Blog: April, 2011
Which Transportation Projects Will We Give up on to Help Reduce Emissions?
Tomorrow, April 27, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) will vote on a final Committed Funds and Projects Policy for Plan Bay Area. This policy mouthful is an important step in defining which regional transportation projects will receive funding and which ones must undergo more thorough analysis. The vote will determine how many transportation projects will be scrutinized for their impact on greenhouse gases, driving, economic growth and other factors. Affected projects in could include highway widening, the Oakland Airport Connector and BART to San Jose.
The issue before the MTC: deciding which projects are so far along that they shouldn’t be analyzed yet again under new criteria. The projects that are not further analyzed are considered “committed” and will be automatically included in the next Regional Transportation Plan. These committed projects will be included in all scenarios projecting the Bay Area’s future growth.
What’s different this year: the next Regional Transportation Plan will be the first one finalized since the passage of Senate Bill 375. That means this plan is supposed to help meet our region’s goal of reducing greenhouse gases from driving by 15 percent per capita. That’s harder to achieve if we don’t evaluate whether or not our investments encourage people to drive.
Wednesday’s vote will set a final policy for how to count a project as committed. In the last Regional Transportation Plan — done in 2009 — 70 projects were designated as committed. This year, if the MTC adopts the recommendation of its Planning Committee, only 14 projects will be considered committed and not analyzed further. Even though the committee made this recommendation in a 5-3 vote, the full Commission has the final say and can select a different approach, which means this is still a very live and important issue.
There are several major options up for consideration. Option 1 (36 projects committed) says projects are committed after they certify their Environmental Impact Report. Option 2 (14 projects committed) says a project is committed only after construction has started. In general, transit advocates like our friends at TransForm favor the later date (i.e., Option 2).
SPUR has endorsed a slightly different — and we think more nuanced — approach to this policy debate. We argued that using just the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) cutoff is inappropriate because many EIRs are old and project cost often skyrocket after they are approved. As the MTC notes in its analysis, after the environmental phase, transit projects typically rise 50 percent in cost and highway projects rise 30 percent.
In a letter to the MTC, we proposed that a project be considered committed if it is either:
1. already under construction or
2. has a certified EIR less than 5 years old and the estimated project costs have not grown by more than 5 percent per year since EIR certification.
We didn’t support Option 2 because it would cast too much uncertainty over projects that have spent many years in preparation and are nearly under construction. This is important to project stakeholders — especially agencies who might otherwise not take on the risk of conducting an EIR without certainty in a project’s funding potential.
If MTC commissioners tomorrow reject the Planning Committee’s recommendation, we hope they will adopt the SPUR proposal. Our approach leaves fewer projects in uncertain status but retains some objective standards to re-evaluate out-of-date and over-budget projects.
Weekly Snapshot: Reining in "Sprawleigh" North Carolina
In the past decade, the population of Raleigh, North Carolina, has grown faster than almost any major metropolitan area, earning it the less-than-desirable nickname "Sprawleigh." In response to its reputation for bad urban sprawl, city officials have begun extensive rezoning efforts for Raleigh's 2030 Comprehensive Plan. The plan would introduce new codes designed to increase density by appealing to younger populations who want to live close to where they work, as well as older populations who would benefit from pedestrian-centered neighborhoods.
Read Full Story at TIME
More from the week in urbanism:
A Prescription for a Healthier Nation
Clark Manus, president of the AIA, argues that the built environment plays a large role in shaping public health, and if architects and planners focus on creating healthier spaces, design can provide a "prescription for the nation's health."
Read Full Story at Architect Magazine
The Rush to Build Walkable Urban Grocery Stores
Cities are seeing a revolution in grocery store development as large supermarkets try to fill a niche in the urban market by using design techniques and new ideas to attract pedestrians rather than drivers.
Read Full Story at UrbanLand
In contrast to the Onion's recent spoof mocking high-speed rail with a "high-speed bus" proposal, Dutch physicist Wubbo Ockels has designed a prototype for a real superbus that is capable of traveling 150 mph on highways.
