Transit, Planning, and Gas Taxes – It’s all relative

17 Apr

An April 15th, 2012 WSJ Opinion Piece titled: Why Your Highway Has Potholes calls for decision making on transportation to be made at the state level, and more spending on roads. If you are interested in land use/transit/urban issues, you probably know about our urgent need to pass a meaningful transportation bill in this country. Read on about why these suggestions are a bad idea:

First of all, decisions on transportation are already made at the state level, as most federal funding for transit is via a “matching funds” policy which requires the city/state to demonstrate a local commitment to funding. Federal funds such as the “New Starts” program are then doled out based on a scoring system, unless these funds are “earmarked” by members of the House and Senate, which essentially is state usurping of federal funds.

Second, since 2005, the federal highway trust fund has consistently paid out more that it has received from contributions via the gas tax. Period. With two exceptions, all states receive more than they pay in.

Third, the gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1991. It is not indexed to inflation or a percentage of fuel prices. Let me say that in another way. Since 1991, the gas tax has been set to 18.4 cents per gallon. To get the same amount of buying power as it did in 1991, the gas tax would have to be 31 cents, based on inflation rates. The average state-imposed fuel tax is 28 cents per gallon (which further illustrates point one).

Fourth, adding lanes and building highways does not relieve congestion. In fact, many studies show that it induces more vehicle travel than it relieves. Transit spending encourages the development of walkable, bikeable communities that aren’t completely dependent on the automobile.

Fifth, building new roads and transit lines is irresponsible without careful thought of the land use implications. New highways encourage sprawl development, a car dependent environment which consumes agricultural land and open space. Let me rattle off a few places where this has recently happened within the past 30 years: Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, all of San Bernadino County, all of Orange County, Dublin/Pleasanton/Livermore in NorCal.. the list goes on and on. Without a meaningful federal policy that rewards regional planning and careful land use decisions, transportation money will be spent on poorly planned highway extensions that continue to gobble up vast areas of farmland that are irreplaceable, all the while exacerbating the decay of older suburbs.

Encourage your Senator and Representative to support the current Senate bill, which encourages smart growth policies and transit here.

For those who oppose use of gas tax revenues for public transit and think that the market should decide the best method of transport, here is a book that frames this argument from a free-market perspective.

Living in Contra Costa Centre

27 Nov

I am just wrapping up a six month stint of living within walking distance of the Pleasant Hill BART station. I decided to move here initially because I was working in downtown SF, and the access to the train was excellent while also providing great access to the outdoors. The area immediately around the station is one of the first transit oriented development projects built in the post-automobile area; it has been in planning and development for over two decades.

View of the Pleasant Hill BART station. Avalon at Walnut Creek beyond.

Up until 2008, most of the development had been beyond the surface parking lots of the station. This changed when AvalonBay entered into a public-private partnership with BART and the Contra Costa Redevelopment Agency to build a parking structure, freeing up the surface parking lots to be developed. AvalonBay then designed and built a 422-unit apartment complex, Avalon at Walnut Creek, using a combination of equity and tax-exempt bonds. The tax-exempt bonds are through the federal 80-20 program, which required that 20% of units be affordable to families with incomes at or below 50% of area median income. There are a total of 85 affordable apartments in the Avalon at Walnut Creek Development.

Coggins Square by Bridge Housing

In addition, Bridge Housing recently completed a 141-unit development adjacent to the BART parking structure. 87 units are rental, affordable to families earning less than 60% of the area median income. The remaining 54 units are market-rate for-sale townhomes.

Archstone Walnut Creek - notice that there are no steps connecting the street with the interior sidewalks

We lived in the Archstone Walnut Creek Station development, which is part of a 1,000 unit property owned and managed by Archstone. The complex is a bit older, and was built before there was a lot of attention towards connecting the station with the property, so while it is within walking distance, there are very awkward bits, such as the fact that there are not continuous sidewalks that connect the interior of the development with the sidewalks beyond. I would imagine that these things would be given more attention nowadays, but I find it hard to believe that nothing has been done to address this.

The new Robert I Schroder pedestrian bridge

Walking past Archstone Walnut Creek, one enters into Walden Green, a linear park along the Ironhorse Trail. The Ironhorse trail is a 33-mile bike and walking trail that is largely within an old railway right-of-way. The trail gets a lot of use by families, joggers, and cyclists, and was one of my favorite parts about living here. This trail offers biking access to downtown Walnut Creek, crossing over a Treat Blvd, on a visually striking, brand-new bridge that was designed by ARUP, a world-class engineering and architecture firm. This bridge is really a necessity, because Treat Blvd. is a major barrier to pedestrian access. Treat is a major 8-lane thoroughfare linking Concord with Pleasant Hill, and as this particular area is near I-680, cars getting on and off the freeway tend to drive very fast on this stretch. There are no pedestrian refuge islands should you choose to cross at grade, making it quite unsafe.

The new AvalonBay building is sandwiched between the Ironhorse trail to the east, and the BART line to the west. The building was well-designed, and has a lot of detail for new construction. Terra-cotta roofs with overhangs and shading devices give the facades depth. There is a mix of retail and amenity spaces for the residents on the ground floor of the building.

A year after the grand opening of the apartments, a Starbucks has finally opened on the ground floor, and has quickly become my go-to place in the mornings. Business appears to be very brisk for Starbucks, but unfortunately with the exception of an AllState office, much of the retail is still vacant.

I’m not sure on whether other tenants have adopted a “wait-and-see” approach, or if rents are too high for the retail space, but it seems like there is adequate demand for restaurants, a drycleaner, and even a small organic market.

Starbucks has opened at the corner of Treat Blvd. and Jones Rd.

A quick “back of the envelope” calculation gives a total household count within a five-minute walk:

Archstone Walnut Creek: 1,000 units

Avalon at Walnut Creek: 422 units

ParkRegency: Est. 600 units

Coggins Square: 141 units

Villa Montanaro: Est. 350 units

Honey Trail Condominiums: Est. 200 units

Various other small developments: Est. 300 units

Total Estimated Units: 3,000+

In addition, there is adequate parking behind the retail spaces, so I’m quite surprised that these spaces are remaining vacant.

Overall, the new grounds immediately surrounding the AvalonBay building are quite pleasing, and provide nice public spaces entering and leaving the station.