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- July 11, 2011BY MICHAEL BARKER
Since President Obama launched his Open Government Directive in December 2009, tech-savvy urban thinkers have been asking, "How can technology improve government and empower communities?" Although the Open Government Initiative suffered a hit when its funding was cut from $35 million to $8 million, nonprofits around the country such as Code For America have continued bringing open government to the forefront of public discussion.
This summer, the Gray Area Foundation of the Arts is hosting San Francisco's first annual "Summer of Smart," a three-month-long program of interactive workshops and seminars exploring the emerging role of the Internet in government. SPUR is proud to be co-sponsoring these events.
The Summer of Smart kicked off in June with programs including a 48-hour intensive "hackathon for everyone" that looked at community development and public art. The event drew a crowd of urban designers, programmers, artists, teachers and government officials, who broke into teams to develop — and then present — prototpyes for improving community-government relations. One group calling itself Yay Taxes proposed an interactive website that would allow people to visualize the connection between beneficial public services and tax dollars by comparing what they think their taxes should be spent on to how they're actually spent. Future iterations of the site could visualize and compare not only spending patterns but politician's voting patterns and neighborhood and regional priorities. Another group known as The Post proposed interactive digital community bulletin boards to serve underprivileged communities, referencing the fact that 30 percent of California residents do not have broadband access at home — a number that jumps to 35 percent among the Hispanic population. GetVolunteered posed the simple question, "What if volunteering could be as simple as going to the movies?" Their proposed online platform would sort volunteer opportunities by location, time and type.
Most projects illustrated the potential innovation that can occur as a result of the democratization of data. In our cities, the divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots" of data and Internet access leaves many communities in the dark. In order for these innovations to become reality, it will take both support and funding from local governments, as well as the creative gusto of innovators such as those taking part in the Summer of Smart.
In a city with a rich history of both grassroots community involvement and technological vision, the remaining Summer of Smart events will undoubtedly attract some brave new ideas. The next hackathon is scheduled for July 22-24, and will focus on "Sustainability + Transportation + Energy."Further Reading:
- June 14, 2011BY COREY MARSHALL, GOOD GOVERNMENT POLICY DIRECTOR
In the coming weeks, the SF Board of Supervisors Rules Committee will be hearing the "consensus" proposal for pension reform, which Mayor Ed Lee and a coalition of the city’s labor unions released May 24. The board has until July to make amendments and vote on the proposal.
The proposal, which projects savings of $1 billion over ten years, would:
- Require that city employees pay more for their benefits, rather than reducing benefits. Employee contributions to the pension fund would increase as the city’s contributions increase. Employees earning less than $50,000 per year would be exempted.
- Increase the retirement ages for new employees from 62 to 65 for most employees and from 55 to 58 for public safety employees.
- For new employees, calculate pensions based on the average of the last three years of service (instead of the last two years, as is the current practice).
- Amend the composition of the Health Services Board to give the city more influence over employee health benefits and costs.
- Require existing employees to contribute to the Retiree Health Care Trust fund starting in 2016.
We congratulate the mayor on navigating an extremely difficult political process to achieve some level of consensus. But a number of questions still remain. It’s no secret that the city’s pension spending has exploded in recent years, but less well known is how it will increase in the coming years. The city controller projects that the pension burden will grow by an average of approximately $100 million per year in the next five years to somewhere between $717 million and $820 million per year by fiscal year 2015–16 — a near doubling of annual costs in just 5 years. Further, these projections show the city’s annual pension payments reaching nearly $1 billion somewhere around fiscal year 2020–21. To address this, Mayor Lee indicated that negotiations must save at least $300 million to $400 million per year to save the city from near-certain bankruptcy.
The City’s pension costs are projected to rise to at least $700 million per year within 5 years.
Preliminary estimates indicate that maximum savings generated will be approximately $60 million in the first year (2012–13) and total just over $1 billion over 10 years — well short of the Mayor’s original estimates, and well short of the projected increase in pension costs. Estimates of savings from the Adachi proposal total more than $100 million in the first year and $1.6 billion over 10 years.
