One of Councilman Tony Daysog’s favorite sayings – for which he credits Chief Justice John Roberts rather than his mentor, the late Mayor Ralph Appezzato – is that, as a member of Council, his job is to “call balls and strikes.”
Now, it seems, with the newly elected Council in place, Mr. Daysog has decided to move out of his umpire’s crouch and step up to the plate himself.
During the process engineered by ex-Mayor Marie Gilmore to ram approval of the Del Monte development project through Council before she left office, Mr. Daysog was the lone naysayer. His main objection, he said, was the transportation demand management plan for the project, which he found “inadequate” in both its analysis of potential traffic impacts and its proposed measures for mitigating them.
But after voting against the Del Monte project Mr. Daysog didn’t stop. Instead, as soon as the new Council took over, he submitted a Council referral calling for preparation of a City-wide “comprehensive transit/traffic strategic plan and implementation tool.”
The Merry-Go-Round believes Mr. Daysog’s suggestion makes eminent sense. Here’s how we suggest Council proceed:
The first step would be to direct staff to collect and analyze data about the overall traffic impact of all of the development projects expected to be built over the next few years: the residential portion of Alameda Landing, the Del Monte warehouse and adjoining sites, Marina Shores (aka Marina Cove II), Boatworks, and, of course, Alameda Point. (Not to mention other projects that may surface for developing Encinal Terminals, the old Island High School site on Eagle Avenue, and the Shipways buildings in Marina Village).
When Mr. Daysog publicly bemoaned the absence of such aggregate data, City Planner Andrew Thomas admonished him that every developer already is required to analyze the “cumulative” traffic impact of a proposed project. And that is true: for all of the projects presented to the Planning Board thus far, one can find a traffic impact study (or similarly named document) that forecasts traffic conditions at specific intersections at a future date taking into account the growth that is expected to occur after the project is built.
The problem is, these traffic impact studies were done at different times for different projects, and they produce what, on the surface, appear to be inconsistent results.
For example, the Marina Shores traffic impact study (done in September 2012) predicts that, by the year 2030, absent any mitigation, traffic at three intersections along the northern waterfront will be “at capacity, with extremely long delays. Queues may block upstream intersections.” The Del Monte traffic impact study (done in March 2014) predicts the same result at the same three intersections by 2035, but it also puts two other intersections in the “F”-rated category.
Sure, you may say, the variance arises because the Del Monte study was conducted at a later date and covers a later period. But then how do you explain the traffic impact study for Alameda Point (done in September 2013) that, like the Del Monte study, focuses on traffic conditions in 2035 but assigns a failing grade to 10 intersections (four of them cited in the Del Monte study and six others)?
The simple explanation for these inconsistencies is that the different studies cover somewhat different geographic areas and make somewhat different assumptions about the future. All three studies we’ve cited start with the forecasts of future traffic volumes published in the Transportation Element Update Draft EIR. But that analysis was certified in 2008, so the studies have to adjust the forecasts to include development projects announced after that date. Not surprisingly, each study makes a different set of adjustments.
We don’t mean to criticize the work done by the consultants. But their assignment was confined to identifying the impact of a specific project on traffic conditions, now and in the future. None of them was given the task of presenting Council or the public with a comprehensive picture of the overall impact of all of the development projects now in the works or under consideration.
If that data is collected and analyzed, we’ll know exactly what the scope of the “problem” is. Then it’ll be time for policy choices.
The extreme positions are easy to imagine. There may be some who say that the overall traffic impact created by new developments is so great that Council should ban any future projects altogether. There may be others who say that the overall traffic impact, however great it might be, shouldn’t matter. Development is a good thing, they’ll argue, and clogged tubes and crowded streets are an acceptable price to pay.
These extreme positions should be debated – but we hope that neither of them will prevail. Instead, let’s assume that there will be some development creating some traffic impact. We’d hope that Council then would turn its attention initially to the relationship between the type of development and the severity of the impact.
Obviously, commercial development creates different traffic impacts than residential development. But the nature of the commercial or residential project is important, too. For example, compare a new office building that provides jobs for Alamedans to a new retail complex that seeks customers from the entire Bay Area. The former will cause less congestion at the tubes and bridges than the latter. Or, accept the assertion by housing advocates that apartment residents own fewer cars, and generate fewer automobile trips per household, than single-family homeowners. If so, assuming the need (or desire) for a given number of housing units, apartment complexes are the way to cut the associated traffic impacts.
The issue of the type of development to permit (or encourage) calls for Council to make a policy judgment. Some likely will argue that the “community” already has made that decision. We aren’t so sure. Whenever we hear that the “community” thinks a certain way, we wonder whether the speaker is referring only to the community of true believers of which he is a part.
