October 7, 2015

A Priority Development Area with plenty of problems in Newark

In the last issue of the Yodeler, Matt Williams, chair of the Bay Chapter’s Transportation and Compact Growth Committee, wrote about a sustainable development success story in El Cerrito (read the story here). In this issue, Matt writes about a Priority Development Area that doesn’t look as promising.

This photo of the development area shows the PDA won’t be fulfilling the requirement to be “infill”. Photo by Matt Williams.

This photo of the development area shows the PDA won’t be fulfilling the requirement to be “infill”. Photo by Matt Williams.

There is a Priority Development Area in Newark, near the Dumbarton Bridge, where the number of households is expected to grow from 138 in 2010 to 2,498 by 2040. This PDA is alternately known as the Dumbarton Rail Station Priority Development Area and the Dumbarton Transit Oriented Development Specific Plan. The centerpiece of the PDA is a not-yet-built railroad station for passengers headed to southern San Mateo County.

Initially, the plan was to make track and station improvements and to acquire passenger cars to connect Union City with Caltrain across the Bay, via the rail station planned for the Dumbarton PDA. Since then, the transit situation has deteriorated due to defunding by both by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Alameda County Transportation Commission.

The only other transit service in the area is one AC Transit bus line with a 45-minute headway (the time between buses), inadequate to the requirements of a PDA. There is no plan as yet to run the bus line with a 15-minute frequency during peak times, a requirement of the Regional Transportation Plan, Plan Bay Area.

The environmental documents prepared by the City over the past several years provide a wealth of troubling information about the area. A flock of concerned regional, state, and federal agencies have submitted comments about the proposed PDA on a host of issues including contaminated soil and groundwater, flooding and sea-level rise, and impacts on wildlife.

The California Regional Water Quality Control Board, in a comment made before the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was prepared, warned about contaminated soil and groundwater within the PDA, citing “high concentrations of chlorinated solvents, metals, flammable materials… phenols… [and] dioxins.” Many of these contaminants are left over from when the area was home to several industrial facilities. The Water Board comments go on to note that remediation, where residential development will occur, would have to be thorough. Newark was advised to have the EIR address the “potential threat to human health, water quality, and the environment from residual soil and groundwater pollution during…occupancy and use, based on a changed land use [to residential areas].”

The Water Board also recommended that the hazardous soil be removed to a depth of ten feet below grade at one site in the PDA. Hauling the soil out of the PDA would require about 19,000 truck shipments through populated sections of Newark.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency noted that the PDA is located in a flood hazard area and that all buildings must be raised on pilings and columns that are anchored to resist “flotation, collapse and lateral movement due to the effects of wind and water loads acting simultaneously on all building components.” Newark’s response was to propose raising the entire area with between 500,000 and 1,000,000 cubic yards of fill. Bringing in that much fill would require more than 50,000 truck trips, generating traffic and a large volume of greenhouse gases (which a PDA shouldn’t do).

The US Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service noted that the proposed development area is located near the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and that some bird species and the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse would be adversely affected. The City’s response regarding the endangered mouse is that a “protective cat-proof fence would be established separating the developed project site from any suitable salt marsh harvest mouse habitat.” One Service recommendation is that the City “consider building farther away from the baylands or analyze the potential need for additional flood protection from sea level rise scenarios.”

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) commented on sea-level rise and the safety of fills, noting that “local governments… should assure that new structures and uses attracting people are not approved in flood prone areas or in areas that will become flood prone in the future….” BCDC noted that, by the end of the century, the sea-level rise may be 55 inches. The mapping service of Our Coast Our Future makes it looks very much like projected end-of-century rise will flood a part of the PDA.

Earlier this year, Newark released a Final Environmental Impact Report on a proposed residential development within a section of the PDA. Curiously, if built, the housing would be 244 detached single-family residential units arranged in a street pattern that looks like it would generate more automobile trips, not curb them.

One other thing that stands out about the Dumbarton PDA is that it does not fit within the definition of a PDAs as envisioned by Plan Bay Area, That guiding document described PDAs as “transit-oriented, infill development opportunities areas within existing communities.” Besides the lack of transit, the Newark PDA is not “infill development” and there is no existing nearby community.

