Isabel Angell appears in the following:
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
The new tunnels at Devil’s Slide on the northern California coast are finally open to drivers. This marks the first time cars have driven through a brand-new California highway tunnel in almost 50 years. The Devil’s Slide tunnels, officially named the Tom Lantos Tunnels, have been under construction since 2007 but have been a source of controversy since the 1970s.
When Highway 1 was built along the California Coast in the 1930s, it included a 1.2 mile stretch of road on an extremely unstable piece of hillside between San Francisco and Half Moon Bay called Devil’s Slide. During especially rainy winters, the ground would give way, causing the road to break and forcing drivers into a 45 mile detour. In 1995, the road was closed for 158 days.
Since the 1960s, California’s Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, had been looking for an alternative route. Caltrans proposed a highway bypass that would cut through the coastal hills. Locals and environmental activists were vehemently against the bypass, which would have been a larger freeway and split Montara State Park. The groups successfully used the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Coastal Act to postpone construction of the bypass through the 1970s and 80s. At the same time, the groups fought for a tunnel as the solution to the Devil’s Slide.
Caltrans had originally said that a tunnel would be too costly, but an independent study in 1996 showed that the tunnel was “reasonable and feasible.” In November of 1996, 74 percent of the voters of San Mateo County approved an initiative that stated a tunnel was the only permissible repair alternative to Devil’s Slide.
Construction began in 2007. The tunnels are over three-quarters of a mile long, with a total of 32 ventilation fans. The project’s cost of $439 million was fully funded with Federal Emergency Relief money, secured by U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, the tunnel’s namesake.
In a press release, Brian Kelly, the acting secretary of California’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, praised Caltrans and the other groups that worked to make the tunnels a reality.
“Ingenuity, will, and perseverance combined to get this project done. The new tunnels are state of the art structures that blend well into the beautiful, natural surroundings on this stretch of Highway 1,” he said. “Thanks to the work of the men and women who dedicated themselves to completing this project, motorists and emergency responders will have a safer journey from this day forward.”
Monday, March 25, 2013
Bike share is rolling into the Bay Area this summer.
In August, Alta Bicycle Share will launch 700 bikes at 70 stations. Half the bikes will be in San Francisco; the rest will be distributed throughout Palo Alto, San Jose, Redwood City, and Mountain View. The project is being led by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (known as the Air District), along with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and other local transit agencies.
Aaron Richardson, a spokesperson for the Air District, said Bay Area residents should expect to see the number of bikes increase quickly.
“We will be growing, this is the initial amount in the pilot,” he said. “We’re actively searching for more funding and sponsorships.” The pilot will cost $7 million. The Air District's website calls for an additional 250 bikes to roll out in the months following the program's launch.
Alta Bicycle Share already runs Boston’s Hubway, Washington DC’s Capital Bikeshare, and other programs in Chattanooga and Melbourne, Australia. The company also has the contract for New York's incipient program. Both Hubway and Capital Bikeshare have proven popular, with Capital Bikeshare logging over three million rides since it was launched in 2010.
Kristin Smith is the communications director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which has been a big supporter of the the project. She said the Coalition was hoping for more bikes to jumpstart the program. She noted that Washington DC started a bike share program with moderate success in 2008, but when the city joined forces with Arlington County, VA in 2010 and dramatically increased the size of its fleet, Capital Bikeshare really took off.
“That’s a thing to think about,” she said, “not starting too small.” But “we are very excited about bike share. It works all over the world, and it will work in San Francisco.”
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Usually, bikes aren’t allowed on San Francisco-bound BART trains during peak morning commute hours, or back to the East Bay in the evening. And they’re not allowed in the 19th Street or 12th Street stations during commute hours at all. But this week, BART has opened up all hours and stations to bikers. It’s a trial period, and to make it work, BART officials and cycling groups are urging to riders follow the rules: no bikes on the first three cars during peak hours, and no bikes on crowded trains. The transit agency has also produced an explanatory video about the pilot program.
Robert Raburn is on the BART board of directors, where he represents parts of Oakland, San Leandro, and Alameda. I ran into Raburn as he was wheeling his own bike around the station, making sure everything was going smoothly. He said he was excited to see how things go this week– but that people have to be patient.