What does all of this mean? Simply: neither of the solutions currently on the table actually solve the pension problem, but they certainly move things in the right direction. At best, they address 10 to 20 percent of the total pension burden at its projected peak and continue to divert significant funding from important public programs. And these savings will only be realized if one (or both) of these proposals is approved by voters in November. Unfortunately, all signs point toward two competing measures on the ballot — whether the second is driven by Adachi or by members of his coalition.
The Board of Supervisors Rules Committee meets the first and third Thursday of each month at 1:30 p.m. Follow their discussion of the consensus proposal here.
- March 2, 2011
There is a lot happening this month in the world of urbanism. While the economy seems to be improving, the recession is reverberating through the budgets of all public agencies. As you will see in this month's programs and featured items, we continue to try to make progress on the big master plans and key infrastructure investments. At the same time, we are faced with immediate and severe budget cuts to public services, from Caltrain to Rec-Park. Redevelopment may be going away entirely (click here for information about the upcoming Redevelopment debate). The March Urbanist, mailed this week to all SPUR members, features a piece by SPUR's new Good Government Policy Director, Corey Marshall, previewing our thinking about the City budget. As another round of cuts looms for City departments, we are hard at work coming up with practical solutions that will preserve essential public services. Email Corey at firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved with our work.
- October 19, 2010BY JENNIFER WARBURGOn Monday of last week, President Obama recommitted his administration to a "fundamental overhaul" of the nation's infrastructure, following up on a previous Labor Day announcement that had excited smart growth advocates and set off speculation about the form such a "second stimulus" or "infrastructure bank" would take.Obama's speech last week on infrastructure investment [Via whitehouse.gov]
When Obama was elected, supporters of progressive transit talked excitedly about a "new New Deal." Comprehensive national infrastructure plans have guided each era of American growth and development. America 2050, a national coalition that SPUR is a part of, created a prospectus for a modern national plan modeled on three prior ones: the Gallatin Plan of 1808, the Inland Waterways Commission Plan of 1908 and the National Toll Road and Free Road Plan of the 1930s.
The President has rhetorically endorsed progressive national infrastructure investment for this era. In his Columbus Day speech he called for "a smart system of infrastructure equal to the needs of the 21st century; a system that encourages sustainable communities with easier access to our jobs, to our schools, to our homes"¦a system that reduces harmful emissions over time and creates jobs right now."
Yet over the past week the administration showed signs of backing away from pushing such legislation forward this year, leaving observers scratching their heads.
Are these high-profile announcements solely political? An attempt to energize the base during election season? Or are they serious agenda-setting statements? Most importantly, will progress actually be made this year in Washington on modernizing our country's infrastructure?
While this proposal may seem like a political trial balloon this fall, infrastructure spending will likely anchor the legislative agenda for 2011. Why? Because it has bipartisan support and strong backing from financial interests, state and municipalities. Infrastructure spending has typically been an enterprise that Republicans and Democrats agree upon and could provide an area of consensus in a divided legislature. It's exactly the type of modest legislation that President Clinton used in 1995 and '96 to move forward after losing party control of Congress.
Obama's infrastructure investment proposal is, in effect, a $50 billion down-payment on the $450 billion six-year transportation bill that failed to pass Congress last year. Note also that the $50 billion does not come close to the $2.2 trillion the American Society of Civil Engineers says is needed to repair existing infrastructure. But a $50 billion investment "jumpstart" is a pragmatic way of moving forward on urgent repairs.
The President has proposed to change the way transportation funding works, in particular by using some sort of performance-based criteria rather than "return to source" or earmarks; but "” who knows? "” this is the always-announced, never-implemented agenda of the reformers.
Rails or roads? [Photo Credit: flickr user jrâ¹â¸â¶â¶â´]
Here is my own prediction about the timeline of how this legislation will play out in Washington:
- Look for an 11th hour attempt by Democrats to bring up Obama's infrastructure plan in November's lame-duck Congress; Republicans will rebuff it.
- In January, when the new, 112th Congress convenes there will be a good month of gavel-shifting and maneuvering.
- Infrastructure spending will be seriously discussed again in February when Republicans must begin to share responsibility for hastening and improving the economy's "jobless recovery."