Newark’s Dumbarton PDA has enough troublesome issues that perhaps the best thing would be to cancel plans to develop the area altogether and follow the advice of the Fish and Wildlife Service by putting the housing and transit in another place. Regional grant funds would be better spent on other Bay Area PDAs, rather than on the inauspicious Dumbarton Rail Station PDA.

Want more? Follow @abetterbayarea on Twitter for the latest on sustainable communities in the Bay Area.

— Matt Williams, chair, Transportation and Compact Growth Committee

Club advocacy leads to partial win on community benefits for downtown Berkeley

Rendering of 2211 Harold Way in downtown Berkeley.

Rendering of 2211 Harold Way in downtown Berkeley.

In 2010, after negotiating promised community benefits for affordable housing, transportation, and open space, the Sierra Club took a bold stance to support the Berkeley Downtown Area Plan, which was passed by 64% of Berkeley’s voters under Measure R and formally adopted by the City Council in 2012. Since then, we have worked actively and effectively to ensure that these benefits translate from promises to reality. Though the achievement of greenhouse gas reduction targets through transit-oriented development is in and of itself a benefit to the environment, the Sierra Club did not stop there and has advocated for affordable housing, improved and accessible public transportation, streetscape and open-space improvements, and labor benefits for the workers who will be working on and in Downtown buildings.

As a Yodeler article published two years ago shows, the road to real community benefits has not always been a smooth one. However, through meetings with many members of the City Council, two carefully crafted letters, and a petition that was signed by hundreds of Berkeley’s Sierra Club members, we achieved some important wins in recent weeks.

On June 25, the City Council — by a vote of 8 to 1 — passed a “compromise” package of requirements that developers of four of the five tall buildings in the Downtown area would have to provide as “significant community benefits.” Significant community benefits were prescribed in Measure R for four Downtown buildings of up to 120 feet and three buildings of up to 180 feet, but until this meeting these benefits had not been defined.

What ultimately passed was a proposal by Councilmembers Droste and Moore that merged two competing proposals — one by Mayor Bates and Councilmember Capitelli, the other by Councilmember Arreguin. Under the compromise, developers are to submit a community benefits package to the City and follow one of two options:

  • Option A includes benefits related to affordable housing beyond the minimum requirements (the minimum is currently set at 10% on-site inclusionary housing at 50% of Area Median Income, or an in-lieu payment to the Housing Trust Fund of $20,000 for 10% of the market-rate units being provided); a project labor agreement; and at least one other benefit from several categories including arts and culture, streetscape and open-space improvements, sustainability measures beyond the minimum requirement of LEED Gold, or other investments such as in historical restoration or social services.
  • Option B instead sets a flat fee “predetermined by an independent financial consultant that would capture the highest reasonable value while maintaining financial feasibility of the project.” The developer would pay the fee into a city fund used to support various benefits as listed above.

Unfortunately, the first tall building in the pipelining process — the 194-foot 2211 Harold Way project — was exempted from this framework as the Council deemed it to be too far along in the permitting pipeline.  The project’s developer would pay a fee of $100 per square foot from 76 to 120 feet of the building, and $150 per square foot for 121 to 180 feet of the project. It remains an open question whether the developer will seek to reduce this fee if it proposes significant community benefits with the project (for example, a project-labor agreement with the building trades has already been signed).

The exemption of 2211 Harold Way and the relegation of streetscape and open-space improvements to just one possible community benefits option, rather than a required priority option, were two areas in which the proposal came short of the Sierra Club’s request. However, there is much to applaud in what was passed. Three Sierra Club priority elements — affordable housing, project-labor agreements, and an independent analysis of the heightened values of the entitlements and allowable costs that could be borne by the developer — were incorporated into the package that was ultimately approved, either as requirements or as priority options.

As the devil is in the details, the Sierra Club will continue to monitor the implementation of these significant community benefits to ensure they are consistent with what was passed — and with most of what we fought for.

—Igor Tregub, Conservation Committee Chair and Sophie Hahn, Conservation Committee Vice Chair for the Northern Alameda County Group

Northern Waterfront Initiative would fast-track further industrialization of Contra Costa

A ship likely carrying coal heads out through the Carquinez Strait toward San Francisco Bay. Photo courtesy John Halton.

A ship likely carrying coal heads out through the Carquinez Strait toward San Francisco Bay. Photo courtesy John Halton.