“The reality is that in many cases we’re not going be able to open the floodgates and allow hundreds more bikes on any one train," he said. "That won’t work. We’re asking all bicyclists to use common sense and courtesy.”
At least this morning, the common-sense approach seemed to be working. In the hours I rode the train –- from 7:00 to 8:30 -– I didn’t see anyone shoving their bikes onto a packed car.
It seemed like what hadn’t been working was the ban. I talked with John Dillon at the 19th Street station– a station that usually doesn’t allow bikes during peak hours.
“Usually I ride my bike to a station that’s about two (stops) further away and then illegally put it on a train I’m not allowed to ride and try to keep it out of people’s way. But I have to get to work,” he explained.
When I talked to him, Dillon had just let a crowded train pass by. He said he always waits for a car with more room -- even if it means missing two or three trains.
Keith McKinnon takes BART from El Cerrito Plaza to Embarcadero every day. He said he regularly sees bikes on trains they’re not supposed to be on, but it doesn’t bother him. When I asked him if bikes ever make the train too crowded, he shook his head.
“No, the bicyclers usually stay out of people’s way,” he said. “They’re usually off on the side. So no."
Of course, not everyone flaunts the ban– I talked to plenty of people who were excited to finally board with their bikes. Ronnie Haning said that’s why he took BART today.
“I like riding my bike on the weekends,” he said. “Why not, you know, commute for a week?”
BART’s already updating cars to make more space for bikes. The fleet will be fully modified by June. After this week, BART officials will meet with community members, and survey commuters to decide whether they want to get rid of the bike ban for good.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
(The Bay Area -- KALW) As cities across the country face steep budget cuts, many local governments are looking at their transportation departments and wondering if someone else could do the same job for less money.
That’s exactly what Fairfield, California thought. The small city (about 100,000 residents) contracted MV Transportation to run the bus system for the Fairfield and Suisun Transit organization, or FAST, hoping the company would bring a regular bus service to its suburban population.
But the reality was less than perfect, and it could serve as a cautionary tale to cities considering a private company for their public transit.
Zusha Ellison, a reporter for the Bay Citizen, uncovered a whole mess of problems with MV Transportation, from chronically late buses to city council members forgiving some of the $164,000 in fines that the company had racked up.
Ellison talked to George Fink, the former head of FAST, who spent his time trying to reign in MV Transportation. But the transit company was well-connected in the local government, which made it difficult for FAST to police the company. Fink remembers getting calls from his boss after criticizing MV Transportation, telling him to back off.
There have been other cases where private operators have taken over public bus systems with mixed results. When Nassau County, New York shifted it's bus system to a private operator, service was reduced on 60 percent of the routes in an effort to limit losses*. North of New York City, a Poconos bus operator filled a gap when transit cuts reduced public bus service, but the fleet used was shabbier and drew regulatory scrutiny. And a private eco-friendly operator in Detroit launched with some fanfare last year, only to shift business models for lack of customer demand.
The Farfield California is one example--a stark and cautionary example--of what can happen when local transit is turned over to private ownership, according to the Bay Citizen report.
* Ruth Ott of Veolio Transportation, the company that runs NICE Bus, wrote to contest our assessment of service cuts that we first reported the cuts a year ago. She writes:
We have improved both service quality and operational performance ... Customer satisfaction and customer perception of punctuality, vehicle reliability, bus cleanliness, quality of passenger information, operator courtesy have all increased significantly, by 50% to 60%, as measured by independent market research surveys.
We have made the best use of the available budget for transit service. The available dollars in 2012 were actually $35 million less than the $156 million that had been estimated by the MTA [ed note: the previous operator].
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
(San Francisco - KALW) Many San Franciscans were shocked by anti-Islam advertisements that appeared on ten Muni buses Monday. The ads show inflammatory quotes by Islamic fundamentalists accompanied by a picture of the speaker, an anonymous terrorist, and in one case, a victim. One shows a picture of Osama Bin Laden next to the quote: “The first thing that we are calling you is to Islam,” alongside an image of the burning World Trade Center.