- Most important will be the President's Fiscal Year 2012 proposal budget, which will be announced at the end of January after the State of the Union address. In all likelihood, when the President releases his budget, there will be a specific line item for the infrastructure bank.
- How Congress responds to the 2012 budget proposals in March and April will be crucial. But the groundwork for this debate should be developed now, and in the weeks immediately ahead.
With transportation bills of any type, there is always a fight over which portion goes to more highway construction and what portion goes to energy-efficient transit. SPUR has of course advocated that the country shift as much funding as possible to transit. But even if that goal is politically ahead of the legislature, we should at least be able to provide an equal federal funding match to transit and highway projects, rather than paying a higher share of highways as is the practice today.
There are a lot of politics to get through. We have joined the Transportation for America coalition as our show of support for a forward-looking investment in a better transportation system. We hope the President's $50 billion proposal, which covers transit and much else, will help get the ball rolling on what surely must be a national priority.
- August 7, 2010BY GABRIEL METCALF
The California High Speed Rail Authority met yesterday in San Francisco. The agenda was packed with many interesting things including a new station area development policy. But the real controversy was about the section between San Jose and San Francisco. I joined hundreds of people during public comment to weigh in on this one small segment.
Over the past few years, a group of high speed rail opponents has been gathering strength in some of the Peninsula communities such as Atherton and Menlo Park, arguing that the train will impact their views, be too noisy, and otherwise ruin their quality of life.
There is certainly a lot of design work to do as the High Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain explore the peninsula segment and figure out how to make "joint operations" work.
But what some of the residents of the Peninsula seem to be asking for is an impossibly expensive project or no project at all. There cannot be a 60-mile subway up and down the Peninsula.
The Bay Area Council penned a strong letter pointing out the flaws with the "build it right or don't build it at all" approach. If "building it right" means addressing every local impact of the project to the satisfaction of every local resident, there will not be enough money in the world to build this project.
TransForm pointed out at the hearing that the issues with the Peninsula communities stem from the fact that the High Speed Rail Authority made the fundamentally correct decision in 2004 to choose an alignment that re-uses existing track where possible and goes through existing cities. (This was in contrast to a cheaper alternative that went through agricultural lands and skirted many existing cities, relying instead on "greenfield" stations.) Having made the big decision the right way, the Authority now faces the political and design problem of actually bringing the train through all of these already-developed communities. Even though the Peninsula creates design challenges it is absolutely critical that the project goes all the way to San Francisco, where the highest ridership stations in the entire state will be located.
I tried to put this project into some larger context in my remarks. California is already the most populous state in the nation (by far). It will grow from 38 million people today to 50 million people by 2030. The real reason we need high speed rail is to provide an armature or framework for organizing this massive growth. Where the interstate highway system was the infrastructure that enabled the suburbanization of America, high speed rail can enable a re-centering of growth. It is the necessary supporting infrastructure for walkable communities in California.
The real question we are facing is whether we are still capable as a society of actually getting something like this built. In the age of CEQA, in the age when we seem to believe that more public process is always better, in the age when we seem to believe that nothing should happen unless there is consensus, can we actually create a transformative infrastructure? As America tries to learn how to compete with "single vision" nations that do not share our democratic values, the question of how we learn how to actually get things done under our political system looms larger and larger as a central problem to overcome.
With every infrastructure project that SPUR supports we face the dilemma of how to be supportive against the tide of opponents while still working constructively to improve projects and make them as good as they can be. We could not be happier with the "big moves" that the High Speed Rail Authority has made thus far. They have picked the right alignment, one that will reinforce center-oriented growth. Now the task is to get the small moves right to find that elusive balance between more expensive designs that address community concerns and the need to keep the project affordable enough to actually build it.
This is the most important project in California. It is a naÃ¯ve and impossible wish to "get it right" if right means the ideal design in every community. We need to get it "right-enough" to attract lots of riders away from the automobile and enable a new pattern of growth in the state.
- July 14, 2010BY BEN LOWE
[Photo Credit: Colleen McHugh]
The San Francisco Department of Elections announced on Monday that the Fix Muni Now campaign had submitted enough voter signatures to qualify their Muni reform measure for the ballot.