If you live in Contra Costa County, you may have heard of a massive effort called the Northern Waterfront Economic Development Initiative, which aims to re-industrialize the coastline along the Carquinez Strait. However, it’s more likely you haven’t heard about it, since it has been operating mostly behind closed doors, with minimal input from local residents.

Launched in 2013, this initiative is an economic development revitalization “framework” led by Supervisors Federal Glover and Mary Piepho, and targets the towns of Hercules, Martinez, Concord, Pittsburg, Antioch, and Oakley, as well as unincorporated Rodeo, Crockett, Port Costa, Mountain View, Vine Hill, Clyde, and Bay Point.

Contra Costa is already the second-most industrialized county in California, behind Los Angeles. Yet the Northern Waterfront Initiative is a 20-year plan to permanently transform our county and bring even more industry here. The plan has no targets for renewable-energy growth, no caps on cumulative emissions, and no goals for attracting sustainable businesses. When county staff were recently asked about the “green” industries they planned to develop, the only example they could give was carpet recycling. While this is technically “green” for the consumer, it would leave the dirt and chemicals in our community.

The Northern Waterfront Initiative has failed to include voices of residents living in the affected industrial areas, and has instead chosen to focus on institutional “stakeholders” like local government and business associations. Instead of working with the community, the Northern Waterfront Initiative treats us as an obstacle to be dealt with. Their “Competitive Assessment of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats” (9/30/13) admits as a “weakness” that “Residential land uses are incompatible with the needs of industry. Citizens in the area may protest more industry because their presence generally increases deleterious effects on the community such as traffic, noise and air pollution.”

In addition to affecting human health and safety, the Northern Waterfront Initiative also puts our coastline, water, and natural environment at risk. The plan itself is focused on water-intensive businesses. It includes a feasibility study to dredge the Carquinez Strait from Richmond to Stockton, from 35 feet to 38 feet. Funded by Contra Costa County, Western States Petroleum Association, and the Port of Stockton, the dredging would allow barges to fill to capacity with dirty commodities including coal and oil. Aside from increasing the amount of dirty fossil fuels that could be shipped through the Bay Area, dredging poses a number of additional hazards: it can increase salinity in the Delta (a shortsighted move during a drought), and it would release a century of buried toxins into our Bay.

The Northern Waterfront Initiative has projected various numbers of jobs it would create; one 20-year prediction was 5,000 jobs, another was 18,000 jobs. But what kind of jobs? And will workers want to live in an even more unhealthy and highly industrialized community? The Northern Waterfront Initiative is not a plan to transition away from the old fossil fuel economy, but just more “business as usual,” despite the well-documented fact that the transition to renewable energy is an opportunity for job growth. Stanford engineer Mark Jacobson has established that if California transitioned to 100% renewable energy, it would create over 450,000 jobs statewide.

According to British Petroleum’s 2014 annual report, there are only 53 more years of proven oil reserves left on the earth. When the oil refineries in Martinez, Rodeo, Richmond, and Benicia shut down, our towns will be left with massive polluted properties and no plan to replace them or transition those workers to sustainable employment. If fully implemented, the Northern Waterfront Initiative will affect our communities for decades to come, but it takes us in the wrong direction.

If you are interested in learning more, please attend our community forum sponsored by the Sierra Club and the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition (BARCC):

Saturday, August 15
10 am to 1 pm
Nick Rodriguez Community Center
213 F St, Antioch, CA 94509
A light lunch will be provided

For more information or to RSVP, please contact info@bayarearcc.org.

— Tom Griffith is a Martinez resident and member of the Sierra Club’s Mount Diablo Group Executive Committee; Pamela Arauz is an Antioch resident and member of the Sierra Club’s Delta Group Executive Committee.

A sustainable development success story in El Cerrito


El Cerrito’s PDA will feature buffered bike lanes like this as well as protected cycle tracks.

Members of the Chapter’s Transportation and Compact Growth Committee are reviewing Priority Development Areas (PDAs), which are a cornerstone of the $292-billion Regional Transportation Plan. The purpose of PDAs is to reduce car travel by focusing new residents into areas where the transit service is good and where people can easily walk or ride a bike to nearby destinations. Grants of planning money are available to get the PDAs off the ground.