This isn’t the first time San Francisco has dealt with controversial ads from the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a controversial anti-Muslim group led by Pamela Geller. Last August, Muni buses featured ads calling Palestinians “savages” and urging people to support Israel; the ads sparked outrage. In response, Muni launched a self-funded campaign alongside the AFDI ads saying the transit agency did not support discrimination.
AFDI ads have also appeared in the New York City subway system and on DC's Metro.
San Francisco officials are once again roundly denouncing the ads.
In a press conference held on Monday, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee made it clear he does not support the ads.
“Hate has no place in our city,” he said. “San Francisco is a city that celebrates its diversity and hateful speech and discrimination against our Arab and Muslim communities will never be tolerated."
San Francisco Board of Supervisors president David Chiu echoed that sentiment. "As a former civil rights attorney, I'm proud to stand with our Arab and Muslim American families to send a united message that San Francisco embraces diversity and tolerance, not hate and bigotry," he told the crowd.
Chiu said he planned to introduce a resolution formally condemning the ads as racist and Islamophobic at the Board’s next meeting.
Muni believes it must accept the advertising from the AFDI based on a federal court decision in New York last year. In that case, a district judge ruled that New York City’s transportation agency couldn’t discriminate against advertisements that could be considered offensive– especially if they were political in nature.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency –which oversees Muni– has announced it will donate all $5,000 of the revenues from the ads to the Human Rights Commission to study discrimination against Muslims and Arabs in San Francisco.
Thursday, March 07, 2013
Public transportation costs are set to rise in the Bay Area, a region with some of the most congested freeways and longest commute distances in the country.
Last week, BART directors voted to pass a scheduled increase for ride fares and parking fees. These increases are designed to be small and incremental and to rise with inflation. The first fare hike will happen on January 1st, 2014 and will raise prices by 5.2 percent. That means the average ride will go from $3.59 to $3.78. Further fare increases will be implemented every two years until 2020.
In a BART press release, board president Tom Radulovich said the increases are necessary to keep the system up to date and make improvements going forward.
“These small increases are an important part of BART’s financial health, especially as we face a $10 billion unfunded capital need,” he said. “We want our passengers to know we don’t make decisions like this without great consideration."
That $10 billion is supposed to go to long-term BART projects like extensions to Livermore and Silicon Valley, a BART/Oakland Airport connector train, and to build enough new train cars to replace the system’s aging fleet.
BART fares went up most recently last July, when the minimum ticket price was upped to $1.75 and the average fare increased by five cents. That increase was part of a series of four small inflation-based fare hikes that started in 2006. This new round of increases is a continuation of that same program.
The directors also approved a plan to increase parking fees. While the ride fare increase had little opposition, raising the parking fees was a much more contentious issue. East Bay directors had argued that the increase was unfair because it affects their constituents disproportionately. Most of the BART parking lots are in the East Bay, where commuters often drive long distances just to get to a station.
Currently, most stations parking lots cost $1 a day and some are free (except the crowded West Oakland lot, which costs $5). Under the new parking program, all stations will cost at least $1 a day, and each lot will be evaluated to determine how often it fills to capacity. The stations that are more crowded will be subject to a 50 cent increase every six months. Some stations parking lots could end up costing as much as $3 a day.
Kevin Melanephy is a regular commuter on BART. He parks in the El Cerrito Del Norte station in the East Bay every day to get to work. While he may not like the fee hikes, there’s not much he can do about it.
“I still have to go to work,” he said. “So I’ll have to pay whatever.”
BART officials say they had to raise parking fees because the under the current system, the revenue doesn’t cover the maintenance costs for the parking lots. It costs BART $21.7 million per year to run the parking lots, which includes security, lighting, and cleaning. Parking revenues currently cover $15.6 million of that. The new parking fees will be used to close that gap and to repair stations.
“Many of our aged stations are in desperate need of upgrades and improvements,” Radulovich said. “This new money will go towards projects such as escalator and elevator reliability, improved lighting, more secured bike parking, shuttle programs, better drop-off areas, and other improvements to stations and access.”
