Letter to City Council on Planning Transportation in Alameda

Mayor Gilmore and City Council members,

I’m writing with concerns about the Prioritized Transportation Project list being presented at the City Council meeting on Tuesday night

The list’s methodology is opaque, and the listed projects themselves are unknown and have not been discussed by the community or boards/commissions, so if the council adopts this list it will not be addressing the issues of non-transparency in transportation planning that we have seen in the last few years.

While I made many of the “planning board review” comments in the staff report, the staff does not entirely reflect those comments. In fact, the way in which they have been addressed misses the main point of many of them. The latest proposed draft adds to our understanding of the underlying issues with the process. However, there are changes that would help us get to the heart of the problems with the following issues:

 

The proposed draft contains errors

The presentation unveils a newly devised methodology but contains numerous errors, including calculation errors in the very first project (overstating the rating by nearly 20%) I only looked at the top row, I can’t speak to whether it is an anomaly or not? Another example, the chart uses scores that are inconsistent with the detailed criteria (Required Mitigation is given 1 pt per project, though the criteria states it should be 2pts).

 

The methodology ignores key planning documents that were created with significant public, board/commission and council discussion.

While giving points for Transit, Economic developments and EIR requirements, the proposed draft fails to make use of the Long Range Transit Plan, The Economic Development Strategic Plan or actual EIR requirements to determine the scoring of projects. The result is projects that have never been discussed receiving points based on unknown factors and staff’s assumptions.

Projects on the list have not been discussed as to their appropriateness on the priority list

It should be noted that the Planning Board never discussed the projects listed, focusing instead on the commenting on the ranking methodology. If the council intends to have a recommendation on projects from the Transportation Commission and Planning Board, they are not receiving that. The Planning Board gave input on the methodology, mostly concerns with it, but the report never returned with a revised proposal for consideration. Neither body recommended that the council accept or adopt this priority list, which would seem to be a significant procedural problem, as both are advisory boards to the council. This is the very type of exercise that they should be making recommendations on.

Projects that cannot proceed are prioritized above projects that are ready to move

The proposed list mixes projects that cannot move forward (e.g. Estuary Crossing Shuttle Project study report, which cannot begin until the Coast Guard agrees to support a bridge, per council direction), projects that have had zero public planning or participation (e.g. Miller-Sweeney Bridge improvements), with projects that have finished their public processes and are ready to move forward (e.g. Cross Alameda Trail). This gives the impression that some projects are priorities even though they can’t proceed to the next planning stage, it also blurs the line between projects that have had public participation and those that have not. This is a significant transparency issue.

Next steps

Based on these concerns, I am attaching a proposed methodology that was created by an ad hoc group of people interested in these issue, and I would like to ask that the council to direct staff to take it back to the TC and PB for revision and a final recommendation after the Council provides input on the priority list and direction on how they would like it shaped.

As this is the first time that this is done, it will take some time and discussion to complete, however, once it’s set up correctly, the annual presentation of this list should be simple, easily understood and run smoothly. It is important that we get this right before moving forward. There are significant funding decisions being made once a final draft is complete.

Staff’s work on this was not for naught, it has helped to clarify some of the issues with the proposal in the way that iterative discussion often provides. I have attached a proposed methodology that I think captures the goals of this project, to transparently and methodically prepare a list of the City’s transportation project priorities, in a straightforward, common sense, and mindful way.

Finally, I’d like to give my thanks to John Russo for giving the direction to create this list in the first place. It’s a big step forward and further evidence of his commitment to transparency and open government.

Respectfully,

John Knox White

Recommended process for prioritizing transportation projects in Alameda

I. Prepare two lists

The priority process should have two lists or sections

  1. Implementation Projects list: These are projects that have gone through a public planning process and been recommended by a board, commission or the Council (including a complete PSR when appropriate), and
  2. Consideration Projects: those that are in the process of discussion in public, etc. have issues that must be addressed, or have been identified by not started a planning process

Currently, all projects on the list are considered “ready to go” yet a number of them have had no public presentation or discussion. These should not be prioritized above projects that have completed these processes and are ready to roll. Keeping two lists will not effect funding, as it will help delineated the type of funding that will be sought (planning vs. constructing) and will give the community a simple understanding of the priorities of the city.