This article will briefly review a PDA success story in El Cerrito. PDAs are complicated creatures, and in no way is this review meant to be comprehensive.

El Cerrito has two PDAs, and both run along San Pablo Avenue, the main street in the city. El Cerrito’s city government treats them as one combined development area (the San Pablo Avenue Specific Plan), and that is how they will be treated here, too.

According to the Association of Bay Area Governments, in 2010 there were about 1,200 households within the boundaries of the combined El Cerrito PDA. By 2040, the plan is to have about 1,000 more households in the same area.

Transit service in the area is good now, with bus service provided by AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit, Vallejo Transit, and WestCat. Along San Pablo Avenue, there is an AC Transit bus about every 7 minutes. There are two BART stations in the PDA too.

El Cerrito is moving forward to make things work for the expected new residents and to cut down on driving. First, the city asked developers what changes they would like to see made to make development easier. The city was told that the building height limit had to be increased and that the number of parking spaces required was too high. The City Council increased the height limit to 75 feet and cut down on the number of parking spaces required. In areas close to BART, the reduction in parking is greater than for housing units farther away.

The city is also working with the Contra Costa Transportation Authority and AC Transit to increase bus service along San Pablo Avenue. The first success was recently achieved when the 72 Rapid bus line began operating on weekends, not just on weekdays.

One of the volumes of the Specific Plan that serves as a guide for the PDA is titled “Complete Streets.” It lays out, over 90 pages, what’s needed to make the area more attractive for transit passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. One interesting feature is the way bicycles and buses will be kept apart from one another, with a special, separate bike lane.

There are other things that are necessary to make a PDA work, of course. Parks, schools, and shopping are important, too. It looks like El Cerrito has these elements under control and a successful PDA on its hands.
You can check out the San Pablo Avenue Specific Plan.

The next article in this series will review a PDA in Newark that unfortunately does not look as promising. Want more? Follow @abetterbayarea on Twitter for the latest on sustainable communities in the Bay Area.

— Matt Williams, Chair, Transportation and Comact Growth Committee

State Transportation Plan shifts focus to reducing greenhouse gas emissions

ctp2040_logo_new_445x197The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) earlier this year released its draft California Transportation Plan 2040 (CTP2040), a long-range policy framework that defines goals and strategies for the state’s transportation system. Comments have been accepted from the public, and after more work, a Final Plan will be issued late this year.

The document lays out some of the things that have to happen to meet Governor Brown’s 2012 executive order requiring that transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) have to be 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

CTP2040 is intended to shift the transportation system “from a focus on infrastructure, capital improvements, and delivery, to a more sustainable focus that supports economic prosperity in concert with GHG emission reductions.” Here Caltrans is signaling that in order to reach our goals, no more highway lanes should be built. CTP2040 makes this point in more than one place. It also states, “The need to reduce GHG emissions makes the case that adding automobile capacity is not the answer.”

This new focus is a huge change for California’s transportation vision! CTP2040 is clear on the magnitude of the change, too. The shift from building highways to a sustainable focus will, in the Plan’s words, “require a fundamental, holistic transformation of the transportation systems.”

A part of the transportation “systems” that need transformation are the County Congestion Management Agencies (CMAs), many of which continue to plan for and finance expansions of roadway capacity (widening arterial streets and building new freeways are examples). How quickly will CMA policy board members (typically, members of city councils and county boards of supervisors) respond to CTP2040’s notice that a “fundamental [and] holistic transformation” is required?

Besides the rejection of more highway construction, the plan notes several other things that have to happen to get to the 2050 GHG target. Among them is the elimination of all “emissive vehicles from California roads.” By 2040, the plan says, cars would have to be “zero- to near-zero-emissions vehicles.”

Even with cleaner vehicles, Californians will still have to drive less, meaning that transit needs to carry more passengers than today. That could happen through a combination of strategies, including increasing transit travel speeds, decreasing fares, and converting 20 percent of the bus routes in the state to Bus Rapid Transit (dedicated right-of-way bus routes to avoid traffic). High Speed Rail is presumed to be running by 2040. Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure also need to be improved.

Housing and land use is also addressed in CTP2040; the plan notes past practices have often led to an increasing reliance on cars. The goal now is to have people live in housing near transit — an approach sometimes called “transit-oriented development”. The Bay Area’s 2013 Regional Transportation Plan is attempting also to move in this direction, directing new development to areas that are walkable, bikable, and close to public transit.

