Saturday, April 12, 2014

Larkspur and the Transit Oriented Development Ponzi Scheme

Larkspur and the Transit Oriented Development Ponzi Scheme

originally published in .

larkspur_trafficIf you ask the situational analysis question to anyone living in Larkspur or commuting through Larkspur “do you have traffic or parking issues?” the answer is likely to be a resounding “Yes – we need to sort out this mess”.
However Larkspur has got itself caught up in what can almost be described as a planning-Ponzi scheme. Is it intentional? I would argue many involved have good intentions, and many are hamstrung by state and regional mandates driven by flawed thinking that is pushing areas like Larkspur into an endless cycle of creating acute transportation issues, then offering funds to solve the issue that only compound it. It’s like a drug-deal.
Who benefits? Regional transportation agencies that gain more and more federal grants, grow in employees, executives get more responsibilities and higher salaries and grow in influence.

What Does Larkspur Really Need?

In normal circumstances whenever new development is added developers pay impact fees to expand the road system, pay for schools etc. However this money only pays for improvements in the immediate local area.
Larkspur is a focal point for transportation for Marin and Sonoma. While development in Larkspur has been limited, the town is affected by all development happening upstream. Sure each new development in Marin and Sonoma only adds a little traffic, but it adds up.
The massive Graton Casino in Rohnert Park which opened Nov 2013 has 5,700 parking spaces
Take for example the $820m Graton Casino which opened in Rohnert Park in November which provides no less than 5,700 parking spaces for it’s patrons. The casino will draw a significant amount of evening traffic passing through Larkspur. The casino is paying $12m per year in traffic mitigation fees – but this goes in its entirety to Rohnert Park and the county of Sonoma.
In other developments in Marin and Sonoma new housing is built but impact fees are limited to the immediate area affected – yet they end up placing cumulatively more burden on key choke-points like Larkspur.

Along Came MTC Resolution 3434 and the SMART Train

Then along came the “SMART” train. Ostensibly marketed to voters as helping alleviate 101 traffic issues the reality is now becoming starkly evident.
In July 2005 the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) enacted resolution 3434. This resolution tied transit-planning funding to housing development and land use in a $222m program. MTC for those unaware is the regional agency responsible for planning transportation for the Bay Area.
A little digging reveals in the MTC Resolution 3434 document the real agenda of MTCs funding Station Area Plans. This is covered in section 4 titled “Corridor Level Thresholds” and section 5 “Station Area Plans”:
“Each proposed physical transit extension project seeking funding through Resolution 3434 must demonstrate that the thresholds for the corridor are met through existing development and adopted station area plans that commit local jurisdictions to a level of housing that meets the threshold. This requirement may be met by existing station area plans accompanied by appropriate  zoning and implementation mechanisms. If new station area plans are needed to meet the corridor threshold, MTC will assist in funding the plans.” [emphasis added]
Table 3 on page 3 in the MTC resolution clearly shows that SMART must attain 2,200 housing units on average within a half mile radius, or it loses funding. This is the real reason for the Larkspur Station Area Plan. This is never openly talked about or referenced in station area plan documents or EIRs.

Larkspur’s Deal with the Devil

deal_with_devilThis is where transit-oriented developments money honey-pot drew Larkspur into the transit-oriented development Ponzi scheme. Larkspur councilors keenly wanted to obtain funding to plan to prepare for the SMART station, to address traffic and transportation issues. On 21st March 2012 Larkspur council unanimously entered into a grant contract with MTC in order to receive $480,000 of MTCs funding drawn from the $222m program tied to resolution 3434. This was to be used to develop the Larkspur Station Area Plan. Some smaller matches came in from other sources:
-       SMART
-       The Transportation Authority of Marin
-       The County of Marin
In Civic Center Station Area Plan the MTC grant contract was clear about it’s intent requiring that the plan “maximize housing potential” (see top of page 19). The grant contract went further to require that the plan be adopted by the council – this was not to be a free vote based on local representation. This was clarified not just by a specific deliverable (12b) but by grant monies only being released upon plan adoption. In both San Rafael and Larkspur these contracts were adopted with barely any outreach to residents f any of the obligations being taken on.

 MTC Measures Success on $Grants In (to SAP) Housing Out

MTCs intentions are further evidenced in their program summary chart. The chart shows for each station area plan / PDA plan (the chart ties the two together):
-       Grant award (the input)
-       Then the output measured as:
  • New housing units
  • New commercial development (sq ft)
  • New “potential” jobs
Consider as you read this chart that Sonoma County is planning Priority Development Areas around stations adding 24,010 housing units – adding a significant amount of traffic to 101 without any mitigation in Marin. The Santa Rosa Station Area Plan alone adds 3,409 housing units – dwarfing Larkspur’s 920 units, hotel and added retail.

So What’s the Issue? The TOD Ponzi Scheme

The issue here is as follows:
-       Transportation funding presumes and mandates future substantial growth
-       To attain the targeted funding the SMART train has to increase development the length of the line to attain an average of 2,200 housing units within ½ mile of each station (hence the real agenda for “station area plans” where the title deceivingly doesn’t reference that they are really camouflaged plans to increase housing).
-       An area like Larkspur that experiences organic growth through development outside the immediate area cannot seek funding without committing to more growth
-       The transportation funding presumes that the new residents will take transit, however:
  • In Larkspur the ferries are at or near capacity, no more ferry crossings can be added due to a legal settlement to prevent wakes and protect the environment
  • in Larkspur few residents will use the train to go north; the nearest major employment center is San Francisco
  • Larkspur is in a suburban, not an urban setting whereby it is more likely that the new residents will drive to get to work, take their children to school or to go on a shopping trip with heavy shopping
Some might argue we entered into this Ponzi scheme when voters adopted SMART. But this was all cleverly concealed by slick marketing claiming that the train was the answer to 101 congestion.
And so by accepting the MTC grant money Larkspur has entered a TOD pyramid scheme where it will endlessly have to increase urbanization to catch up with and address transportation capacity issues. The new money will not be focused on Larkspur’s most acute problems – traffic and parking – but instead veinly hope that the new residents won’t drive.
Ultimately this is all about SMART and MTC get their grant money by ensuring there are 2,200 housing units within ½ mile of each SMART station. This is not about solving problems – it’s a Ponzi scheme all about money and regional agencies increasing the money they receive from federal grants that increases their influence, staff and executives paychecks.

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