Saturday, February 14, 2015

Disgraced ABAG official indicted in SoMa funds case (The story about ABAG that the Marin IJ won't publish)

Disgraced ABAG official indicted in SoMa funds case

Updated 9:47 pm, Friday, February 13, 2015
Top ABAG official, Clarke Howatt is indicted in $1.3 million dollar embezzlement case.
Clarke Howatt, the former public finance official suspected of embezzling $1.3 million in funds intended for beautifying a fast-changing part of San Francisco, has been indicted on charges of wire fraud.

The incident occurred Aug. 12, according to the charge filed Friday at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, and it involved the transfer of money that had been paid as community impact fees by the developer of the One Rincon tower next to the Bay Bridge. The $1.3 million was wired from the Finance Authority for Nonprofit Corporations, an independent arm of theAssociation of Bay Area Governments, to a Citibank account that Howatt had opened the previous month.

At the time, Howatt served as the finance authority’s financial services director. He resigned in late January, one month after an audit revealed that the South of Market Community Stabilization Fund, where the money was supposed to be available for public improvements, was depleted.

Howatt “did knowingly and with the intent to defraud devise a scheme and artifice” to pull off the Aug. 12 transfer and obtain “unused development project funds and surplus cash from (public) bond accounts,” according to the indictment. The money was wired to an account that supposedly was held by representatives of One Rincon as reimbursement for money spent on street upgrades. But the fund had no connection with the tower developers, and no request for such a reimbursement had been made.

Three days after the transfer, Howatt purchased a beach house in Oregon for $1.53 million. The government seeks forfeiture of that property, as well as a Moraga condominium owned by Howatt and purchased in June for $301,000.

Since his resignation from ABAG, where he had worked since 1995, Howatt has retained an attorney, Mary McNamara, who in 2012 was called “one of Northern California’s best federal criminal defense lawyers” by the San Francisco Daily Journal, a legal trade publication. The piece described her success at reaching a settlement with prosecutors on behalf of a businessman who had pleaded guilty to defrauding an independent federal agency.

“Mr. Howatt is fully cooperating with law enforcement and ABAG,” McNamara said in an e-mail to The Chronicle on Friday evening. “He deeply regrets his actions and is in the process of restoring the funds that he took. He waived indictment and is working with the government on a speedy resolution.”

ABAG’s executive director, Ezra Rapport, said in an e-mail that “we are pleased to hear that Mr. Howatt's attorney has stated that he has the resources to make full restitution.”
The executive committee of the Finance Authority voted last week to replace the missing $1.3 million with money from its reserves.

John King is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @JohnKingsfchron

Some will rob you with a six gun and some with a fountain pen..

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Scorching of California

How Green extremists made a bad drought worse

Winter 2015
The drought has threatened to turn large tracts of farmland into dust.
In mid-December, the first large storms in three years drenched California. No one knows whether the rain and snow will continue—only that it must last for weeks if a record three-year drought, both natural and man-made, is to end. In the 1970s, coastal elites squelched California’s near-century-long commitment to building dams, reservoirs, and canals, even as the Golden State’s population ballooned. Court-ordered drainage of man-made lakes, meant to restore fish to the 1,100-square-mile Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, partly caused central California’s reservoir water to dry up. Not content with preventing construction of new water infrastructure, environmentalists reverse-engineered existing projects to divert precious water away from agriculture, privileging the needs of fish over the needs of people. Then they alleged that global warming, not their own foolish policies, had caused the current crisis.
Even as a fourth year of drought threatens the state, canal water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park keeps Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area a verdant oasis. This parched coastal mountain range would have depopulated long ago without the infrastructure that an earlier, wiser generation built and that latter-day regulators and environmentalists so casually deprecated. (See “California’s Promethean Past,” Summer 2013.) Gardens and lawns remain green in Palo Alto, San Mateo, Cupertino, and San Francisco, where residents continue to benefit from past investments in huge water transfers from inland mountains to the coast. They will be the last to go dry.

grew up in the central San Joaquin Valley during the 1950s. In those days, some old-timers remembered with fondness when the undammed Kings River’s wild, white water would gush down into the sparsely populated valley. But most Californians never had such nostalgia. Past generations accepted that California was a growing state (with some 20 million people by 1970), that agriculture was its premier industry, and that the state fed not just its own people but millions across America and overseas. All of that required redistribution of water—and thus dams, reservoirs, and irrigation canals.

For 50 years, the state transferred surface water from northern California to the Central Valley through the California State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. Given these vast and ambitious initiatives, Californians didn’t worry much about the occasional one- or two-year drought or the steady growth in population. The postwar, can-do mentality resulted in a brilliantly engineered water system, far ahead of its time, that brought canal water daily from the 30 percent of the state where rain and snow were plentiful—mostly north of Sacramento as well as from the Sierra Nevada Mountains—to the lower, western, and warmer 70 percent of the state, where people preferred to work, farm, and live.