In its early pages, CTP2040 references a quote from the 2013 statement titled “Scientists’ Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems for the 21st century,” signed by over 1,300 scientists worldwide:

“By the time today’s children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that Earth’s life-support systems, critical for human prosperity and existence will be irretrievably damaged by the magnitude, global extent, and combination of these human-caused environmental stressors, unless we take concrete, immediate actions to ensure a sustainable, high-quality future.”

It is encouraging to see this likelihood acknowledged in so important a document. CTP2040 is not perfect. One blunder is presuming that unbuilt highway-expansion projects (including some in the Bay Area) will go forward. An improvement would be to not build them at all. Getting to grips with GHG emissions now is critical, and despite such lapses, CTP2040 seems to take this imperative seriously.

— Matt Williams, Chair, Transportation and Compact Growth Committee

Transit-oriented development key to Warm Springs Priority Development Area

Warm_Springs_MapAfter reading the article on the Warm Springs Priority Development Area (PDA) in the April-May issue of the Yodeler, I pulled up my computer files from a decade ago. In April 2005, while co-chair of the Bay Chapter Transportation and Compact Growth Committee, I wrote comments on the BART draft environmental impact report for the Warm Springs extension. The Sierra Club comments recommended against award of federal funds for the project, citing the improbability of transit-oriented development at the site. A decade later, it is a relief to see that we were unduly pessimistic.

The City of Fremont has since proposed some transit-oriented development near the Warm Springs BART station, set to open later this year. Dense and mixed development near public transit increases the likelihood that residents will walk, bike, or patronize transit as they commute, shop, and otherwise go about their lives. Without transit-oriented development, the desired driving reductions (a key goal of PDAs) are unlikely to be achieved.

Of the 879 acres comprising the Warm Springs PDA, less than ten per cent are devoted to residences close enough to the station to cause drivers to convert to transit (BART and the buses that stop at the BART station). “Close enough” means about a three-eighths-mile (or five- to ten-minute) walk. Studies of how far passengers walk to transit show, with remarkable consistency, that half of them walk less than half a mile. Even before that distance, the fraction of residents who walk to transit shrinks dramatically. For commuters who bike to transit that distance will be somewhat greater. The land immediately adjacent to the station is where development must take place if we want to divert people from cars to transit.

The Warm Springs/South Fremont Community Plan places residences in three areas. One lies east of the BART station and is separated from it by the large BART parking lot and a major suburban arterial with five lanes and two bike lanes. Another lies to the north, alongside and west of an active Union Pacific Railroad freight line and separated from the station by another suburban arterial. The placement of these two residential areas is unlikely to discourage driving.

The third residential area offers the greatest potential for transit-oriented development. It lies west of the station, linked to it by a pedestrian bridge over the Union Pacific tracks. Unfortunately, the development as currently proposed fails to capitalize on this opportunity; almost half of the residences are over three-eighths of a mile walk from BART.

Commercial establishments are foreseen for the Warm Springs PDA, but the population base within walking distance is too small for them to compete in terms of price and selection with a regional Walmart just a short drive away. Denser, mixed development near the station would enhance both the health of local commerce and the likelihood that residents would patronize transit. Otherwise, car-free living and desired driving reductions are unlikely.

The recent Yodeler piece on the Warm Springs PDA draws attention to parking. The topic is complex and, I submit, broader than suggested in the article. It is correct that land close to the station should not be squandered on surface parking; the parking should be in a multi-level structure. The land would be better devoted to dense and mixed development appropriate to a PDA. But I disagree with the suggestion that more parking capacity should be recommended. In the sustainable city, automobile use is discouraged, not subsidized. Indeed, the Bay Chapter has long advocated that BART charge for parking.

Parking concerns exist as well in the new developments. The project developer contemplates provision of parking garages in its developments but makes no mention of pricing. Current environmental thinking is that the cost of parking should be unbundled from the cost of the residences. Owners and renters who do not possess automobiles should not have to pay for parking for neighbors who do. This distinction will become increasingly important if the trend among millennials not to own automobiles continues. An associated question is, does the City require a minimum number of parking spaces per unit? This holdover from the 1950s has no place in the sustainable community.

