Missing from the agenda

Although you won’t find it described this way in the official agenda, City Council will be asked Tuesday night to take a giant leap of faith by approving a set of planning documents for Alameda Point that does not include a detailed traffic mitigation plan.

It always has been clear that development at the former Naval Air Station, however it is configured, will produce “significant” impacts, however they are measured, on traffic on the Island.

But only since last September has it become clear – at least to us — that staff’s “primary,” if not exclusive, solution to this problem can be expressed in three words: Traffic Demand Management, or “TDM” for short.

As the planning documents to be presented to Council make clear, staff believes that the best way to reduce the traffic impacts caused by development at the Point is to reduce automobile usage by those who will live and work there.  Widening streets or otherwise catering to drivers won’t do the trick.  And staff is convinced that, short of an outright ban, the best way to reduce automobile usage is to adopt what the City’s consultant calls a “robust” TDM program designed to “get people out of their cars.”

As City Planner Andrew Thomas, echoed by Planning Board member John Knox White, has bluntly declared, the choice is between TDM – or no development at all.

With TDM playing such a key role, one would have expected that, in addition to the other planning documents Council will be asked to approve, a detailed TDM plan for Alameda Point would have been included in the package available for Council members – and the public – to review.

But it was not.  Nor was it included in the package of documents presented to, and approved by, the Planning Board on January 13.  In fact, Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott told the Merry-Go-Round, the draft TDM plan will not be made public until March.

At the most recent Planning Board meeting, the unavailability of even a draft for review troubled two Board members – Dania Alvarez-Morroni and Lorre Zuppan – but not enough to cause them to vote against okaying the planning documents and sending them along to Council without one.  And it’s entirely possible that the current Council will approve those documents without even noticing the omission of a detailed TDM plan.  But, if they do, their constituents ought to know the bet that their elected officials are placing.

Let us be clear:  We don’t contend that City staff has been “hiding the ball” about how it proposes to solve the traffic problem at the Point.  In fact, when Mr. Thomas presented the draft EIR to the Planning Board last September, he explained that TDM was the “primary mitigation” for the traffic impacts identified in the document.  Since then, the City’s consultant, a firm called Kimley-Horn Associates, has made multiple presentations about the TDM concept to the Planning Board and the Transportation Commission.

No, our concern is not “transparency,” but efficacy:  Should Council and the public take it on faith that, thanks to TDM, Alamedans will not wake up some day in the near or distant future to discover that development at the Point has caused an intolerable traffic mess on the Island?

To be sure, the politicians are not being asked to leap blindly into the unknown.  The staff reports and presentations by Kimley-Horn’s Jim Daisa have outlined the features a TDM plan for the Point will contain:

  • Every new homeowner and business will be charged a fee to pay for the services provided by the plan;
  • At the outset, developers also will be required to subsidize the cost of providing those services;
  • The plan will make available “alternative” modes of transportation, such as shuttles, buses, and water taxis from the Point to BART and AC Transit; car and bicycle “share” programs, and, later, ferries to Oakland or San Francisco;
  • Parking will be limited – and expensive.
  • The goal is to reduce “peak hour” trips from new residential development by 10% from the baseline established in the EIR and “peak hour” trips from new commercial development by 30% from the baseline

Although neither staff nor the consultants are ready to reveal precisely how these elements will be incorporated into a TDM plan for Alameda Point, they have expressed confidence that such a plan will prevent the traffic nightmare scenario.  Indeed, so convinced of ultimate success was Mr. Thomas that he acceded to Mr. Knox White’s request that the word “speculative” be excised from all references to the TDM plan:

We believe transportation demand management can and will work.  It has and does work in other cities in this country.  So we are firmly behind it.  The General Plan requires it.  And if TDM is speculative, all the projections forward 30 years are speculative.  It’s a dangerous term, it’s a slippery term.

If the Council members were so inclined, they could overlook the absence of a detailed TDM plan simply based on assurances such as these.  It wouldn’t be the first time this Council deferred to staff.

And yet . . . .

The evidence presented about the effectiveness of TDM programs has been largely anecdotal.  “TDM is in place in virtually every municipality in some form or another,” Mr. Daisa told the Transportation Commission.  “There’s thousands of examples you just don’t hear about.”  (He offered to provide copies of case studies, but no one jumped to take him up on his offer).

Unfortunately, there is no track record of TDM plans, “robust” or otherwise, having succeeded in Alameda.  In fact, the only comprehensive TDM plan ever adopted in the City is the one for Alameda Landing.  It wasn’t implemented until just recently — and the very first report of its results isn’t due until October.  We can’t help but wonder whether, and in what ways, the typical TDM plan must be adapted to adjust to an island served only by two tubes and three bridges.  To paraphrase the standard prospectus disclaimer, past performance elsewhere may not guarantee future results at Alameda Point.

