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The latest streets and transportation news from Streetsblog California

Today’s Headlines

  • Report: Pedestrian deaths reach highest level in decades (NPR)
  • Increase bike-share, increase transit ridership (Curbed)
  • Victorville begins work on Mojave Riverwalk (Victorville Daily Press)
  • City of Highland adds roundabout, bike lanes to road repair project in bid for ATP grant (Highland News)
    • but didn’t get enough money and had to decline the grant (Highland News)
  • Berkeley officials push for zoning reform to increase “missing middle” housing (Berkeleyside)
    • It’s not just a problem in Berkeley (Daily News)
  • San Jose approves “co-living,” dorm-style housing (Curbed)
  • The high price we pay for cheap gas (CityCommentary)
  • Cap-and-trade auctions are doing just fine (Environmental Defense Fund)
  • Concrete is bad for human bodies (The Guardian)
  • Facebook could one day fund trains across S.F. Bay (East Bay Times)
  • Images: Flooding in Northern California (S.F. Chronicle)

More California headlines at Streetsblog LA and Streetsblog SF

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CA Legislative Hearings Discuss Progress on Gas Tax Investments, Housing

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

Gas Tax Update

The Senate Transportation Committee heard an update this week on progress made in investing last year’s gas tax. The hearing focused on how the revenue is helping clear a “huge backlog of maintenance,” although Committee Chair Jim Beall (D-Campbell) cautioned that “work to repair our transportation system is only beginning.”

Committee members learned that over 2,000 maintenance and rehabilitation projects are underway thanks to funding under the Local Streets and Roads program, among others. The gas tax’s now-reliable funding stream has allowed several cities to establish road maintenance programs for the first time. Transit projects, including rail expansions, service and capacity improvements on buses and trains, purchase of electric buses and electrification of train systems, are moving forward. The Active Transportation Program has seen an increase in its budget. Caltrans has been hiring and training workers, and, it says, becoming more efficient in its use of time and money.

The only mention of climate change–or of investing S.B. 1 funds in a way that supports California’s climate goals–was when Darrell Johnson of Orange County Transit Authority spoke. He told the committee that his agency was able to avoid deep cuts in transit service thanks to S.B. 1 funding. “And we can potentially expand service, to support greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” he said. “S.B. 1 has had a huge impact on our transit maintenance, operations, and capital spending. Without it we would have been faced with cutting nearly eleven percent of our service within a short period of time.”

A report from Caltrans’ new Inspector General outlined how many reviews and audits her staff has completed or is working on. The office is also tasked with studying the department’s efforts to be more efficient, but to date, she said, her staff has focused only on methodology–that is, whether the department is asking the right questions about efficiency. There has not yet been any audit of actual dollars.

Although Caltrans has been able to hire new workers, the tight labor market is a problem. Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) was especially interested in this issue. He closely questioned Jim Davis, representing the director of Caltrans, about the department’s long-term hiring strategy. “We can’t compete [with the private sector]–that goes for both entry level jobs and in terms of retaining employees,” said McGuire.

“No one wants government workers to make a lot of money,” he said, “but taxpayers benefit when public employees are paid a livable wage.” Caltrans had no response.

Tying Transportation Funds to Housing Goals

Meanwhile, in another room at the Capitol, several state budget committees were meeting together to discuss housing proposals floated by Governor Newsom [Agenda here: PDF]. Those include his idea to condition transportation funding allocations on new housing production.

Newsom floated the idea at his budget presentation, but without offering any details. A little more information emerged at the hearing, but it is still confusing people. A representative of the governor’s financial team had to explain several times that Newsom is not proposing to use transportation funds for anything other than transportation projects. Instead, his team is “exploring ways of tying the allocation of those funds to housing production” as a way to prod reluctant cities to produce much-needed housing.

Nevertheless, it met quick resistance from committee members. Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters) said the idea “is not something that I think should be on the table.”

Assemblymember Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) said S.B. 1 was hard to pass, and voters who approved it “have a certain expectation that those funds be used for what was promised.”

Newsom’s representative reiterated that the idea was not yet fully formulated. “We’re still working through the details. We are considering linking Local Streets and Roads funds under S.B. 1 to meeting housing production goals, but we would give time to locals to work towards those goals before these fundings are withheld,” she said.

Assemblymember Tasha Boerner-Horvath (D-Encinitas) argued against the idea because cities are currently only accountable for planning housing, not producing it. “Production goals are on the private market,” she said. “Cities cannot be held responsible for that.”