Buoyed by a recent survey where 70% of riders said the system was a good value for the money, officials remain confident that people will continue to turn to BART, even with the price increases.
Wednesday, March 06, 2013
California has the worst track record in improving its highways, while spending twice the national average per mile.
That's according to a new study by the Reason Foundation. The libertarian think tank studied improvements to the nation’s highway infrastructure over a 20-year span, contrasted with money spent per mile. They looked into seven categories that represent the state of the highway system: fatalities, deficient bridges, percent of urban and rural interstate highways in poor pavement condition, percent of urban highways that are congested, percent of rural primary roads in poor pavement condition, and the number of rural primary roads flagged as too narrow. The study noted how much each state improved –or worsened– in each category between 1989 and 2008. It turns out that overall, most of the country has made big improvements in highway conditions over the last 20 years.
Lead author Dave Hartgen says he’s not ignoring the problems with the national highway infrastructure, which he admits are plenty. (In its last report card for the nation’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a “D.”) But he says the results prove the United States highway system isn’t “crumbling.”
“The overall condition of the state-controlled road system is getting better and you can actually make the case that it has never been in better shape,” he said in a press release. “The key going forward is to target spending where it will do the most good.”
While the study shows the country is improving, California noticeably lags behind. California was the only state that improved in just two categories: fatalities and deficient bridges. In contrast, 37 states improved in five out of the seven categories and 11 improved in all seven. California fared particularly badly in urban congestion and urban interstate road conditions. The state has two of the most congested metro areas in the country– the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. And the condition of its California’s urban Interstate roads, like the Bay Area’s hated I-880, have declined by more than 20 percent since 1989. Only Hawaii is worse. Over the twenty years covered by the study, the state spent $5.84 million per mile of highway– more than twice the national average of $2.85 million per mile.
But there is a silver lining: California has reduced its fatality rate by 1.1 fatalities per 100 million miles of highway. That’s the 13th best improvement in the country.
To learn more, check out the full study here.
Monday, March 04, 2013
Starting this month, some kids in San Francisco can ride the bus for free. The new program, called Free Muni for Youth, aims to make life a little easier for the city’s low- and moderate-income families. The city estimates that 40,000 young people qualify for the program.
"It started in a small room, just a couple pieces of pizza and people are like, we should make free Muni for young people,” said Nick Persky. He’s a 17 year-old junior at Lick-Wilmerding High School and the vice chair of the San Francisco Youth Commission, a group of 17 young people who advise the mayor on youth issues. Persky wasn’t around when the idea for free Muni for young people first came about–he said it dates back about a decade–but he’s proud see it put into action.
“We thought it was never possible, but as evidenced by today, it is something that is possible,” he said. “It’s pretty special to be a person in high school, to be a person who is unable to vote, to be able to see what young people can do to bring policy change in our local government.”
Part of the reason kids need a free ride is that years of budget cuts have all but eliminated yellow bus service in San Francisco. For a lot of students, that means Muni is the only way for them to get to school. Paul Monge-Rodriguez, a legislative aide for the San Francisco Youth Commission, said people shouldn’t think of it as a handout.
“It’s almost like a reallocation, still investing in the same types of services, but just through a different source of funding,” he explained.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of directors approved a pilot program almost a year ago, but the plan was contingent upon a $4 million grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional transit board. In July, the MTC denied the grant. But in the fall, a new grant surfaced and SFMTA director Ed Reiskin recommended that $1.6 million of it be used to fund a 16-month trial.
Last week, the diverse coalition that made Free Muni for Youth a reality held a press conference to celebrate its official launch. Everyone involved, from young people, to city Supervisor David Campos, to Reiskin, was quick to praise the others for their continued cooperation.
Reiskin told the students, “You guys are the ones that made this happen,” noting that this was the best grassroots initiative he had ever seen.
Still, Reiskin said funding the program was a difficult decision, because Muni’s infrastructure has a lot of existing problems and it needs all the money it can get. But ultimately, he sided with the young people of the city.
“The system has a lot of needs,” he said. “But the community has needs too.”
It was an emotional day for many of the people involved. Claudia Gonzalez, a mother of two from Potrero Hill, spoke through an interpreter about her experience.
