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Sunnyvale Triples Highway Expansion Budget

Sunnyvale Mayor Glenn Hendricks. Photo: City of Sunnyvale

Last week on August 22 the Sunnyvale City Council unanimously approved an updated Transportation Impact Fee (TIF) program, previously updated in 2013. The TIF taxes commercial and residential development per square foot, 96 percent of which will go to highway and roadway traffic expansions, including $180 million to grade-separate the Caltrain tracks from Mary Avenue. The remaining 4 percent will end up being spent on bicycling and walking improvements.

Measure B really changed the funding opportunities with this type of projects,” said Sunnyvale Public Works Director Manuel Pineda.

Sunnyvale’s TIF Project List will more than triple in total cost from $287 million to $906 million. Sunnyvale is pursuing $906 million in highway and roadway expansions to accommodate more car traffic during rush hours, but only $34 million for bicycling and pedestrian improvements.

“The traffic impact fees are currently scheduled to cover only half the complete bicycle network,” said Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee member John Cordes. “Increase the TIF fees instead of saying that the fees are only going to cover half of the bicycle and pedestrian improvements.”

The accepted proposal is $34 million for bike/ped improvements. That’s just 3.7 percent of total tax revenues. In fact, Sunnyvale plans to spend 5 times as much on the Caltrain grade separation at Mary Avenue and 25 times as much on highway traffic expansions.

That’s $692 million for increasing peak-hour traffic capacities with new highway interchanges, $180 million for the Mary Avenue Caltrain grade separation, and $34 million for bike/ped improvements.

“We’re piggybacking, which is typical for a city of our size, on the VTA process to determine Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), and VMT impacts, and the latest timeline for implementation is about 2020,” said Pineda. “At that point, a policy decision will have to be looked at as to whether, and how that affects or doesn’t affect the fee.”

Actually Sunnyvale will definitely be forced by state Senate Bill 743 to dump today’s Automotive Level Of Service (LOS) used method to determine the environmental impacts of driving cars, and switch to VMT. LOS quantifies the delay for car drivers passing through intersections, leading to the perverse “solution” of widening those intersections with new traffic lanes. LOS calculations have been widely discredited for consistently overestimating future car traffic volumes.

“If I understand it correctly, at Lawrence Expressway and Kifer, [Highway] 17 and Lawrence Expressway, and Reed Avenue/Monroe and Lawrence Expressway,” inquired City Council member Michael Goldman on the projected future conditions, “you’re projecting at these intersections that there will be a five-minute wait in the morning and evening hours?… between four and six minutes?”

“Are people going to decide they’re just not going to travel through Sunnyvale?”

Goldman pressed Hexagon Consultants’s Gary Black on whether the nearly $1 billion in transportation “improvements” is even forecast to relieve traffic congestion. “With these improvements I’d say you’d about stay where you are,” said Black.

“Do we have any idea on when we’re going to get guidelines on Vehicle Miles Traveled from VTA because it seems like we’ve talking about it for a couple of years now,” said City Council member Jim Griffith, exasperated.

“Really people are focused on what the bad LOS is,” said Mayor Glenn Hendricks.

But others objected to the fiscal consequences of “investing” in highway traffic expansions throughout Sunnyvale.

“There was a statement in the report that said adding [traffic signals] would cost half a million [dollars] per intersection,” said City Council member Nancy Cline, “and there would be one per year [installed] from now until 2035.”

“It says 20 percent of the funding for these improvements would come from external sources, and the City of Sunnyvale would contribute 80 percent,” said Cline.

VTA is currently barred by court order from distributing any funds collected with its half-cent Measure B sales tax. A lawsuit brought by residents alleges the tax itself is not valid. On July 20 a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge dismissed the case, which is now being appealed to the California Sixth Court of Appeals.