The problem is that it has been hard to hold cities accountable for even that. Partly that’s because the state provides relatively little funding to build housing–but it does allocate transportation funding, and a lot of it. It’s an interesting concept to connect the two, but the idea needs work.

KQED’s Guy Marzorati, in his report on the meeting, quotes a representative from the Department of Finance, who said exactly that:

“There are multiple different goals that could be looked at and determined whether good faith progress is being made toward housing goals,” he said. “I think that’s all part of the deliberation that’s happening before we decide on any final numbers or final goals or what is going to be tallied to determine compliance.”

At the same hearing, the Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended the legislature reject another proposal, which was to offer incentives for short-term housing construction. The LAO representatives called it a “risky bet” compared to straight subsidies. Past experience, they said, haven’t proven that incentives to help increase housing much, and do not seem to have helped overcome local resistance to building more housing.

Among the more than 2,500 bills introduced by last Friday’s deadline, several hundred of them deal with housing–so expect a lot more discussion on these issues in the coming months.

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Metro Expected to Approve Final Purple Line Subway Section 3 Contract this Week

Note: Metropolitan Shuttle, a leader in bus shuttle rentals, regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog Los Angeles. Unless noted in the story, Metropolitan Shuttle is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

At its monthly meeting tomorrow, the Metro Board is expected to approve staff recommendations for completing the Westside Purple Line extension Section 3. Specifically, the board would approve the project’s overall $3.2 billion budget, and award contractor Tutor Perini a $1.36 billion design/build contract for stations, trackwork, systems and testing. The latest contract is contingent on receiving a final federal full funding grant agreement (FFGA).

This section is the last of three current phases that extend the Purple Line subway west. Sections one and two are already under construction and anticipated to be completed in 2023 and 2025, respectively. Section three will extend 2.59 miles from Century City to the Westwood VA Hospital.

Westside Purple Line Sections - map via Metro
Westside Purple Line Sections – map via Metro

In June, 2018, the Metro board approved a $410 million contract to Frontier-Kemper/Tutor Perini JV for just the tunneling portion of Purple Line Section 3. That approval was contingent on Metro receiving a delayed go-ahead letter from the federal government, which arrived in September, just before the tunneling bid would have expired.

Now Metro is about to award the contract for the remaining work to complete Section 3.

As with the Foothill Gold Line and other construction contracts, prices are going up. In the Measure M expenditure plan, the Purple Line was estimated to cost $1.98 billion in 2015 dollars. Section 2 of the Purple Line extension – which has the same mileage and same number of stations – is costing $2.4 billion, in contrast with Section 3, now at $3.2 billion.

In June, when the tunnel contract was approved, Metro’s staff report acknowledged some increased costs, citing increased property acquisition costs, an added crossover, and some additional contingency set-asides mandated by the Federal Transit Administration. In an email to SBLA, Metro spokesperson Dave Sotero stated that inflation in a hot construction market is a factor in cost increases between sections 2 and 3.

One factor contributing to delays and cost increases is the federal government’s tardiness in getting congress-approved project dollars to transit agencies. Metro is still waiting for the Section 3 FFGA that was anticipated about a year ago. Had the feds approved the FFGA in early 2018, construction contracts could have been awarded sooner. Instead, as Metro’s governmental affairs director asserted at a recent committee meeting, the FFGA had been further delayed during the federal government shutdown. It should arrive any day now.

None of this is to say that this important project should not be approved this week. To avoid further cost escalation, it is important that Metro get the final Purple Line extension project design and build underway now, without further delays. Moving forward now should mean the full Purple Line will be open in time for the 2028 Olympics.


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L.A. Transpo Committee Denies CEQA Challenge Against Mar Vista Great Streets

Today, the L.A. City Council Transportation Committee supported the Mar Vista Venice Boulevard Great Streets project. The committee unanimously denied a legal appeal against the project, affirming that the safety improvements are categorically exempt from full California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review.

The 0.8-mile Mar Vista Great Streets project includes improved pedestrian crossings, parking-protected bike lanes, a short stretch of buffered bike lanes, and a road diet lane reconfiguration from six through-lanes to four. Project construction finished in May, 2017. The road diet was initially temporary, pending an evaluation after one year. In December 2018, when data showed reduced serious injury crashes, the L.A. Department of Transportation (LADOT) made the project permanent.