Everyone seemed to benefit. Floods in northern California became a thing of the past. The more than 40 major mountain reservoirs generated clean hydroelectric power. New lakes offered recreation for millions living in a once-arid state. Gravity-fed snowmelt was channeled into irrigation canals, opening millions of new acres to farming and ending reliance on pumping the aquifer. To most Californians, the irrigated, fertile Central Valley seemed a natural occurrence, not an environmental anomaly made possible only through the foresight of a now-forgotten generation of engineers and hydrologists.

Just as California’s freeways were designed to grow to meet increased traffic, the state’s vast water projects were engineered to expand with the population. Many assumed that the state would finish planned additions to the California State Water Project and its ancillaries. But in the 1960s and early 1970s, no one anticipated that the then-nascent environmental movement would one day go to court to stop most new dam construction, including the 14,000-acre Sites Reservoir on the Sacramento River near Maxwell; the Los Banos Grandes facility, along a section of the

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why Does This Detroit Man Have to Walk 21 Miles to Get Back and Forth from Work Every Day? Because the Government Runs the Buses.

Why Does This Detroit Man Have to Walk 21 Miles to Get Back and Forth from Work Every Day? Because the Government Runs the Buses.

A blockbuster story in the Detroit Free Press highlights the failures of government transportation policy.

You've got to admire James Robertson's grit. This 56-year-old Detroit resident walks 21 miles every day to and from his job at a suburban car parts factory. His commute takes so much time that it leaves him just two hours to sleep before he has to get up and do it again. James Robertson walks 21-miles to and from work everyday ||| Detroit Free PressDetroit Free Press
Robertson is the subject of a recentblockbuster article in the Detroit Free Press, which is both an inspirational story of one man's determination to overcome the miles of pavement between him and an honest day's work, and a troubling reflection on Detroit's disgraceful transit system. Robertson voices no complaints about his monster commute in the article; on the subject of his work ethic, he told the Free Press, "I just get it from my family. It's a lot of walking, I know."
The story prompted an outpouring of support from readers, including a Wayne State University student who set up a charitable campaign that so far has raised $350,000. Robertson has also been gifted a brand new Ford Taurus that's already alleviating his daily grind. Since the original story appeared, the Free Press has published a series of follow-ups looking at the implications of Robertson's story, which provides the perfect hook to explore some high-concept public policy issues. Lefty labor economists often attribute high rates of inner-city joblessness (Detroit's unemployment rate is about 12%, or roughly double the state average) on the "spatial mismatch" theory, which holds that after the manufacturing industry fled cities, poor urban residents were left with no way to get to work.
The real cause of Robertson's plight is more straightforward: The government does a terrible job of getting federal transit dollars to those who need them most, while at the same time constraining private initiatives that could make Detroit far more commutable without costing taxpayers a dime.
Robertson used to own a car, but after it broke down he didn't replace it primarily because he couldn't afford insurance. That's no surprise, given that Detroit's car insurance premiums are 165 percent the U.S. average, or the highest in the nation.
Why is basic liability coverage so costly? Michigan is the only state that doesn't cap personal injury claims related to car accidents, and its no-fault insurance law means that drivers are responsible for their passengers' medical costs whether they're to blame for an accident or not.
In 2014, House Republicans introduced a bill that would cap payouts and create an office to investigate fraud, but state Democrats, with the backing of personal injury lawyers and health care professionals, lined up in opposition.
So why isn't there a network of buses that can take Robertson to work? The Detroit metropolitan area is home to one of the nation's worst bus networks, providing limited service to the suburbs, and plagued by constant breakdowns and long wait times.
Last year, the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) gave Detroit a $25 million grantto buy 50 new motorcoaches, but it simultaneously committed roughly double that amount to help build a $137 million (and counting) light-rail boondoggle, which will service one 3.3-mile stretch along the city's main thoroughfare. The system may please the sensibilities of upper middle class professionals who drive from the suburbs to downtown Detroit (I'm doubtful they'll actually ride the damn thing), but it won't improve the mobility options for the vast majority of Motor City residents, including Robertson, who depend on buses.
The private sector could do a much better job of providing cheap and convenient transit, but the city of Detroit has outlawed the independent dollar vans and jitney operators thathelp so many low-income workers get to their jobs in New York City—again limiting Robertson's choices.
While reporting Robertson's story, Free Press reporter Bill Laitner discovered that the DOT's Job Access and Reverse Commute Program has granted the city funds to pay for door-to-door transportation for low-income workers," but Robertson "was not aware of the program."
No wonder. A follow-up investigation by the Free Press found that the $17.4 million in federal funds provided since 2004 were never spent. That is until six months ago, when the program finally got going. It currently serves 1,660 people, or about 0.2 percent of Detroit residents.
Robertson himself best summed up the wastefulness of this initiative. "I'd rather they spent that money on a 24-hour bus system, not on some little bus for me," he told the Free Press. "This city needs buses going 24/7. You can tell the city council and mayor I said that."
Back in 2010, Nick Gillespie and I looked at Detroit's dreadful bus service and light-rail follies for Reason TV:

Jim Epstein is a writer and producer at Reason.