The Department of Elections conducted a random sample of 2,248 signatures of the total 74,933 submitted and, based on this statistical sampling, determined there were more than the 44,382 signatures required.
The measure, if approved by voters in November, would require the Muni operators union, TWU-250A, to engage in direct negotiations for their wages and benefits, like every other public service union in San Francisco. Currently, operator wages and benefits are guaranteed in the City Charter to be, at a minimum, the second-highest in the country. TWU-250A is the only public service union in the city that has made no concessions during the recession of the past several years, opting instead to collect an automatic raise on July 1st, less than a month after Muni service was cut by ten percent.
By restoring collective bargaining as the method by which wages and benefits are determined, the City of San Francisco will be able to address inefficient operator work rules, which a recent audit by the City Budget Analyst estimates cost the city several million dollars per year.
- July 13, 2010BY FABIANA MEACHAM
What are the most pressing issues facing California in the next 15 years and how should we deal with them? If only there were one comprehensive PDF document floating around the internet with all the answers.
Policy wonks across the state will now be thrilled to discover the Public Policy Institute of California's recently released CA2025 report, a "briefing kit" covering California's most important long-term policy issues. Outlining policies on topics ranging from water to transportation to the economy, the report acts as a kind of handbook for every major policy concern confronting the state today. While one might expect an insufferably dense document, the text is actually quite accessible, the graphics clear and informative. Some might crave more detail and in-depth analysis than CA2025 provides, but the report still serves as an excellent primer for the key issues facing the state, and presents compelling arguments for how our policy makers might tackle them.
[Graph courtesy of PPIC CA2025]
- January 7, 2010BY EGON TERPLAN, REGIONAL PLANNING DIRECTOR
Not so fast says the Atlantic’s James Fallows in a new article on “How America Can Rise Again.” People have argued we were in decline since the earliest days of the republic. His prescription: Focus on maintaining our top universities to foster innovation and open immigration to keep people and ideas flowing into our country. From SPUR’s perspective, we would add – and invest heavily in high speed rail and other infrastructure that enables non-auto mobility.
- January 5, 2010BY BEN LOWE
This past fall, a group of SPUR board members and staff traveled to Washington DC to learn from the urban-planning successes of our nation's capital; today, three members of that group presented their findings at a lunchtime forum.
SPUR Deputy Director Sarah Karlinsky began the discussion with an overview of the Washington urban planning models from Pierre L'Enfant's plan of 1791 to and James McMillan's Plan of 1901 through modern-day endeavors to enliven the long-neglected Southeast waterfront area along the Anacostia. Regional Planning Director Egon Terplan expanded the geographical scope of the discussion, demonstrating with satellite photography areas in the region where forward-thinking transit-planning decisions brought about transit-oriented development along major corridors and high public transit use. Terplan focused on the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Virginia and Bethesda in Maryland, both tremendous successes in inducing dense development clustered around regional rail service.
Finally, architect and urban historian Rod Freebairn-Smith showed photographs gathered during the trip focused on how security threats affect both civic life and architecture. His photos included many examples of how buildings have been fortified through bollardization and other means, while not marring the storied city or preventing access to national monuments and icons.
- November 12, 2009BY JORDAN SALINGER
How fast do you have to be to outrun rising tides? According to Will Travis, of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission this is a challenge that the Bay Area faces. Travis informed and entertained a large crowd at a forum at the Urban Center this past Tuesday, covering a wide range of issues including environmental justice, adaption strategies, importance of tidal wetlands, and his thoughts for the future of the bay.
Climate change poses a severe threat to the San Francisco Bay. Ocean water temperatures will continue to increase, sea levels will inevitably rise, and storms will become more violent. Decreases in the Sierra snowpack will mean less fresh water in the spring and summer months, allowing salt water to travel further up the delta than ever before.
While his prognosis was certainly bleak, Travis offered a wide range of strategies aimed at combating these changes. Some of these strategies included the protection of tidal wetlands, continued compact mixed use development near transit, and planning for future, and not present, conditions. Travis concluded his remarks by quoting hockey legend Wayne Gretzky who said the goal is to "skate not where the puck is, but to where it will be," emphasizing the importance of making sure our plans stay ahead of changing conditions and rising tides.