The Warm Springs PDA presents an opportunity to create a model of sustainable development and transportation. Current plans fail to exploit this opportunity.

— Robert Piper, PhD

Rally for Caltrain extension to downtown S.F.

Wednesday, June 24, 11 am
Polk Street steps of San Francisco City Hall
RSVP today!

transbay_terminal_renderingThe Sierra Club is cosponsoring a rally in support of the earliest-possible extension of Caltrain to the future Transbay Transit Center in downtown San Francisco.

The extension of Caltrain from its current Fourth Street terminal has been San Francisco policy since 1999 when the people voted for Prop H. It has been Sierra Club policy for even longer. The new bus terminal at the Transbay Terminal already includes the skeleton for an underground station within its structural base, with platforms for both for Caltrain and High Speed Rail. Getting the extension back on schedule will require funding commitments from San Francisco, the State, the federal government, regional agencies, and private sources. Join us at the June 24th rally to help secure this funding!

The completed Transbay Transit Center with a Caltrain connection will entice commuters who currently drive to work and play, and will provide tens of thousands of daily transit riders with highly efficient bus and rail connections. This will greatly reduce climate-change-causing greenhouse-gas emissions and congestion in downtown San Francisco.

Unfortunately, more delay is possible if we don’t speak up now. To make sure the extension is built without further delay, join us at the June 24th rally and show your support!

RSVP today!

Want to help with planning or have your organization co-sponsor the event? Contact Bob Feinbaum at bobf@att.net or call (510)534-7008.

For more information, read “The downtown Caltrain extension: vital to the future of the Bay Area“.

Letter from Sacramento: Smart ways to spend $10 billion

Photo courtesy  Peter Thoeny on Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo courtesy Peter Thoeny on Flickr Creative Commons.

A couple of weeks ago, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins shot an arrow into the air that has enlivened a perennial debate about how California can pay for its transportation system.

During a speech to a transportation organization and through a press release, the Speaker proposed a plan to raise $10 billion dollars over the next five years—about $2 billion a year—to “address the state’s transportation challenges.”

The funds would be raised by shifting some money around within the budget, and then establishing a new road user charge. Almost as fast as you can say “pothole”, I started receiving emails from Club members around the state who were asking me what the Speaker meant by this proposal.

Why so much interest by environmentalists?

First, transportation is one of the single largest sources of air pollution in the state. That includes the smog and other ground-level pollution that damages hearts and lungs, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions that disrupt the climate. There are 33 million cars and light- and medium-duty trucks registered in California, more than in any other state in the U.S. And that number doesn’t include the big heavy duty trucks that carry freight around the state.

Second, road congestion in many parts of the state has become nearly unbearable. As Speaker Atkins noted in her speech to the California Transportation Foundation, Californians annually waste nearly $19 billion in time and fuel while stuck in traffic. The average San Diego traveler can expect to spend 67 hours a year waiting in traffic, while the average San Francisco traveler can expect to spend 80 hours stuck in traffic.

Third, the way we use transportation is changing, and will continue to change. A new report by the federal Department of Transportation identifies some fascinating trends in travel habits. A few notable trends include that per-capita vehicle miles traveled has been declining nationally since 2006, even before the Great Recession began. There is no single reason for this trend, but one notable one is that millennials—people between the ages of 18 and 34—are driving much less.

Whether because of pollution, traffic, or less desire or need to move, everything points to needing to approach the transportation system differently than has been done in the past. The standard practice by transportation agencies, including our beloved CalTrans, has been to focus on building highways and heavily traveled, multi-lane surface roads designed primarily for automobiles. All the indicators say that standard practice will no longer work.

In California, the California Transportation Commission (CTC) estimated in 2011 that the state has about a $193 billion shortfall in the amount of money needed just to fix and maintain the transportation system through 2020. And that doesn’t include money to improve the system, especially bike, pedestrian and transit improvements.

Speaker Atkins’ proposal for raising $10 billion for highways, bridges and roads deserves attention. It won’t make a huge dent in the funding shortfall predicted by the CTC, but her proposal can make a difference in how California’s transportation system adjusts to the new realities. If that $10 billion is raised and spent the same way as in the past, it will be like throwing good money after bad.