Dick Spotswood: Marin fares well when it comes to commuting by transit or working close to home

Dick Spotswood: Marin fares well when it comes to commuting by transit or working close to home

Dick Spotswood writes a twice-weekly column on local politics for the Marin Independent Journal. (IJ photo/Robert Tong) 
Let’s put two myths to rest. The first is the contention by high-density developers and housing activists that Marin County has the worst record in the Bay Area when it comes to importing workers from surrounding counties. If any counties merit the spotlight, it’s Contra Costa and San Francisco.
The second fable is the alphabet agencies’ optimistic promise that if we spend more on public transit commuters will get out of their cars.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has recently released an analysis of Bay Area transportation patterns. Called “Vital Signs,” the report uses 14 indicators to monitor the Bay Area’s transportation network.
We can dismiss the old slam that Marin has a particularly bad record when it comes to its jobs-housing balance.
The study reports, “Most commuters live and work in the same county, although the counties of Santa Clara and San Francisco do ‘import’ significant numbers of workers.”
MTC indicates that the 66 percent of Marin residents that work and reside in-county is average for the Bay Area. Its ratio is almost the same as Alameda and better than Solano, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties.
Marin enjoys one of the lowest percentages of any county regarding either importing or exporting workers.
Activists castigating Marin for a jobs-housing imbalance fail to compare it with neighboring Bay Area counties. If there’s a pressing gap between the import-export of jobs it’s between Contra Costa, with its relatively lower cost of housing, and booming San Francisco with its plethora of well-paid jobs.
Intra-county commuting is inevitable in a dynamic economy.
“Vital Signs” presents discouraging news for transit advocates. Despite spending big bucks to shift auto traffic to buses, trains and ferries, the percentage of Bay Area residents traveling to work by transit has, if anything, slightly decreased since 1990.
Currently, 77 percent of Bay Area commuters travel by auto and 10 percent by transit. Of the remaining balance, 4 percent walk to their jobs, 6 percent work at home and 3 percent are lumped into “other.”
While the percentage of auto commuting has also slightly declined since 1990, when it stood at 81 percent, transit use remains at 10 percent. The 4 percent decrease in auto trips is attributed to the doubling of those working at home. That category grew from 3 percent to 6 percent.
If there’s an environmentally sensitive travel sector that Marin dominates it’s telecommuting. Mill Valley, Ross, Belvedere, Tiburon, Sausalito and Fairfax find themselves among the top 10 when it comes to working at home electronically.
Bike commuting increased from 1 percent to 2 percent of the regional commute over the past 25 years. Among Bay Area incorporated cities, Fairfax and Sausalito find themselves in the top 10 with 4 percent of residents pedaling to work.
With 7.3 percent of its citizenry opting to walk to work, San Anselmo foot power ties with pedestrian-friendly San Francisco for numbers enjoying a healthful commute.
Marin’s transit ridership is respectable, with 9 percent commuting by buses or ferries. While 32.6 percent of San Franciscans use transit — down from 40 percent in 1990 — Marin’s transit patronage comes in fourth among MTC’s nine counties, just behind Alameda and Contra Costa and ahead of San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, Sonoma and Napa.
The Marin town with highest transit ridership is Sausalito, where 15.7 percent of its employed residents use buses or its convenient ferries to get to jobs in the city.
Dick Spotswood of Mill Valley writes on local politics twice weekly in the IJ on Wednesday and Sunday. Email him at

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bay Area transit ridership down despite subsidies, enticements

Bay Area transit ridership down despite subsidies, enticements

February 6, 2015

Despite tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies and countless incentives, the percentage of Bay Area commuters taking mass transit hasn’t gone up a bit in more than two decades — in fact, it’s declined.
A new study by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission found that while ridership has hit record numbers on BART and Caltrain as the Bay Area’s population has grown, per capita usage of transit has dropped 14 percent since 1991.

In other words, despite all the BART extensions and the new light-rail and bus lines, the slice of the morning commuters jumping into their cars to go work has pretty much stayed the same since before Bill Clinton was president.

“It’s true — it’s as difficult as ever to entice people out of their cars,” said Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the transportation commission. “But transit remains important to mobility in the Bay Area.”