“It was a very stressful process,” she said. “I remember going to these meetings and I felt very betrayed by the MTA board because we would go in front of them and tell them about how difficult it was for us, and they would look away and they wouldn’t answer us, they wouldn’t give us a straight answer, and that was a very, very arduous process for us.”
Gonzalez said she owes a big thanks to POWER, an advocacy group that played an important role in organizing the campaign for Free Youth for Muni. Now, her two kids (age 11 and 13), will get a free ride to school.
Throughout the day, though, everyone agreed the majority of the praise should go to the youth who organized and fought on their own behalf for the right to free public transportation. At the press conference, SF Unified School District Superintendent Richard A. Carranza summed up a popular sentiment about the students’ instrumental role.
“The grown ups are in awe of how well organized and articulate our youth are,” he said to a cheering crowd of students and onlookers. Looking out at students, he announced, “I’ll see you on Muni!”
Thursday, February 21, 2013
(San Francisco -- KALW) San Francisco's Board of Supervisors recently passed an ordinance to allow residential developers to add more parking spots to their new apartment buildings–- if those spots are dedicated for car-share programs.
The city considers itself a national leader in car share, and in 2011 it began reserving on-street parking for area nonprofit City CarShare.
So it wasn't a surprise when the ordinance, which was proposed by Supervisor Scott Wiener, passed unanimously. What surprised some was the opposition to it.
In a letter, Sierra Club secretary Sue Vaughan said the plan "will add to overall congestion and negatively impact the flow of transit and air quality.”
The Sierra Club says building more parking spaces -- even for car share -- violates the city’s Transit First policy. That's a 1973 initiative that puts public transit investment as the city’s top transportation priority, and is designed to discourage private automobile traffic.
Apartment parking is hot commodity in San Francisco– under the current rules, developers can only build one space per unit. But for many San Franciscans, that’s not enough. A quick search on Craigslist shows people renting their coveted spots upwards of $300 a month.
Now, the city is considering reducing that amount: a recent development on Market and Castro was allowed just one half of a parking spot per unit. The idea behind the restriction is to get people out of cars and into other methods of transportation, like Muni or biking.
Before the new ordinance, car-share spots counted toward the development’s maximum. For example, the planned building on Market and Castro has 24 units, so that means 12 parking spaces. If the developer wanted to add a car-share spot, it would have to be included in that 12. Under the new ordinance, they could add between two to five spots designated for car-share only, in addition to the 12.
Instead of making new parking spots for car-share programs, The Sierra Club suggested converting existing street parking spots. But Supervisor Wiener’s office countered by offering studies that show each new car share vehicle replaces between eight and ten private cars. In fact, a UC Berkeley study found that after signing up with a car-sharing program, almost half of households with a car got rid of their vehicle.
The San Francisco Supervisors hope that developers will take advantage of these new car-share spots. So do the city’s car-share members, who are seeing their usual spots at gas stations and open-air lots disappear as they get converted into buildings and other uses.
This isn't the first time the Sierra Club has taken a counterintuitive position. Last summer, the group opposed a regional transportation referendum in the Atlanta area that would have generated $3 billion in transit funding. The Sierra Club said that proposal didn't go far enough. The referendum didn't get the majority it needed to pass.
Follow @IsabeltheAngell on Twitter.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
When he came into office last year, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee said fixing Muni wasn’t a priority for him.
But in his 2013 State of the City address, Mayor Lee devoted almost ten minutes of his speech to the often-reviled public transit system.
Muni’s cars and buses are often overcrowded, sometimes to the point where they can’t stop to take on new passengers. And about 40 percent of Muni vehicles run late, according to an independent analysis by the Bay Citizen published last June. It’s a system so hated by some riders, it even provokes poetry (read “Ode to (Not Muni) Transit" from Muni Diaries). Lee said he sympathized with a ridership plagued by overcrowded chronically late buses, and he promised that changes to Muni are coming soon.