Read Full Story at Antiplanner
SPUR Tours: Discovering District 8 With Supervisor Scott Weiner
All too often what’s great about living in a city can become a blur: just shops and people and buses and sidewalks we quickly pass while rushing off to our next thing to do. Thursday's District 8 walking tour with San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener gave 20 SPUR and community members a welcome chance to slow down and look deeply at a small piece of our city.
Walking west on 18th Street, taking us from the district boundary to the heart of the Castro, Wiener focused on change. He pointed out the booming success of merchants on 18th and Gurerro and the upcoming 70th anniversary of Cliff’s Hardware on Castro Street.
Balancing history and the successes of the district, Wiener listed various projects he would like to see shape the future of the district, such as adding "bulb out" curb extensions to the corners of 18th and Dolores streets and widening the sidewalks of Castro Street. He also spoke about the challenges facing the “trouble child” J-Church Muni line and the difficulties of balancing the diversity of uses for spaces like Dolores Park.
Overall, Wiener gave us an opportunity to see the neighborhood from his perspective as a supervisor: a point of intersection between competing interests and melding neighborhoods with both a history and a hopeful future.
Park Circa: Can an iPhone App Facilitate More Compact Living?
According to the SFMTA, 30 percent of traffic in San Francisco is simply drivers looking for parking. That’s not just a huge waste of time — it’s also a carbon-emissions nightmare. But new digital tools are helping city dwellers engage with the automobile in smarter and more efficient ways. Last week San Francisco launched extended hours on some SFPark smart parking meters, which aim to use real-time data to reduce the difficulty of finding public parking spaces. And earlier this year, two entrepreneurs launched Park Circa, a smart phone app that makes better use of another urban resource: privately owned parking spots.
Park Circa establishes relationships between car drivers and parking-spot owners, allowing SF residents to charge a minimal fee to park in their driveway or other private space whenever they’re not occupying it. Drivers use the app to select the neighborhood they intend to visit, look at the available spots and make a reservation for a specific space.
Chadwick Meyer, Park Circa's co-founder and CEO, says the most significant challenge facing those looking for parking is not a lack of space but the inability to communicate and coordinate about existing spaces. Armed with the right set of applications on a smart phone, we can eliminate these barriers. “We now have a way to communicate with strangers on a mass scale,” he says. As new technology disseminates information that was previously locked away, virtual communication can shape our physical environment — a fascinating innovation for approaching the challenges of the city.
What would the long-term effects of a successful parking-communications network look like? Meyer admits the most perplexing question he faced in developing the app was whether easier parking would cause people to drive more, essentially ersasing the app's traffic-reduction benefits. But Park Circa stands to have a larger impact as part of the “sharing economy” pioneered by car sharing and co-working. Sharing our limited urban resources isn't just cheap and convenient — it can also help the city retain a more compact urban form. If the Park Circa network succeeds, drivers wouldn’t have to depend as heavily on pay-parking lots and garages, and that could shrink the amount of real estate now devoted to parking. In theory, those parking lots would make ideal targets for future infill development and more effective land use in our cities.
Saltworks Debate: the Pros and Cons of Bayfront Development
The plan would remediate the site, a former salt-harvesting operation, as a combination of housing, schools, parks, ball fields and restored wetlands. Calthorpe argued that the development would place affordable housing near existing jobs and integrate with transit, making it among the most environmentally sound options for the Bay Area — a region, he pointed out, that has been exporting housing to outlying areas for years.
Lewis agreed that we need to increase housing in dense urban/suburban areas and look to transit-oriented design to do so. But he argued that the Saltworks project is the wrong plan for the wrong location. He said the site should be restored to wetlands, pointing out that it lies in the path of sea-level rise — on land that state and federal agencies have called an important biological resource.
Explore our Debates Worth Having series:
Weekly Snapshot: Rethinking Minnesota's Zombie Skyways
Skyways -- enclosed, elevated sidewalks -- have protected pedestrians from the brutal weather in Minneapolis and St. Paul for decades. But these 1970s relics have also been accused of killing pedestrian activity on city streets. To start a public conversation about alternatives, Architecture Minnesota magazine held a video competition and screened the hilarious results at a lively public event. The six finalists included a rap comparing Twin Cities pedestrians to hamsters and a haunting clip of zombie pedestrians piling up in a dead-end skyway to nowhere.