According to the study, Bay Area residents took 1.35 million trips on public transit on a typical weekday in 2013. That’s up from the depths of the recession, but it is still significantly lower than peak ridership levels in 2001, when 1.45 million public transit trips were taken every day.

The “whys” behind the decline depend on whom you ask.

Susan Shaheen, with UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, points to everything from rising transit fares to the need to make transfers to people’s desire for “personal space.”

East Bay developer Jim Ghielmetti, who sits on the California Transportation Commission, says some of it is where we’ve built transit lines.

“The routes clearly don’t match where the jobs are going,” Ghielmetti said, pointing to the campus-style business centers on the Peninsula and the East Bay that are not linked to mass transit.

Another issue is the politics of mass-transit spending. Millions have been pointed at bike lanes and the Central Subway to San Francisco’s Chinatown, while heavily populated corridors such as Mission Street and Geary Boulevard remain bus-only afterthoughts.
One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that car use shows no sign of letting up.
“If you look over a long period of time, the cost of owning a car has actually dropped,” Rentschler said. “They are cheaper and more reliable than ever before.”
And that can’t always be said of a bus.

San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross appear Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. Matier can be seen on the KPIX TV morning and evening news. He can also be heard on KCBS radio Monday through Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 5:50 p.m. Got a tip? Call (415) 777-8815, or e-mail Twitter: @matierandross

Wincup deal, Macfarlane Partners, ABAG and Corte Madera in 2012

from North Bay Business Journal 
June 2012

Author: Bill Meagher
June, 2012 Issue

Corte Madera city leadership is fighting against imposed housing requirements by streamlining the approval process.

For years, a billowing trail of steam rose over Highway 101 in Marin County, originating from the paper cup factory whose products kept lots of McDonald’s Happy Meals company. But now, the Tamal Vista Apartments rise up from the former Win Cup factory and, as it turns out, the upscale units come with their own fascinating backstory.

To begin with, the town folk in Corte Madera didn’t really want the 180 apartments—“It’s too big,” or “too dense.” Rather, the town council approved the project because it served a purpose, not because a dense apartment complex was at the top of everybody’s must-have list.

Then there’s ABAG, the Association of Bay Area Governments. This little-known organization annually tells cities and towns how much added housing will be needed locally based on demographics, historical changes and job growth projections. And those numbers hardly ever make cities happy. In the case of Corte Madera, the town was so pissed off, it resigned from the commission, complete with heated rhetoric and a pioneer spirit that had some folks at public meetings talking about tyranny and Redcoats or, at the very least, the right to arm bears.

There’s also Victor MacFarlane, the 61-year-old San Francisco-based developer who’s counting on the Tamal Vista project to help him rebuild his hard-earned reputation after his MacFarlane Partners brought the country’s largest public pension fund into a deal that lost almost $1 billion.
That’s billion, with a "b."

Finally, there’s the fact that the project was submitted in September 2011 and, by February 2012, Town Hall had signed off on it. For those of you scoring at home, that means it was approved in five months—in a county where approval for some projects runs neck-and-neck with the aging of decent scotch—and that included enough time to have the approval appealed and slapped down.

Building blocks

Our story begins around New Year’s 2007, a little north of Los Angeles, on a 15,000-acre tract of land known as the Newhall Ranch. It’s the largest undeveloped property left to build houses on in Southern California, and the plan was for MW Housing Partners III, a company jointly owned by MacFarlane Partners and Weyerhaeuser Realty Investors (WRI), to invest in the project called LandSource Communities Development. The simple strategy was time honored and penciled out on paper: The fund would hold the land and sell it off as developers needed it, over many years, as the land continued to appreciate in value.

For more than a decade prior to LandSource, MW Housing was already one of the top single-family housing investment managers for the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS); MW Housing Partners III and LandSource was just the latest in a series of investment ventures between the two. And MacFarlane Partners had managed commercial real estate investments for CalPERS since the early 1990s, building its reputation by researching and identifying the benefits of investing in and developing projects built around transportation elements in neglected urban areas. Over the years, MP grew to manage as much as $10 billion in real estate for CalPERS, including the very high-profile Time Warner Center in Manhattan. For that same deal, MP partnered with former LA Laker star (now LA Dodger owner) Magic Johnson.

So CalPERS throwing in with MW Housing III on the LandSource deal didn’t raise any eyebrows. But in summer 2007, the credit markets froze and commercial real estate markets that had been pumped full of cheap debt began to leak. By June 2008, the project was drowning in debt. Badly overleveraged and out of time, LandSource filed for bankruptcy protection after failing to restructure $1 billion in debt. This left CalPERS in the lurch for a whopping $970 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.

What have you done for me lately?

Though MacFarlane had performed well for CalPERS for better than a decade, the rapid loss of assets likely left the pension fund looking for a fall guy. But while the LandSource deal was bad news for MP, it certainly wasn’t the only dark cloud drifting over the Sacramento-based pension fund when it came to commercial real estate.