And even so, why isn’t the decision worth revisiting? At one time, the objective for development at Alameda Point was supposed to be to provide more housing. (Some think it is still is). In recent years, we’ve heard even members of the former Council state that the goal has shifted to creating more jobs. And perhaps one of the reasons for the shift is that it is assumed, rightly or wrongly, that different uses produce different traffic impacts.
These kinds of policy decisions ought to be made before Council even gets to the mechanics of “transportation demand management” programs. But once we’re there, another host of policy issues arises.
To borrow a phrase from Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott, a TDM program takes a carrot-and-stick approach to mitigating traffic impacts – or, as the planners put it, to reducing “vehicle trip generation.” The “carrot” is to make public transportation more attractive. The “stick” is to make automobile ownership and use more onerous.
Thus, all of the TDM programs proposed so far – for Alameda Landing, Alameda Point, Del Monte and Marina Shores – offer free shuttles to BART. All but the Alameda Landing program also provide free passes for AC Transit buses. And the Alameda Point and Del Monte developments include space for use by car-share services like City Car Share and Zip Car.
As far as we know, no one objects to the idea of increasing public transportation. But, as a strategy for getting people to reduce their automobile ownership and usage, the effectiveness of this approach depends on how “convenient” these transit alternatives are. As City Planner Andrew Thomas conceded when discussing this aspect of the Alameda Point TDM plan, “It’s very hard to quantify how many people will actually use it. They may pay for it, they’ll get a pass, they’ll put it in their wallet, but will they really use it?”
Take bus service. The longer it takes to get from home to a bus stop, and the longer one has to wait for a bus to arrive after that, the less likely it is that a commuter will want take the bus to work. And unless the City wants to get into the motor coach business, it can improve bus service to Alameda only by cajoling the transit agency that provides it. AC Transit sent a representative to the December 2 Council meeting to report that it was “looking at” restoring a bus route along Buena Vista Avenue and expanding the trans-bay “O” line. But no promises were made.
Similarly, we hear a lot of talk about promoting the trans-bay ferries as a way to get San Francisco-bound commuters to stop driving to BART or – heaven forbid – over the Bay Bridge. (For example, Councilwoman Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft encourages people to follow the example of her husband, Howard, who bikes to the ferry terminal and then takes the boat to work). But it’s WETA – the Water Emergency Transportation Agency – not the City that controls the ferry service. And even the occupant of the “Alameda seat” on the WETA board, IAFF Local 689 president Jeff DelBono, can’t get the Board to spend money on a new ferry boat as if it was Council funding an emergency operations center.
The “stick” in a TDM plan usually involves parking. For residential developments, parking is “unbundled” – i.e., residents who want to park on-site have to buy or lease a parking space in addition to their condo or apartment. For commercial developments, parking is made scarcer and more expensive. This requires both limiting the number of on-site parking spaces and charging a fee for off-site, public parking.
Neither the Alameda Landing TDM nor the Marina Shores TDM plan includes “unbundled” residential parking. But it is a feature of the Alameda Point TDM program, and it was a feature of the original Del Monte plan. From the beginning, neighborhood residents rebelled at the idea, arguing that it would inundate adjacent streets with cars from Del Monte dwellers seeking to avoid the on-site parking charges. As one speaker told the Planning Board, “Giving the Del Monte residents the choice of buying a $30,000 parking spot, a $20,000 parking spot, or parking for free on the street, how many people will park on street?”
But the true believers insisted that “unbundled” parking was key to the success of the TDM plan. “Everybody needs to understand,” Mr. Thomas told the Planning Board, that, without unbundled parking, “you will likely increase the amount of traffic from the project, and you will likely decrease the use of transit services, and probably, depending on how much you increase it, reduce the number of car share spaces available.” And the Board’s self-proclaimed transportation guru, John Knox White, pronounced: “[T]he #1 thing we can do to address the concerns about traffic is unbundling spaces.”
Ultimately, a majority of the Planning Board agreed to a “hybrid” approach in which each unit would come with one parking space included in the price of the unit, but the owner/renter would be entitled to lease one additional space at a “market rate.” To some, this was a reasonable compromise between competing interests. To others, it was the worst of both worlds. But in any event it was a decision made by the Planning Board, not by Council. Unfortunately, the Board member who cast the deciding vote – union honcho Mike Henneberry – gave absolutely no explanation of his reasoning.
The “stick” to be waved at commercial users has gotten less attention, but it, too, has not received universal acclaim.