II. Tie Scoring to plans and planning processes

The City of Alameda has spent a lot of time and money on developing plans to guide our future development, project scoring and prioritization should be driven by these processes. (or the city could stop creating plans).

The current draft gives priority to regional bodies in determining our needs, when this list should be helping us work with the region to identify the projects we want. Multiple scoring categories end up giving points for appearance in regional plans, working with regional staff, and addressing regional concerns. These lists should identify our needs, funding discussions, inclusion in regional plans, etc. should be driven by our needs.

Scoring should encompass the following:

Bike, Ped and CBTP plans (4 pts each)

These are all done well and make sense, they are transparent, based on community developed plans, and serve as a model for the rest of the scoring.

General Plan (4 pts)(currently called Transportation Elements):

One point should be given for each of the four General Plan Transportation Goals that the project supports:

  1. Circulation Goal
  2. Livability Goal
  3. Multimodal Goal
  4. Implementation Goal

The current proposal relies on small, individual policies which mistakenly equate to policies like:

“Maintain the historic street grid and maximize connectivity of new developments to the grid, as well as within any new developments.” (a policy that guides the design of every project, but doesn’t help identify priorities)

With:

“Promote methods to increase vehicle occupancy levels.” (a policy that gives guidance to the types of projects we should prioritize)

In this category, the city’s interest is that the Goals of the General Plan are being met, relating the scoring to whether they meet the goals. In giving points to this category, staff can identify the listed Objectives that the project meets (the Transportation Element has three policy levels, goals, which are broken down to objectives, which then have policies to support them).

Transit Benefits:

Use the Transit Plan like the Bike Plan, Ped Plan and CBT Plan. The prioritization list should reflect adopted plans, not individual staff or community member feelings about the importance of a project.

Quick aside: If plans are out of date, they should be updated, we shouldn’t base our planning on whether we’ve appropriately updated our plans or not and changing the scores because of it.

The current proposal is based on insider knowledge of plans that have never been discussed in public and ignores the planning that our Public Transit Committee and community have gone through.

Regional Significance (Delete):

Get rid of this category altogether, the list is supposed to be a list of priorities for the City. Our list should be driving the regional significance of our projects, not the other way around. The Countywide Transportation Plan (CWTP) should adopt our priorities, not the other way around, especially since City Staff are the ones making recommendations to the CWTP.

I don’t propose that we have no regional responsibilities, we certainly do, but those responsibilities should be captured in our planning documents (and they are!)

You will likely hear that this is related to funding. But that’s an application issue for funding, not a priority-needs issue. By developing a priority list, we can go to funders and say “this is one of the city’s priorities, and it’s a regionally significant project….money please.” This category will not help or hurt that. It just inappropriately skews the results.

Ingress/Egress (1 pt):

We all recognize that our tubes and bridges are important, this category gives them a boost. Though it should be noted that they projects for these ingress/egress locations will also be prioritized through inclusion in various plans that are also being scored, the regional significance of the projects will have been identified in these processes.

Economic Development (4 pts):

The current proposal prioritizes projects that support new development over our existing business districts and economic interests. This is counter to many of Alameda’s economic development goals.

Additionally, the City has an Economic Development Strategic Plan, this scoring should be tied to whether the project supports it or not (irrespective of whether or not it is a new development or Park/Webster Street for instance).

I don’t understand how we quantify the difference between “Improve” and “significantly improve” as proposed by staff. I would suggest that planning is less exacting that we acknowledge that some project “may” improve economic development and others will “likely” improve them. (staff should justify this, see below)

2 points: Supports goals in the Economic Development Strategic Plan

4 points: Supports specific initiatives listed in Strategy 5 of the EDSP: “Provide for Internal and External Multimodal Circulation”

Required mitigation (1 pt):   

Staff’s initial inclination was correct, keep as 1 pt. The only proposed change is that staff should cite the environmental document that requires a specific project. If a project is not called out in an EIR as a mitigation, it should not score as one.