It lost $500 million on the ill-fated $5.4 billion purchase of Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, the deal that became the poster child for hubris and hutzpah in the overheated national commercial real estate market. CalPERS invested $91 million in Boston for the Columbus Center, a project to build condos and stores over a section of the new Massachusetts Turnpike. The project is still stalled. The pension fund also plunked down $100 million for property in Sacramento to build a pair of 53-story towers; the land is still sitting there. In Portland, Ore., CalPERS and a partner ponied up $109 million to buy a portion of the “Mechanical Pencil” building. The fund then defaulted on a $70 million mortgage and turned the keys over to the bank. And in East Palo Alto, Calif., the fund invested $100 million in a plan to take 1,700 rent-controlled apartments, upgrade them and then bump rents to market price. But the project hit rough waters when the tenants objected, and the public protested. After allegedly putting 1,500 low-income tenants on the street and losing a legal battle, the project’s banker, Wells Fargo, foreclosed on the project.

So CalPERS was more than capable of getting into real estate mischief without MacFarlane, but $1 billion isn’t chump change. MacFarlane Partners and CalPERS soon parted ways, with noisy chat in real estate circles from Manhattan to Seattle centering on whether MacFarlane was pushed…or did he jump? For the record, in 2009, MacFarlane Partners released a statement that announced its resignation as real estate adviser to the pension fund. CalPERS had no comment on why it and MP were no longer an item.

While the California State Teachers Retirement System, Teachers Retirement System of Texas, Illinois State Board of Investment and New Jersey Division of Investment have all invested millions in commercial real estate investment funds managed by MacFarlane Partners, the setback with CalPERS impacted MacFarlane. The last time the development company went to raise funds, it put just $200 million together—and the investors all hailed from Europe.

While Victor MacFarlane has paid a price professionally for the LandSource deal, it certainly isn’t the most daunting challenge he’s faced. And through the years, his success has brought him opportunities, like becoming the majority investor in DC United, the professional soccer team in Washington, D.C. He also bought the penthouse at the St. Regis in San Francisco, a place comfortable enough to hang your hat, even if you own several different chapeaus. He’s since sold off his interest in the soccer team and, after failing to sell the primo pad for $70 million, he quietly handed the keys back to the bank.

That was then, this is now

The trademark vapor twisting in the air above the WinCup factory is long gone, but the aging buildings that housed the paper cup mill still hang around, three stories of low-slung cement warehouse fronting the street across from the fun factory known as the DMV. The structures sport paint chips, and the awnings show their age not in the graceful way of classic building, but rather like a place where the years have taken a toll. The warehouse bays sit empty where semis once lined up to tote disposable cups to market. The parking lot holds a sign that advertises the project to come and, in keeping with Marin’s embrace of Mom Earth, the project promises to qualify for LEED Silver status with the units ready for occupancy in fall 2013. The apartments will include 3,000 square feet of resident-serving retail, maybe a dry cleaner and a coffee shop (the bean reigns supreme in the land of organic millionaires).

The old cup factory is part of what Corte Madera’s general plan refers to as an “overlay area,” where a light industrial use or a multi-family project would work. Planners had approved up to 180 units in the zoning of the property before MacFarlane ever knew about the land. And while the project was approved in rapid fashion by Marin standards, Corte Madera councilman Michael Lappert explains that has more to do with the town’s planning operation and philosophy. “We believe in the rights of property owners to try to do what they want with their property, as long as it’s legal,” he says. “We tell people, ‘Bring your plans in, and we’ll tell you how it will work.’ If we ask somebody to do these five things, and they do them, we don’t turn around and say, ‘OK now do these 12 things, and then do these 10 things.’ We don’t micro manage.”

Lappert, who’s also a reserve officer with the Twin Cities Police Authority (serving Corte Madera and Larkspur), is talking on the phone and warns that if something big happens, he may have to hang up. He says the approval of the high-density, multi-unit Tamal Vista project was the product of the town’s general plan rounding into shape in April 2009, the annual ABAG numbers coming in, and the town coming off an expensive lawsuit over its role and responsibility in not presenting enough opportunity for housing to be built. It was a perfect storm of sorts.

The lawsuit was brought in 1998 by Legal Aid of Marin, on behalf of Marin Family Action, which alleged the town failed to enact an approved housing element that would create zoning for housing that’s needed for future growth. The court ruled that Corte Madera needed to put a housing element in place that included ABAG-required affordable housing. The court also said the town needed to pick up the court costs of Legal Aid of Marin and the California Housing Law Project. Together, those bills ran close to $100,000. As a result of the settlement, the town ended up with a housing element and approved a 79-unit affordable complex, called San Clemente Place, which was completed in 2007 by EAH near the California Highway Patrol office.