As part of the decision to make the safety improvements permanent, LADOT determined that the project did not need a full environmental review under CEQA. LADOT posted a notice of exemption. Recently updated state rules outline various types of projects that are exempt from CEQA, including:

  • Reduction in number of traffic through-lanes
  • Removal or relocation of off-street or on-street parking spaces
  • Addition of new or enhanced bike or pedestrian facilities on existing streets/highways or within existing public rights-of-way

The traffic safety denier group Westside L.A. Neighbors Network, which already sued the city to stop alleged road diets that were not actually in Westside streetscape plans, filed a new lawsuit asserting that the city should have undertaken a full CEQA environmental review. The lawsuit recycles numerous discredited allegations, including:

  • The project reduces car capacity on a tsunami evacuation route (the project is more than a mile from the nearest such route)
  • The project does not conform to federal guidelines for road diets (federal guidelines recommend road diets for improving safety, but they are merely guidelines – not legally binding dictates)
  • The project creates noise that impacts butterflies, bird migration, and wetlands located a couple of miles away
  • The project promotes increased density, with no guarantee that future density will include residents who won’t drive

At the committee meeting today, public comment included over a dozen speakers, more than half of whom spoke in favor of the improvements. Critics questioned data that shows the street is safer, and asserted that driving that stretch of Venice Boulevard was like being stuck on the 405 Freeway. Project supporters praised improved safety and atmosphere – resulting from slowing down speeding cars.

Councilmembers Mike Bonin, Paul Koretz, and Nury Martinez unanimously voted to deny the CEQA appeal, and affirm that the project is indeed categorically exempt. The project is located in Councilmember Bonin’s district, and he has strongly championed it. The committee’s decision is in the end less of an affirmation of the importance of street safety initiatives, and more in deference to Bonin.

The item (council file 19-0092) will soon go to the full council where it is likely to be approved. After that, the matter could end up in court.

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Visualizing a Bridge to Western Alameda

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

For years now, advocates have fought for a reasonable crossing for pedestrians and cyclists (and now scooters!) between Western Alameda and Oakland. One of the most favored options is for a bike and ped bridge (sorry, no cars on this one). And now the City of Alameda has released a vision of what it would look like, as seen in the lead image.

Brian McGuire of Bike Walk Alameda first shared the image on social media–along with his unbridled support:

Excited to share this image that has been floating around City Hall for a bit. Preserving this most viable alignment through the next phase of the Alameda Landing project took some serious effort to preserve (thank you Alameda City Staff and Council for having some vision!). Alameda has spent some actual money the last two years to develop the concept and lay the groundwork for this project. I am hopeful that in 2019 the county will award the funds needed for the in-depth feasibility study.

The image appeared in a draft of the Transportation Choices Plan Annual Report 2018, dated Feb. 25, 2019. According to a Transportation Commission doc, Gale Payne, Alameda’s Senior Transportation Coordinator, is pushing to have the city “Complete feasibility studies with Oakland for a bicycle and pedestrian crossing from West Alameda to Oakland’s Jack London Square” in the next two years.

As previously reported, the Oakland A’s are pushing for a new stadium complex at Howard Terminal, a ten-minute walk from where the bridge would touch down. That means by bicycle or scooter the stadium would only be about ten minutes from the housing developments going in all over Western Alameda. The A’s have already talked about building a gondola to the stadium (albeit from downtown Oakland) so they do seem willing to consider contributions to transportation to get the city on board with their plans. So, “yes, the A’s ballpark helps,” wrote Bike East Bay’s Dave Campbell in an email to Streetsblog. The bridge, of course, would also give West Alameda residents access to BART and downtown Oakland.

The bridge’s initial designs are meant to comply with Coast Guard requirements that they be able to get their cutter into and out of the estuary. McGuire posted this short video of a similar bridge, via twitter, to illustrate how it would operate when a large ship needs to get past:

He added that the bridge would be high enough so that most pleasure craft could get under the bridge without the need to raise its deck, assuring that it’s not raised too often. As seen in the lead image, the bridge would not interfere with Oakland ferries, which dock just the west of the bridge’s proposed location.

The Alameda Access project, meanwhile, depicts people jogging in the hellscape that is the Posey tube.
The Alameda Access project, meanwhile, depicts people jogging in the hellscape that is the Posey tube.