III. Develop Project Summaries

When a project is added to the list, there should to be a summary sheet for each of them. The sheet should include basic, easy to understand information that provides a clear explanation of the project, it’s goals and includes citations for how the scoring was determined. All of this work is being done (or should be) in creating the list so let’s have an online archive with those summary sheets. A simple database could be used to generate both the sheets and the priority list. The sheet should include:

  1. Project Goal
  2. Project description (250 words or less)
  3. Project status in planning process (list 1 or 2)
  4. Project Cost
  5. Project Operations and Maintenance over multiple life-cycles
  6. Citations for each criteria category:
    1. Bike Plan
    2. Ped Plan
    3. CBT Plan
    4. General Plan
    5. Transit Plan
    6. Ingress/Egress
    7. Economic Development
    8. Mitigation

IV. Approve the priority list

Once the methodology is accepted by the Transportation Commission and Planning Board then all of the projects on the Implementation List should all have public presentations, unless there has been one in the last 24 months. The council can determine whether they want the methodology to return for adoption. I would propose an off-agenda report once the Planning Board approves it, and it can be called for review if there are concerns from council members, and of course staff can always agendize it if they are concerned.

In addition, the top projects on the Consideration list should have an overview of what the project is, and what the process for developing the project will be. (could be as simple as identifying the goal of the project, the assumed design and next steps and planned meetings)

During this discussion, the City should have a discussion about how these projects get on the list to begin with. The recent Gibbons Drive debacle is an example of how responding on a case-by-case basis to neighborhood complaints can prioritize low-necessity projects in neighborhoods that are engaged within the political process while possibly higher-need projects (like traffic calming at Pacific/Lincoln in front of the Academy of Alameda where kids have actually been hit by cars, and the City has gone through a planning process) are not pursued for funding. It should be noted that neither of these projects is on the priority list now.

This is an issue the TC raised when it adopted the traffic calming program nearly 10-years ago. It has never been addressed. Right now, the squeaky wheel gets the funds, no matter what the need is.

In future years, the process will ensure that the projects on the list have been vetted and there will be no need to play catch up with years worth of planning projects. This is not an onerous process, it simply asks staff to be aware of the plans that have been created, remain faithful to them (or identify changes in them and make them). Whatever methodology is used will require the same level of work, unless the criteria is a gut-feeling assessment, and identifying how projects are consistent with our plans will strongly support grant-writing as it will pre-identify community support for proposed projects.

2 comments for “Letter to City Council on Planning Transportation in Alameda

  1. Jon Spangler
    April 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    I agree with most of John Knox White’s criticisms of the Transportation Priority List.

    My biggest issue is that the list was almost exclusively staff-generated and not TC-generated. The TC members who reviewed it (I was there at the TC meetings) had more difficulty understanding it initially because the format of the first draft that they were presented was even harder to comprehend than the current version. Most of their comments were directed at revising the spreadsheet’s format for comprehension and not at its content or priorities. In addition, it was clear to me that they had not had any substantive input into the creation of the document or formulating its priorities.

    All of the above support John’s general comments, IMHO.

    The first-generation members of the TC were much more hands-on than the current one and we were, generally speaking, far more willing to question or take on the staff as well as to contribute substantively to transportation documents. The current members of the TC may not realize that they have a responsibility to direct staff efforts rather than to give them a more superficial review.

    The current members of the TC are quite capable of providing more leadership, staff direction, and more in-depth policy reviews but they are not used to doing so. Unfortunately, when Mayor Johnson undercut and deliberately handicapped the the TC by withholding the appointees that would have provided it a quorum, the commission lost its organizational memory and its ability to function proactively on a policy level. I do not believe that it has recovered from that attack, although I am quite optimistic that its members will eventually take back their proper role as Alameda’s de facto transportation policy advisors.

  2. vigi
    April 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    While “the list’s methodology is opaque”, so is your analysis, JKW.
    I think I might agree w/you, if I only understood what you just wrote. This is exactly why so many property owners absolutely hate planners. They have totally lost the ability to communicate w/the people whose everyday lives their plans will impact. Please tell us where you went to college, what you majored in, & what degree you have. Or, alternatively, what planet you are from.

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