“We looked at all that, saw the ABAG numbers and said, ‘This is perfect,’” Lappert says, referring to the Tamal Vista project. What’s more, it will include 18 units dedicated to workforce housing, a sticky issue all over Marin County.

Corte Madera Mayor Bob Ravasio, who’s a realtor when he isn’t wielding a gavel at public meetings, says the Tamal Vista approval process was longer and more complicated than it initially sounds, and he arrived at this conclusion by talking to planning types. He says the general plan process actually started way back in 2004 and was adopted five years later. And the housing element was OK’d in April 2011, after the town found out that ABAG said it needed to allow for the development of 244 new units by 2014. That number was dropped to 165 after the town received credit for 79 affordable units with the completion of the aforementioned San Clemente project.

So with just 165 units needed and 180 units teed up with the Tamal Vista project, the town is on the upside by 15 units. But in a way, that doesn’t really matter. ABAG came out with new numbers last year and, according to that data, the town needs more than 500 new units over 30 years.

After town officials and other elected officials across the county expressed disbelief at those projections, something happened. The numbers shrunk.

Now, ABAG says Corte Madera needs just 270 housing units. But don’t try talking to Lappert about any of ABAG’s numbers, because he’s all done. “Have you seen the job [creation] numbers they had? They say there will be 3,000 new jobs in Marin. Whose ass are they pulling these numbers out of? Are we all going to be doing each other’s laundry and mowing each other’s lawns?”

He waits a beat. “We [Corte Madera] understand that housing is needed. We understand that rich folks need someplace for their nannies to live.”

Mayor Ravasio says the town’s vote to quit ABAG is largely symbolic for the time being. “The downside to leaving ABAG, at this point, is still being evaluated. Our vote to leave doesn’t take effect for 15 months; right now, we’re still members. One downside would be that we may lose access to future grant money (ABAG acts as a clearinghouse for some state housing funds). However, in reviewing data for the last 10 years, we don’t see a lot of risk.”

Ravasio also mentions the possibility that his town will lose its influence with ABAG by pulling up stakes. But then he points out that the organization called for Corte Madera to zone for 244 units in a place that’s “built out.” His point is, what’s less than zero?

“There is zero downside to getting out of ABAG,” says Lappert, who’s been vocally advocating the move for a dozen years.

In the end, maybe everybody is getting what they want. Corte Madera has been seething over the job and housing proclamations coming down from ABAG for years. The latest move to tell the regional planning agency to pound sand comes with little risk. It costs the city about $2,300 per year to belong, so it will save some cash. And the only grant ABAG ever sent the town’s way was $60,000 for bicycle path construction—and, says Ravasio, “The town spent considerable additional funds to pay consultants to comply with the grant’s reporting conditions.” While the state can still crack the whip on the town when it comes to housing, in years past, it’s been pretty much a paper tiger.

Meanwhile, Lappert, Ravasio and the majority of the town council [Councilwoman Alexandra Cock voted against telling ABAG bye-bye] get to look independent and decisive.

As for MacFarlane Partners, it’s well aware of what Marin demographics and rental profiles look like. The WinCup complex is set up for public transit; it’s a very short drive to the ferry landing and walking distance to bus connections on Highway 101. Tenants are also a pleasant stroll from the largest old-school movie theater in Marin, Book Passage (the best bookstore in the county) as well as a shopping center and no less than 16 eateries and restaurants.

Perhaps the only party feeling down at this point is ABAG. And, according to published reports, Corte Madera hasn’t yet notified the agency that it’s withdrawing its membership, which runs until July 2013.

Nevertheless, ABAG’s Ezra Rapport was quoted recently as saying he plans on reaching out to Corte Madera Town Hall. “I’ll be contacting officials from Corte Madera myself to let them know we’re disappointed they didn’t communicate with us.”

That could be an interesting little chat. Here’s a little tip for Mr. Rapport: If you call councilman/officer Lappert and he hangs up in the middle of the conversation, it was an emergency.


The incredible disappearing budget. Spinning the Richmond Bridge Bike lane project Meeting Video 2/9/2015

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The “Transportation Cloud” is Coming

The “Transportation Cloud” is Coming

The “Transportation Cloud” is Coming
Many are familiar with “the cloud” – that imaginary place up there in Internet “heaven” where companies and people can access file storage, computing power, movies or music instantaneously – on demand – whenever they need it. The computer cloud has disrupted conventional computing:
  • Companies no longer need commit to buying dedicated servers that they may only fully utilize a few times a year.
  • People no longer need to buy bigger disk drives to store their email – we have services like Gmail that seem to offer endless storage for mails we never seem to get around to deleting.
  • We no longer buy movies or music, instead we subscribe to on-demand services capable of instantly gratifying us like Netflix and Spotify
The Internet cloud, while seemingly imaginary and ethereal has transformed the computer industry – and the number are staggering:
  • Research firm IDC estimates that businesses spent over $100 billion on cloud computing in 2014 (Source: The Economist)
  • Amazon’s cloud services report year on year growth of 90%
  • Netflix is estimated to use 34.9% of all downstream Internet traffic during peak periods on North American Broadband networks, closely followed by YouTube with 14% (Source: Variety, Nov 2014)
Just as “the cloud” has disrupted and revolutionized business computing, communications and media consumption – so the coming “transportation cloud” will have similar radical impacts on the world around us.