“I know it’s frustrating to push your way onto an overcrowded train or watch an overloaded bus go by,” said Lee. “And I understand the anxiety that comes with being late to work, late to pick up your kids or late to school because you were on time, but your bus wasn’t. I am very pleased to report that positive changes are underway, and with the full support and leadership of the MTA Board of Directors, the nation’s seventh largest public transit agency is once again focused on operations and investing in infrastructure, in maintenance and in safety.”
He concluded by unveiling the “San Francisco Transportation 2030 Task Force,” a group designed to tackle the city’s transportation problems.
But San Franciscans won’t have to wait for the task force to report back to learn what some of these changes are going to be. In 2008, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) started a project called the Transit Effective Program. Known as the TEP, the project began a as a comprehensive effort to overhaul the Muni system. It’s focused on two major issues: making changes that minimize delays on the Rapid Service lines and restructuring regular bus routes to reduce crowding and tardiness.
So far, the TEP has proposed some major changes to Muni. Of Muni’s 79 lines, 32 will have changes to their routes and 40 will have changes to their stop frequency. Six lines will have entirely new routes and three will be eliminated. Designed around the city’s changing commute patterns and congested areas, the SFMTA hopes that these changes will streamline the system and increase Muni’s reliability.
The TEP also proposes some changes to Muni’s Rapid Network corridors. The Rapid Network is a group of 12 exceptionally busy lines that officials have identified as routes they’d like to make faster and more frequent. These are so-called “engineering changes,” or improvements that physically change the structure of certain intersections and transit stops. Think adding “Muni-only” traffic lanes, building new boarding islands, and replacing stop signs with traffic lights.
There are already a couple of TEP pilot projects going on right now. One is taking place along a three-block stretch of Church Street, a busy road in the city’s center. SFMTA has made one of the lanes “transit-only,” meaning only buses and taxis can use it. It lets Muni bypass the usual traffic and should reduce delays, according to the SFMTA engineers.
Currently, the SFMTA’s Planning Department is busy making sure the rest of the TEP proposals meet California’s environmental standards. The final draft of the Environmental Impact Report is expected in about a year. After that, the SFMTA will implement as many proposals as they can get funding for.
Now riders will just have to wait and see whether these changes are really going to be effective.
Follow Isabell Angell on Twitter: @IsabeltheAngell
Thursday, February 07, 2013
(San Francisco -- KALW) Last week, the Golden Gate Bridge began testing a new all-electronic toll collection system. In the past, there’s always been the option to hand cash to a human being.
But in sixty days, if all goes according to plan, human toll collectors will be completely phased out. Mary Currie, the spokesperson for Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, said it’s mostly about the budget.
“We have a $66 million, five-year shortfall, and with the movement from manual collection to electronic collection we can save approximately $16 million over an eight-year period,” Currie said.
Currie expects the change will be fairly easy, because more than two-thirds of the people who cross the Golden Gate Bridge today already have a FasTrak--an opt-in program that lets drivers pay their tolls electronically. But Currie says drivers can also pay using credit cards or cash, use smart phones or kiosks to pre-pay.
People who blow through the toll plaza without pre-paying will get a bill for six dollars mailed to their house.
The all-electronic toll system is scheduled to go into effect at the end of March.
But if this Q&A in the San Jose Mercury is any indication of how Bay Area residents feel about the switch, the Golden Gate Bridge transit district has their P.R. work cut out for them. People are asking about everything from what to do when driving a rental cars to how to this will work for those who only take rare trips across the bridge. While the transit district has answers for most of the questions, drivers will need to know them before the big shift.
Of the 28 toll Golden Gate Bridge toll workers, 14 have either retired or have found other jobs within the transit district. In the event the district can’t place the remaining workers, they will get a severance package, the details of which are still being negotiated with the toll takers’ union. The union has not made any toll workers available for comment.
Though many highways use all electronic tolling, by Currie's count, the Golden Gate is the largest bridge to attempt such a system in the United States. Two smaller bridges that have eschewed cash tolls are the SR 520 "floating bridge" in Seattle and the Leeville Bridge in Louisiana. Currie said that while Golden Gate Bridge is among the first bridges to try this new tolling system, it certainly won’t be the last.
“We will see all-electronic tolling across the United States in the next 10 years,” she said.