But, if the funds are distributed in a way that, for instance, insures that local road improvements include fixing potholes and making them friendlier to transit, pedestrians and bicyclists, then the money will make a long-term difference for the better.

If the funds are used to establish more transit express lanes on roads and highways, they will make a difference.

However, if the funds are just spent to build some extra highway lanes, the new funding won’t mean much. It won’t get us clean air, it won’t ultimately reduce congestion (except possibly for a brief period after the new lanes open), and it won’t provide the kind of system that California needs.

The Speaker’s office tells me that details for the funding proposal, including whether the user charge will be a real user fee based on vehicle miles traveled or some other metric or just a flat fee, are still to be worked out. That’s fair. It’s early in the two-year legislative session.

Speaker Atkins did a good thing by presenting the proposal. Transportation funding isn’t an easy discussion and it takes nerve to lead the charge.

Now everyone, including environmentalists, will be trying to help direct where the arrow lands. If you have a good idea about how to raise or spend those dollars, let me know.

Kathryn Phillips
Director, Sierra Club California

For a sustainable Bay Area, tracking the viability of a key smart-growth program

Priority Development Areas shown in pink. Image courtesy of MTC, 2013.

Priority Development Areas shown in pink. Image courtesy of MTC, 2013.

This article is the first in a series about the Bay Area’s Priority Development Areas, or PDAs, and the Sierra Club’s efforts to ensure that this critical smart-growth program is implemented successfully and sustainably.

In 2015, the Bay Chapter’s Transportation and Compact Growth Committee will focus special attention on two related subjects: 1) working to make Priority Development Areas (PDAs) a success, and 2) attempting to shift the focus of county Congestion Management Agencies from congestion management to greenhouse-gas reductions.

PDAs, or Priority Development Areas, are areas targeted for infill development alongside public transit. Successful PDAs should be developed as “complete communities”—that is, they should provide amenities and services to meet the day-to-day needs of residents in a pedestrian-friendly environment. The goal of PDAs is to ensure sustainable housing growth even as the region’s population booms (by one estimate, the Bay Area will be home to an additional two million new residents by 2040). Successful implementation of the region’s PDAs should prevent sprawl, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provide affordable housing, and preserve open spaces.

PDAs are the core smart-growth program of Plan Bay Area, the region’s integrated land-use and transportation plan. The integrated approach to regional development was a result of the California Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008 (SB 375), which set regional emissions-reduction targets and required each region to develop a strategy to reach that goal. Plan Bay Area was the region’s roadmap to reaching required cuts to per-capita greenhouse-gas emissions of 7% by 2020 and 15% by 2035; and to sustainably house the influx of new residents.

Thus, the 2013 Regional Transportation Plan (Plan Bay Area) was, for the first time, the joint responsibility of the transportation agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), and the land-use and housing agency, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). As noted in Plan Bay Area, to meet the requirements of SB 375, “Plan Bay Area directs more future development to areas that are or will be walkable and bikeable and close to public transit, jobs, schools, shopping, parks, recreation and other amenities.”

This summer, the Sierra Club and Communities for a Better Environment settled a lawsuit brought against MTC and ABAG, the agencies in charge of Plan Bay Area. The lawsuit alleged several areas of concern with regard to the Plan’s ability to meaningfully address its stated goals of reducing climate change; securing the health and safety of vulnerable communities; and promoting sustainable growth. A key concern was the viability of PDAs in the first iteration of Plan Bay Area. The Sierra Club and others were troubled by the fact that some PDAs have little or no access to public transit, and that there was no guarantee as to what to expect in the future in terms of the provision of adequate service. Further, several PDAs are vulnerable to earthquake hazards or flooding from sea-level rise, while others potentially pose a risk to nearby natural resources.

One of the agreements reached in the settlement is that there will be an analysis of PDA performance before the next update of Plan Bay Area in 2017. The Sierra Club will support PDAs that ABAG and MTC demonstrate are likely to be successful. But if a particular area has flaws that suggest it will not be viable as a PDA, then it is not unreasonable for the responsible agencies to consider taking the area off of the PDA list and to stop providing funds to support its development.

MTC and ABAG have now begun work on developing the successor to Plan Bay Area. It will be interesting to see the PDA analysis as the new plan is assembled.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, which will appear in the April-May 2015 issue of the Yodeler. The next article will review two East Bay PDAs: one that looks like it will be a success, and another that has several troublesome factors.