What is the Transportation Cloud?

The Transportation CloudThe short version: think Uber, add car-pooling then throw in Google self-driving cars.
The longer version – imagine next time you need to leave your house to go shopping, go to work, get to the airport you’ll click on a mobile app. Your location and intended destination will be transmitted to a central service and a self-driving car, that may already have passengers traveling along a similar route, will be sent to collect you.
While today average car occupancy for commutes is 1.13 this number could dramatically be increased, reducing congestion and increasing road capacity.
Just as many now scoff at those who waste money and storage space on a CD or DVD collection – in 15 years time many will hold car owners in similar disregard. Of course there will be many who will insist on owning cars – perhaps for collecting or driving for pleasure at weekends – just like there are still die-hard vinyl record and DVD collectors.
There may be economy and premium car services. Executives may use an app to summon a personal  Mercedes or Tesla, while the rest of us bundle into the latest Toyota Prius with some fellow travelers going the same direction.

How Far Away is All This? 

The scary part is the technology is already here!
In December Uber launched Uber Pool. Claiming to already undercut taxis by 40%, Uber Pool suggests that by sharing an Uber with other passengers you can cut the fare by another 50%. Uber has clearly already developed the routing software necessary for directing cars to pick up passengers with common routings.
A great additional step would be to incorporate Google Waze traffic routing technology – Waze as many may already know crowd-sources insight into road congestion and directs users to the quickest route, bypassing congestion in real time.

The Self Driving Car is Already Here

Google Self Driving Lexus SUVSince mid 2012 a Google X software engineer, Anthony Levandowski has been commuting from Berkeley to Mountain View in a self-driving Lexus, taking highway 880 at speeds exceeding 70mph. Google X is the company’s top secret lab for experimental technology.
At this year’s CES Audi and Mercedes unveiled self-driving cars. Mercedes’ offering actually drove itself to Las Vegas:
While the technology may be here already legislation still has to catch up, but there’s now sufficient market pressure that the dam will surely burst soon.
Nevada opened up its’ roads to autonomous vehicles as far back as June 2011California issued 25 DMV permits to self driving cars in 2014. Other states have been watching to see how this plays out. The most significant issue is who pays the bill if a self-driving car gets into an accident. The big picture is that self-driving cars are sure to have accidents, but on average they will be more safely driven and will be in fewer accidents, so allowing them is for the greater good. However car and software manufacturers are not going to sign up for major liability without a fight.

Suburbia is Our Enemy: The Planners Mindset

Conventional wisdom, conceived before the advent of the “transportation cloud” is that we must adhere to the ideology of“transit oriented development” conceived by UC Berkeley Professor, Robert Cervero where new development should be high density and focused around transit corridors.  This is woven deeply into the fabric of planning – it appears in many cities’ general plans.
The thinking goes that by marshaling new development to locations where it is easiest to provide public transit – major arterials – that people will be more likely to use public transit.

Reversing The Sin of Suburbia

Suburbia presents a fascinating quandary for planners. Some feel it is a mistake that should never have happened. Spread out with low population densities, suburbs are poorly suited to transit. Planners would sooner reverse trends and have the population conveniently move to a more urban configuration.
In order to be cost-effective with significant ridership transit generally needs to serve denser, more urban populations. The Sonoma Marin “SMART” train was proposed first and foremost to voters as a means “to relieve traffic” (Source: Measure Q).
In reality the “SMART” train was really about enabling development – and once that development occurred the train would become justified. This is outlined in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Transit Oriented Development Policy –Resolution 3434. This directed significant high-density growth within ½ mile of train stations the length of the line. To qualify for funding cities along the line had to plan for at least 2,200 housing units adjacent to each train station. This is of course back to front. It overlooks that many, likely most, of the new residents will drive adding to instead of relieving already acute traffic congestion.
With the transportation cloud cars will retain their crown as the most popular and common mode of transit outside of cities. Imposing needless, expensive rail projects will prove even more unnecessary.

What Does this Mean for Future Planning?