Meanwhile, things are still evolving for the $83 million Oakland Alameda Access Project (OAAP), a plan that kicked off in 2017 to help improve car throughput through the existing Posey and Webster tubes under the same part of the estuary. It included some bike and ped “improvements,” such as opening up a second maintenance path for bikes, as illustrated in this cross-sectional diagram of the Posey tube (currently the path on the left is the only one that’s open, the proposal is to open the right side too).

However, bike and pedestrians advocates have met these “improvements” with something between scorn and reluctant I-guess-it’s-better-than-nothing support. For anyone not familiar with these pathways, they’re pretty hellish, given the intense noise and soot in the tunnel, not to mention that the pathways are so narrow it’s difficult to ride on them without bumping into the wall and railing (and it’s impossible to pass someone without stopping and squeezing past sideways; the depiction of someone jogging on the path is kind of laughable).

McGuire, in an email to Streetsblog, pointed out that the “OAAP plans are evolving. Alameda County is no longer really considering the additional Posey Tube path. They are sketching out plans for opening up the Webster Tube pathway which would pop out next to Alameda Landing.”

But he agrees adding an Alameda-bound bike facility to the Webster Tube pathway is still not an acceptable option for bike and ped connectivity. “We don’t support that, but are supportive of them figuring out just how much that would really cost. Say $10 million, which we would then demand be spent on cross estuary bike/ped access issues. It could fund water shuttle boats and operations, and/or be a down payment on the bridge.”

“The OAAP is expensive,” added Bike East Bay’s Robert Prinz, “but there are some good elements like getting more freeway bound traffic off Chinatown streets, adding a bike/ped connection on Harrison under the freeway, and closing that gnarly off-ramp on Broadway.”

“This bridge design and the estuary water shuttle, which is also in planning stage, are building upon previous work,” wrote Bike Walk Alameda’s Lucy Gigli in a social media post about the bridge. “We are not reinventing anything, just slowly making progress.”

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Faculty Members Criticize Duke University’s Move to Kill Light Rail

Scores of Duke University faculty members are demanding that the institution abandon its threat to kill a 17-mile light rail line linking UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, downtown Durham and N.C. Central University

Duke’s Board of Trustees will vote on Thursday whether to allow construction of the $3.3-billion Durham-Orange light rail line to continue through campus. A negative vote would cause the long-planned project to miss a federal deadline, likely sinking it. This week, 51 faculty and staff members signed an open letter in the student newspaper, the Chronicle, demanding support for the transit project — especially given that the university claims it is committed to combatting climate change.

“The university has a plan to become carbon neutral and one of the areas that [need] the most progress is transportation, with all the employees driving to work,” Earth Sciences Professor Drew Shindell, one of the letter signers, told Streetsblog. “This is a way to really tackle the problem.”

The News Observer chronicled Duke’s long, evolving list of mostly petty objections to the 17.7-mile light rail project. The paper noted that Duke has put “one hurdle after another in the path of light rail,” including concerns about traffic, alleged tree damage and even protecting views of an on-campus golf course.

Drew Shindell, earth sciences professor at Duke University. Photo: Duke
Drew Shindell, earth sciences professor at Duke University. Photo: Duke

Project leaders from the light rail agency GoTriangle say they have worked hard to meet the university half way. For example, to quiet concerns Duke officials had about electric power connections with Duke Medical Center, GoTriangle added a $90-million elevated portion for the light rail.

But despite regional planning meetings going to 2015, Duke President Vincent Price told the News Observer that he had too many concerns to move forward. University officials claim construction and operation of the light rail line will cause vibrations that will impair operations at Duke Medical Center.

The University wanted a $1 billion insurance policy against that possibility. Now, they university is asking for a $2 billion insurance policy against light rail vibrations interfering with hospital operations.

Duke’s Public Affairs office did not respond to Streetsblog’s request for comment.

Shindell, whose research focuses on the air quality and climate impacts of power generation and transportation decisions, said he doesn’t have any inside information about why the university is impeding the project. But he thinks University leadership is intensely focused on the everyday minutia of managing various facilities.

“Their job is not to pay attention to the big picture,” Shindell said. “Duke says they care about the community and says they care about the environment and yet they throw out all these road blocks at the last minute to something everyone in the community says they want.

“It would be a hugely beneficial thing to our whole region,” he added. “People are constantly locked in traffic jams on I-40 and it’s just going to get worse all the time.”

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