Of the two projects with significant commercial elements, Alameda Point is the one that has been chosen as the test case for a “parking management strategy.” (The Alameda Landing TDM plan contains no parking restrictions, and the project provides 1,117 parking spaces for retail customers). The Alameda Point zoning ordinance establishes maximum ratios for on-site parking at commercial buildings that may be increased only with Planning Board approval. And the TDM plan calls for the City to build publicly owned parking lots and garages – the plan shows seven locations – and charge visitors by the hour – at rates intended to discourage long-term parking – to park there. By design, this plan will offer 70 per cent less parking at the Point than the City’s “conventional” zoning otherwise would require.
When the Alameda Point parking plan was presented to the Planning Board, it drew a favorable response from the TDM devotees – except for Mr. Knox White, who complained that it “didn’t go far enough.” But other Board members, particularly Lorre Zuppan, pleaded for what she called a “more balanced” approach. Ms. Zuppan noted that one of the stated goals for Alameda Point was to reduce sales tax “leakage” by attracting commercial and retail businesses to the Point. What would be the impact on this goal, she wanted to know, if the City made it more difficult and more expensive for employees and shoppers to park there? “I don’t think it’s smart economically, and smart for the City, to implement” the proposed parking restrictions, she concluded.
Typically, Mr. Knox White dismissed these concerns out of hand. And the rest of the Board didn’t appear especially troubled by them, either. (By restricting parking, “we’re moving in the right direction,” Board president David Burton said). The Planning Board never actually voted to approve the TDM plan that included the parking restrictions, but, after review by the Transportation Commission, it was sent to Council, which discussed it for fewer than 10 minutes and then voted to accept it. No one brought up of any of the concerns raised by Ms. Zuppan.
Mr. Daysog’s proposal would require Council to decide the features a City-wide TDM plan should include. How big of a carrot can the City convince the transit agencies to provide – and how soon? How big of a stick can the City swing without undermining other goals? To answer these questions, Council would need to make judgment calls about the extent to which behavior modification is possible and trade-offs are tolerable.
Then there is the issue of monitoring and enforcement.
All of the proposed or adopted TDM plans call for annual monitoring in which, among other things, the actual number of trips generated by the project during peak hours is compared to the projected number to determine whether the plan is meeting the “vehicle trip reduction” goals set by the Transportation Element (10% for new residential developments and 30% for new commercial developments). But they differ on what happens if the monitoring shows that the goals aren’t being met.
This is the topic that most animated Mr. Daysog during the Council discussions of the Del Monte TDM plan. There were, he pointed out, no penalties for failure. He was right – but the TDM plans for the other recent projects don’t contain any penalties, either. Indeed, the Alameda Point TDM plan states that its drafters considered, and rejected, fines and the like in favor of “allow[ing] the plan to be self-enforcing.” If the current plan isn’t working, the remedy is “to prepare and implement a refined Plan with new or substantially revised strategies.”
This, too, is an issue calling for a policy decision to be made by Council. Physician, heal thyself, may not be the choice they make.
In the end, we hope that, by taking up Mr. Daysog’s referral, Council can avoid repeating the experience the last time a City-wide “strategic plan” for addressing the traffic impacts of development was on the table.
Back in 2012, the City obtained a grant from CalTrans to come up with such a plan. Staff retained a consultant, who prepared a 116-page report providing data about current and predicted traffic conditions, reporting on “best TSM/TDM practices” used in other cities, and evaluating specific TSM/TDM strategies. The report then set forth recommendations for the TDM programs a developer should be required to implement to meet a chosen “vehicle trip reduction” goal. The higher the target, the more the developer had to do.
When the consultant presented the report to the Planning Board, Mr. Knox White, newly appointed to the Board, subjected him to skeptical cross-examination. According to the minutes, the Board then voted to forward the plan to Council “for acceptance” followed by return to the Planning Board for “further refinement.”
The consultant’s work product never made it to Council. Nor did it ever come back to the Planning Board. “[W]e had a hard time figuring out what had happened here,” City Manager John Russo told us in response to our inquiry. “As best as I can tell, the Planning Board was none too happy with the quality of the report anyway so that may have been a reason for the inaction.” In any event, he suggested, “the recent uptick in the economy probably means that we need a more robust and up to date TDM plan than would have been considered adequate back in 2011 when the PW study was likely researched.”
Now, thanks to Mr. Daysog, maybe that time has come.
Marina Shores (aka Marina Cove II): Traffic impact study (Marina Cove II initial study & MND); TDM plan (2014-07-28 Ex. 4 to staff report to PB re Marina Shores -Transportation Plan)
Dowling & Associates TSM/TDM study: AlamedaTSM_TDM_Plan_FinalReport