— Matt Williams

The downtown Caltrain extension: vital to the future of the Bay Area

DTX project sketch map (1)In keeping with the Sierra Club’s principles, the San Francisco Bay Chapter’s Transportation and Compact Growth Committee wants to make the Bay Area a less automobile-dependent, less greenhouse gas-emitting, less congested, and more equitable place to live and work. One important project that would go far toward helping the Bay Area achieve these goals is not getting the attention—or funding—it deserves. That project is the planned 1.3-mile extension of Caltrain from its existing terminal at 4th and King to the future Transbay Transit Center in downtown San Francisco.

Adding Caltrain service to the spacious regional-transit center at First and Mission Streets will bring the new terminal to life and greatly improve connections among over 50 bus and rail lines. With Caltrain, the Transbay Transit Center will become the largest and most important nexus of transit lines in western North America—truly fulfilling its promise of becoming the Grand Central Station of the west.

The Bay Area has waited a long time for Caltrain’s downtown extension. In 1999, 69% of the San Francisco electorate voted for the extension of Caltrain to a downtown regional transit center.  Construction on the Transbay Transit Center itself is proceeding rapidly and completion is expected in 2018. Platform space for Caltrain (and eventually high-speed rail) is being provided on a lower level of the Center. Unfortunately, San Francisco’s politicians have been slow to pick up on the importance of the Caltrain connection, and funding has languished to the point where construction on the extension has been delayed.

When completed, the extension will connect the east-west BART and Muni Metro subways under Market Street to the 78-mile north-south Caltrain, running to Silicon Valley and San Jose and later, via high-speed rail, to the Central Valley and Southern California. With Caltrain extended and underground pedestrian links in place between the Transbay Transit Center and the Embarcadero BART Station, San Francisco’s new downtown transit hub will directly serve eight rail lines (Caltrain, BART, and Muni lines J, K, L, M, N, and F), as well as Muni, AC Transit, SamTrans, Golden Gate Transit, and other bus lines. The new terminal will be within easy walking distance of a 400,000-person employment center and over 10,000 new housing units.

The Caltrain connection will make every line serving the transit center more useful to more people. This, in turn, will encourage more transit-oriented development, both near the terminal and near other stations along the affected lines. The transit center’s value is already widely recognized, as evidenced by the astonishing amount of new high-rise construction that has sprung up in its immediate vicinity.

As with any large public project, Caltrain’s downtown extension needs significant funding commitments—in this case from high-speed rail and other state entities, as well as federal, regional, local, and private investment. Here’s a roundup of funding sources that have, or should, come through for the Caltrain extension:

  • State: High-speed rail will share Caltrain tracks and station facilities, substantially raising the costs of both the transit center and the Caltrain extension. Despite this, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has so far contributed nothing to the project.
  • Federal: The MTC has belatedly placed the Caltrain Downtown Extension in line for Federal New Starts funds, but this funding will come sooner if it’s backed by strong expressions of local support.
  • Regional: Caltrain’s extension will require toll-bridge revenues from the Bay Area Toll Authority and other regional funds. The MTC now has a new opportunity to help accelerate the construction of this vital transit-integrating facility.
  • Local: San Francisco’s contribution to the project has so far amounted to a miniscule 2.8% of the total budget, compared to its 34.8% contribution to the low-ridership Third Street/Central Subway project. A greater commitment from the City is warranted.
  • Private: Nearby landowners who benefit from the transit center have agreed to take part in a special Mello-Roos Improvement District Tax to fund the Caltrain extension and other related infrastructure needs. While some developers are now objecting to the new taxes, the city has not backed down.


The completed Transbay Transit Center with a Caltrain connection will provide tens of thousands of daily transit riders with highly efficient bus and rail connections. To make sure the extension is built without further delay it is essential that the public voice strong support for the project. Make your views known! Share this story with your friends. Write or call the MTC, Mayor Edwin Lee, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Peninsula Joint Powers Board (Caltrain), and your favorite newspaper or media outlet. Tell them to get behind the Caltrain extension project.

—Jerry Cauthen and Peter Lydon, members of the Bay Chapter Transportation and Compact Growth Committee