Moreover, as we noted when staff and Kimley-Horn first introduced the concept, the success of a TDM plan for the Point hinges on “self-selection” and behavior modification.

As Mr. Thomas candidly admits, the planners are seeking to draw to the Point residents and employees who espouse, if not an outright aversion to automobiles, at least a heartfelt affinity for public transportation.  For those outside this demographic, the TDM concept relies on financial incentives – and disincentives – to nudge them toward more enlightened behavior.

Mr. Thomas is surely correct that, if the development attracts only the “right” kind of people, even a less than “robust” TDM plan might put an end to our traffic worries.  But suppose the City can’t find enough mensches to fill all 1,425 homes and all 9,000 jobs planned for the Point.  Then the details of the TDM plan’s design become decisive.  For example,

  • Exactly how do you set the fees for providing services like shuttles, buses and water taxis? (“Let’s make Google pay through the nose if it wants to send one of those monster buses to pick up workers from our site”?)
  • Exactly how do you charge for parking in the few areas in which it is permitted? ($5 a month for Smart Cars, $500 per month for Escalades?)
  • Exactly how do you penalize residents or employers who insist on doing things their own way?  (“Take the bus or we’ll revoke your shopping privileges at our Waterfront Town Center boutiques”?)

One need only consult the architects of Obamacare to recognize that questions like these matter.  Health care reform will succeed only if enough young people choose to get insurance (there’s the self-selection) and if the penalties for not getting – and, in the case of employers, not providing  — insurance are high enough (there’s the financial disincentive).  For Obamacare, we know the specific methods chosen to induce behavior modification.  For the Alameda Point TDM plan, details about who pays how much for what are yet to come.

Finally, the one issue that always seems to get swept under the rug is the trade-off between a “robust” TDM plan and the City’s economic goals.

We’ve alluded to this issue before, and it has been raised several times during Planning Board meetings.  As Board members Alvarez-Morroni and Zuppan have reminded their colleagues, the primary economic goal proclaimed by City Manager John Russo for development at the Point is to increase sales tax revenue and thereby eliminate what he calls “sales tax leakage” from the City.  But sales taxes require sales, and sales require retail stores, and retail stores require customers – and not just customers who already live on the Island or who will come to live at the Point.

At first glance, reducing automobile usage and increasing retail sales would seem to be difficult to accomplish at the same time.  If the TDM plan makes parking scarce and expensive, it might deter customers from coming to Alameda Point from elsewhere in the Bay Area to do their retail shopping.  But if the economic strategy requires attracting these off-Island customers to the Point, it might end up generating automobile trips that will clog the City’s streets even further.

Now, maybe there is a way to design a TDM plan for Alameda Point that will resolve this conundrum.  When Planning Board chair Burton inquired last September about reconciling traffic reduction and retail sales growth, Mr. Daisa assured him that Kimley-Horn “will be developing special strategies for that element because it’s going to be different than office.” But it would have been nice to know, before Council approves the basic planning documents, what those strategies consist of.  We’d even bet that Mr. Russo himself would be interested in the answer.

The Merry Go-Round doesn’t question the sincerity of the faith held by Mr. Thomas or others in TDM’s ability to solve the traffic problems created by development at Alameda Point.  Nor do we blame staff and its consultants for trying to bring Council, and the public, to the same altar.  But City Hall isn’t St. Peter’s.  So it would show no disrespect for any public commenter – or even an elected official — to subject the sermon preached by the TDM evangelists to a healthy dose of skepticism.


September 9, 2013 Planning Board meeting: 2013-09-09 staff report to PB re EIR

September 25, 2013 Joint City Council and Planning Board meeting: 2013-09-25 staff report re EIR

September 30, 2013 Joint Planning Board and Transportation Commission meeting: 2013-09-30 staff report to PB & TC re planning documents inc. TDM2013-09-30 ex. 8 to staff report (TDM)

December 11, 2013 Transportation Commission meeting: 2013-12-11 staff report to TC re TDM2013-12-11 Ex. 1 to staff report to TC — TDM Plan2013-12-11 Ex.2 to staff report to TC re TDM — Off Street Parking

January 13, 2014 Planning Board meeting: 2014-01-13 staff report to PB re planning documents

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in Alameda Point, City Hall, Development and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Missing from the agenda

  1. Ingrid says:

    Where do John Russo and Jennifer Ott live? I’m wondering if they have ever tried to get on or off the island during rush hour (or even school age kid drop off/pick up “rush hour”)?? It’s insane. How can we possibly fit another 100 people on the island, least the let however many thousands they are proposing on the point (and for other developments all around the island). I don’t know who is greasing who, or what kind of career legacy these people think they will be leaving, but my five year old has easily figured out (on his own) that there are too many cars and people here in Alameda. Maybe he should run for City Council.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s