sessions include “Two Wheels Are Better Than Four: Expanding Your Network Through Bicycle Connectivity” and “Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Smorgasbord: Three Cities Dish on Their BRT Experiences.”

Yesterday morning’s plenary session featured SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin. He welcomed the attendees, who came from all over North America. The morning session focused almost entirely on housing cost and supply issues–and transit’s role in solving them. “We can really think about how and what we do can address those challenges,” said Reiskin. “Not to say transportation and planning are magic bullets, but I do think they can and should be part of the solution and we should use a lens of not just how can we make our cities more livable, but can we make our cities more livable for everyone?”

That tack continued with a chock-full-of-data presentation by Kim-Mai Cutler, journalist and columnists for TechCrunch. She explained that Eichler-built, single-family homes were once available to working-class families in the Bay Area. “In 1950, a home in Palo Alto was 1.5 times the median income, or about $9,400,” she said. “Today if you looked at an Eichler, it’s more than $2 million.”

Ed Reiskin welcomed attendees from all over the country to San Francisco. Photo: Streetsblog

That means homes are now completely out of reach for Bay Area fire fighters, teachers, and basically anybody who’s not at the top of the salary range. Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, spoke along similar lines. “We need to build. We have simply stopped building enough supply for it to affect the price. We are decades behind,” he said. He and other speakers took pot shots at Howard Jarvis, the businessman and politician who brought us Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that slashed property taxes. “Howard Jarvis was the guy who pioneered the free lunch,” he said. “It fiscalized our land-use policy. Housing became a loser, and auto-sale malls became a winner,” he said, since governments had to turn to sale tax to gain any revenue, “and we have been dealing with that vexing problem ever sense.”

Still, Heminger, Cutler, and other speakers were positive about the outlook for the Bay Area, pointing out that many of the problems–such as housing and the overcrowding of BART–are also a function of economic success. As they put it, the reason there’s so much demand for housing is because high-paying jobs have attracted so many people to the region. “The innovation of Silicon Valley is not a bad thing–but we have some catching up to do,” he said. “But I’d rather be catching up with economic development” than not having it in the first place.

After the plenary, attendees broke off into various panel discussions. Yesterday morning in the 10 a.m. slot alone there were ten different concurrent panels covering everything from housing displacement to transit-oriented development, to how to make transit work in suburbs. It was bewildering for even the most seasoned conference goer trying to figure out what to attend.

Streetsblog decided on a panel discussion about transit-station improvements. Tim Chan, Manager of Planning for BART, talked about strategies for improving lighting, access, escalators, and way-finding in BART stations. “We’re looking at greatest needs that can be done in a systemic way. For example, our PA system is god awful–we just have to find the money to fix it.”

Beth Peterson, an architect from Seattle, talked about work to improve Vancouver’s Skytrain Metro system. As with BART, Vancouver has built extensions that increased ridership–and now is faced with overcrowding at the downtown stations, since they were designed with a smaller system in mind. But that’s challenging: “Construction has to keep trains running and get trains running better,” she explained. In Vancouver the strategy was to build totally new, wider staircases and access ways before closing the old ones, which were then also widened and improved in a second phase of construction. They also added wide glass weather screens to the outsides of the elevated stations and improved lighting.

So how is the overall conference shaping up so far?

“What I’ve seen so far has been great,” said Tom Radulovich, President of the BART Board and Executive Director of Livable City, in a side interview with Streetsblog. “The first Rail~Volution I went to was in Portland in 1998–radical ideas are increasingly becoming establishment ideas…such as Transit Oriented Development, which is now best practice.”

Tom Radulovich, President of the BART Board, having a coffee in the reception area of Rail~Volution. Photo: Streetsblog

There was as much value to the intersession breaks, where presenters and attendees could grab coffee, compare notes, exchange business cards, and speak with vendors. Representatives from Caltrain were there recruiting engineers and planners to help with the electrification project. Sportworks from Woodinville, Washington presented some bike rack hardware, designed to go inside train cars. BART, now that bikes are permitted at rush hour, should definitely check them out. Streetsblog will try to steer Radulovich to the booth.

Sportswork, a company based in Washington State, builds bike racks for trains. Photo: Streetsblog
Sportswork, a company based in Washington State, builds bike racks for trains. Photo: Streetsblog

Santa Rosa-based LifeGuard Systems was there too, selling safe-hit posts and other safety hardware. It seems a shame with the $545 price tag to attend the conference, members of the guerrilla safety agency, SFMTrA, probably didn’t get a chance to chat with them about buying more safe-hit posts. Thank goodness transit journalists, including Streetsblog SF and Streetsblog Denver, get free admission.