The General Motors Autonomous Car, 1962
General Motors’ Firebird III on display at the Century 21 Exposition, Seattle, 1962.
Self-driving cars in “the transportation cloud” are much better suited to spread out suburban environments.  With a capacity of 5 instead of a bus seating 50 or a train seating over 200, self driving cars in the transportation cloud can be much more efficient, traveling nearer full capacity. Cars already emit far less CO2 per passenger mile than transit – in suburban environments. But with the transportation cloud car occupancy can be increased further lowering car emissions.
New transit projects in suburbs will be rendered needless, and those recently launched will be recognized as being short-sighted.

The End of Traffic Congestion?

The Future of TransportationPerhaps the greatest benefit has to be traffic congestion – the transportation cloud means:
  • With higher average occupancies fewer cars are needed to transport the population
  • Congestion caused by overtaking and unnecessary acceleration and deceleration can be minimized
  • Self driving cars can chain together closer than conventional cars, communicating wirelessly when they are accelerating or breaking, so the capacity of a freeway lane can be significantly increased. They become a convoy that acts as a single unit.
With diminished traffic congestion, existing suburban and conurbations will be able to support higher populations – but the populations need not be driven by “transit oriented development” adjacent to arterial roads and rail networks. Instead they can be distributed – still within the suburban footprint, without sprawling. The pressure to build up around “transit corridors” will be diminished and towns will be able to preserve a more low-rise character.
Provided population growth isn’t radically accelerated surpassing the additional capacity, such as by ambitious long range plans like Plan Bay Area, feasible commute ranges should increase. More people should be able to commute longer distances relieving the pressure on cities and more proximate city suburbs.  People who settled for living in a small house in Mill Valley due to long commutes will instead find it practical to move to a larger, more comfortable house in Petaluma. Silicon Valley workers will be able to commute from much greater distances.
If we drive longer distances – such as driving from Marin to Los Angeles, the local traffic will be diminished, but the Interstate traffic between cities may remain at similar levels.

What Does this Mean for Transit?

Transit will remain – we will still depend on transit in cities just as we will use planes for longer journeys. Transit may also work in conjunction with the transportation crowd. Now you can be dropped off at the station or bus that takes you into the city, instead of having to park your car at the transit hub.

Car Ownership

While car ownership is likely to slowly diminish over time there are good reasons it won’t go to zero. Cars are just too great a part of America’s 20th and now 21st century DNA. While a more progressive crowd may fully embrace the transportation cloud and go car-less, many, especially the older generation will cling to their 4 wheeled dreams.
For some journeys we may still want privacy, or to be able to travel together just with family members. We can either select an option when we summon a transportation cloud vehicle not to share it, or continue to own a car that we may not commute with, but use for weekend trips or family vacations.
Car companies that spend billions on advertising won’t go down without a fight. The characteristics of private cars may change. The need for utilitarian cars used for commuting and shopping should be diminished – so remaining car models may focus more on pleasure trips.

Diminished Need for Parking Spaces

The need for car parking spaces should diminish. This has significant implications for malls and town centers. Fewer people will drive to these locations and park. The need for parking to make a business successful will diminish (but won’t disappear entirely).
Malls will likely remain – they will now be even easier to get to – but the necessity of sprawling car parks will diminish. Instead there will be drop off points as you exit your transportation cloud vehicle.

The Commercial Transportation Cloud

If you buy a heavy item while shopping you may not need to drag it to your cloud vehicle. The commercial transportation cloud will take care of that. The store assistant will note your address and dispatch it via a parallel commercial cloud that is picking off and dropping off items.
The commercial cloud may also act like an accelerated delivery form of Let’s say you discover you need to fix something in your home and you need a part – you will order it and it will be dispatched via the commercial transportation cloud.
It will work like present day vehicle parts services offering “just in time” delivery for almost anything.

The Impact on Jobs

One of the downsides of this kind of disruption is going to be on jobs:
  • Uber drivers will be displaced (just as Uber drivers are displacing taxi drivers today)
  • Bus routes may no longer be needed so bus drivers may be replaced; some buses may be computer driven
  • Car manufacturing jobs will be reduced
There is not much that can be done about this. The commercial pressures to adopt the transportation cloud will be impossible to hold back as the population recognizes how much they could save by not owning a car any longer, and if anything they may gain convenience.

What does this Mean for how we Plan for Our Future?

This presents a conundrum for big planning and transportation agencies such as the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Their traffic modeling systems aren’t set up to acknowledge the transportation cloud’s disruptive shift affecting not just how people travel – but how and where they live. Agencies making major planning decisions need to be careful making long-term investments or plans that place too many assumptions that current patterns will continue.
History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes – attributed to Mark Twain
The ramifications of the transportation cloud will be far-reaching and likely unclear for some time. The old transportation planning rule books will need to be thrown out of the window. The change may be uncomfortable at first – there may some parallels with transit oriented development such as reduced need for parking, but roads and cars will preserve their dominant roll well into the 21st century.