Read full story at MinnPost
More from the week in urbanism:
How Mountain View Revived Its Downtown
Bruce Liedstrand, the former city manager and redevelopment director for Mountain View, CA, explains how the city revitalized its core and changed its image from sleepy dormitory community to lively, vibrant downtown.
Read full story at New Urban Network
Places That Work: Holland's Sidewalks
The small town of Holland, Michigan, created a network of heated sidewalks by diverting stored waste heat from a local powerplant to underground pipes, allowing pedestrian activity to flourish regardless of weather.
Read full story at Metropolis
How Venice Works
A video exploring how the complex and ancient city of Venice functions. Residents must navigate 124 islands, 183 canals and 438 bridges -- and city government must maintain and defend them all from encroaching water.
Read full story at Open Culture
Caltrain Scores Short-Term Funding -- Now We Need a Long-Term Plan
After threats to reduce service by nearly half, Caltrain officials last night agreed to scale back their drastic proposed cuts. The rail system’s governing agencies have brokered a deal to avoid the worst-case scenario, which would have run only 48 trains on weekdays, a dramatic drop from the current 86. Through a patchwork of solutions — including a 25-cent fare hike and eliminating some trains and stations — Caltrain will preserve most of its current level of service. In July, Caltrain will reduce the number of trains to 76 on weekdays and close the Hayward Park station in San Mateo, the Capitol station in San Jose and the Bayshore station in Brisbane.
But this short-term solution, which if approved would extend only through fiscal year 2012, doesn’t solve Caltrain’s deeper problem: it’s managed by a coalition of three different counties and lacks a dedicated funding source. Meanwhile, Bay Area commuters have come to depend on it — and they’ve made it one of the most effective transit systems in the region. Ridership has increased 44 percent since 2004, thanks in part to 79 mph Baby Bullet service that delivers passengers from San Francisco to San Jose in under an hour. And Caltrain’s farebox recovery ratio is 47.4 percent — among the highest of Bay Area transit agencies.
A lot is riding (no pun intended) on the outcome of Caltrain’s fate. The Association of Bay Area Governments projects that in 25 years, there will be nearly 700,000 additional jobs and 350,000 additional households in the three counties Caltrain serves. Total employment and population in the areas nearest to Caltrain stations will be in the millions. Additionally, Caltrain is essential to the region’s strategy in complying with SB 375, California’s landmark carbon-reduction mandate. Each five-car train takes approximately 650 automobiles off the road — vehicles that would otherwise be contributing to the congestion and carbon emissions on the already clogged I-280 and U.S. 101 highways.
While Caltrain has avoided the worst in the last week, this solution is only short term. Saving this critical system will require dedicated funding — and probably a new, less-convoluted governance structure. Today SPUR published a discussion paper recommending potential fixes for Caltrain’s long-term future.
• Read SPUR's discussion paper: Saving Caltrain — for the long term
SPUR to SF Supervisors: Don't Let the Next Google Get Away
While the Bay Area is still climbing out of the great recession, we’re simultaneously experiencing the makings of a second dot-com boom. The Chronicle reports that tech jobs have climbed near to their year 2000 peak of 34,116. Silicon Valley is hiring again. And so is San Francisco. Between Twitter, Zynga, Yelp, Salesforce and others in social media, gaming and cloud computing, a growing sector of the economy is based right here in the city.
We can’t predict in advance which companies will succeed: Google launched during the last boom, but so did Webvan, whose only traces today are the eponymous cup holders at AT&T Park. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging for all of us who promote economic development to see this kind of growth and investment in a niche well-suited to our city.
The question is, will San Francisco be able to retain the successful companies as they grow and begin to employ significant numbers of people?
Right now, the answer is a frustrating no for one very clear reason. Our payroll tax.
San Francisco has a relatively unique business tax that requires companies with payrolls over $250,000 to pay the city the equivalent of 1.5 percent of total employee compensation. SPUR has argued for years that we should restructure the city’s tax system to remove this disincentive to hiring, replacing the payroll tax with either a gross receipts tax or, better yet, a tax on behavior we want to discourage, like pollution. In the last decade, SPUR has served on several major revenue panels that tried to eliminate the payroll tax, only to founder on the problem of political opposition to the alternative taxes.