  • davistrain

    The mention of Howard Jarvis and Prop. 13 reminded me of back in the early 1970s or maybe the 60s, when my mother, who was an elementary school teacher in Monrovia, told me about Election Day when the school was used as a polling place. She commented on seeing “all the little old ladies hobbling down to the polls to vote NO on school bond measures because they didn’t want to be taxed out of their modest homes.”

  • xplosneer

    I’d be okay with some sort of adjustment based on income for just these sort of people, but Prop 13 is really broken.

  • RichLL

    Did your mother also mention that back in the 1970’s some California cities were doubling the property tax take year-on-year? Prop 13 wasn’t approved (by a landslide) in isolation but rather was a popular revolt by ordinary people against massive greed on the part of politicians.

    And did she also mention that even with Prop 13, property tax revenues have increased by an average of 7% a year since 1978. That, together with the highest rates of state income, sales and capital gains tax in the nation, all indicate that California does not have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem.

  • Transit-oriented development was a radical idea? Really? Sounds pretty logical to me, not radical. Then again…El Cerrito Plaza was a 1950s strip mall that was replaced in the early millennium with an even bigger, car-oriented strip mall. Station is surrounded by a huge parking lot. Zero housing added.

    Here’s an even more radical idea. Build mass transit where people currently use it the most. Geary should have had a subway decades ago, but it’s good to know that a massive suburban station will soon be opening in South Fremont, over 5 miles from the nearest station.

  • In 1950, you didn’t have Chinese nationals coming in and buying up homes in the Sunset with cash like they do today. “Redone” home on Rivera/29th is on the market for $1.4M. You really think the average SF household earns enough to pay that mortgage? No. More like a foreign investor dumping money in SF.

  • JustJake

    Prop 13 broken? More accurately the MTC is broken. How in the world did we end up with Steve Heminger at MTC, appointed, since 1993? It’s really no surprise the result is a rogue agency with little accountability. End the Heminger fiefdom. Let’s get a fresh perspective and lose the gatekeeper/purse-holder that wants to be the regional czar.

  • RichLL

    xplosneer, There are already provisions that help older people. The property tax basis becomes transferable past a certain age (65 plus?) allowing seniors to move without losing their Prop 13 basis. And cities can take a property lien in lieu of property tax if a senior has a valuable home equity but no cash to pay the property tax.

    But the word “broken” there is very subjective. I’d say that the prior system, where a senior on low income could see his or her property tax bill double from one year to the next, is what would constitute being “really broken”.

    More generally, any tax that is based on the value of an asset is subject to the same problem – there is no guarantee that the owner of that asset has any cash to pay the tax. Which is why almost all taxes are based on transactions and not on “wealth”. Indeed, a direct wealth tax in the US would require a constitutional amendment.

  • xplosneer

    Fair enough, and I’m definitely not arguing for a full scale return to pre-19. Thanks for the info regarding those provisions.

    I have a question: How does Prop 19 work with landlords and large properties? For example, how often would a 100-unit complex get reassessed and how would that skew tax income on renters vs owners? After some thought, I’m mostly concerned with fairness between these two groups rather than the total tax revenue.

  • xplosneer

    I’m actually not familiar with the board at MTC but I’ll look into this.

  • RichLL

    I assume you mean Prop 13, not Prop 19.

    I don’t believe the number of units affects property tax. I’ve never owned more than a 4-unit but I’m not aware that it matters. If it’s one property (i.e. one title) then there is one property tax bill and Prop 13 applies the same as anywhere else.

    If the building is condo’s then each unit has its own property tax bill and Prop 13 basis.

    That said, a building with 100 units is much more likely to be owned by a corporation, and there is a loophole whereby the corporation that owns the building can be sold without the change of title that would normally trigger a Prop 13 revaluation. Effectively the building is regarded as not being sold – only the entity that owns the building.

    So in practice commercial buildings can enjoy the full benefits of Prop 13 as well as residential buildings.

  • xplosneer

    Yes, sorry.

    Nice to know about the transfer requirements, but what level of upgrades trigger a reassessment? Because if the level for reassessment is something that has to be done anyways every few years just to keep the units livable then that’s going to be a lot closer to market rate more of the time.

  • RichLL

    If you make upgrades to your building and obtain the permits that you should do, then the value of those upgrades is added to your property tax basis.

    So for instance a new 50K kitchen would add 50K to the Prop 13 cost basis, and the property tax would increase by about 1.2% of 50K, $600 a year.

    Cynical souls suggest that that is one reason why many upgrades are done without permits. After all, nothing is being added – there was one kitchen before and there is one kitchen after.

    Also note that on average a CA property changes hands every 7 years. So the alleged Prop 13 “problem” is no way as serious as some claim



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