Recently, we’ve come to understand a particularly harmful dimension of the existing payroll tax: its levy on stock options.
San Francisco is the only city in California that charges a payroll tax, and it may be the only city in the country that extends this tax to stock options. Thanks to Sarah Lacy of Tech Crunch, who broke the story, a new report from San Francisco’s chief economist and some excellent reporting by the Bay Guardian, the particular problem of taxing stock options has become clear. San Francisco forces companies to pay the payroll tax when employees exercise their stock options — a strong incentive for a company considering an IPO to get out of the city.
This is a particular problem for fast-growing tech companies, a sector that has shown notable promise for the city. The levy has generated a flurry of discussion and concern from pre-IPO companies who stand to lose millions of dollars if they stay in San Francisco.
The last time the city leadership did something about the payroll tax, it was a measure targeted to draw biotech firms into the city. In 2004 San Francisco adopted a biotech tax credit as part of a coordinated strategy that included building Mission Bay; locating a new UCSF campus there; zoning for biotech space; and attracting the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to San Francisco. The tax credit exempted the companies from the 1.5 percent pay roll tax for 7.5 years — and it’s clear that, as part of a broader economic-development strategy, it had a huge impact. The number of biotech companies locating jobs in the city has gone from two to 74.
The biotech tax credit involved targeting a specific industry; this year the city proposed targeting a specific geography with the Mid-Market tax credit put forward by Supervisor Chiu. SPUR has been very supportive of this measure. While we retain skepticism about the effectiveness of tax breaks in general, there is a strong policy rationale for trying out such a strategy in Mid-Market, a stretch of blocks that has resisted attempts at economic revival for decades.
Spurring the conversation this time is Twitter’s possible move to Brisbane. For SPUR, the issue isn’t retaining the social-media giant — although it would be a significant win for the city. It’s never a good idea to engineer tax breaks for individual firms. But an incentive for any company to create jobs in struggling Mid-Market is an idea with strong policy merits.
The conversation that started with Mid-Market and attempts to keep Twitter in San Francisco has now expanded to encompass strategic thinking about the wider tech community. We have a pivotal opportunity to keep a piece of this industry in the city instead of watching all of it move to the suburbs. Right now Twitter, Zynga and Yelp are making decisions about whether to stay in San Francisco. But we need to fix the tax structure for all the firms we don’t know about yet.
The good news is, there’s a lot of interest across the political spectrum in dealing with the problem:
• Last week, Supervisor Mirkarimi introduced legislation to exempt all companies in San Francisco from paying payroll tax on stock options for two years.
• Supervisor Farrell, who has worked in venture capital and knows this issue well from the private-sector side, is working on a permanent way to take stock options out of the payroll tax.
• Supervisor Chiu is rumored to be getting ready to take another run at getting rid of the payroll tax entirely and replace it with other revenue sources.
For the most part, these ideas are not in conflict. In fact, we may need all of them. We need to do some more intense geographic targeting of incentives for Mid-Market. We need to give immediate assurances to tech firms who will otherwise need to leave the city in the next few months. And we need to revise our tax code for the long haul to not tax stock-based compensation.
Keep in mind that if we do all of this, the city will still come out ahead fiscally. We will have more jobs, and firms in all parts of the city except Mid-Market will still be paying payroll tax on the salaries of their employees.
City supervisors will vote on the Mid-Market payroll tax tomorrow, April 5. To them, SPUR says: vote yes. But don’t stop there. Move quickly to restructure the tax code so that we can retain more of the tech firms that have taken root in San Francisco.
If we get this right, we will be able to get out of the murky business of “tax breaks” for specific firms or locations. What we will have instead is a tax structure that makes it possible for dynamic firms to add jobs in the city while funding local government in a way that supports high levels of public service.
While most of the country is scrambling to identify a future economic base, San Francisco has the good fortune to host a whole ecosystem of dynamic, cutting-edge companies that are a good fit for the quirky progressivism and creativity of this place. If we get barriers out of the way and make it possible for fast-growing tech companies to stay, we may find a way to put people to work and fund public services at the same time.