transportation development impact fee

The City of Sacramento is working on a Transportation Development Impact Fee (TDIF) for the entire city, and with somewhat different requirements for subareas including downtown, river district, and North Natomas. The Sacramento Bee clued me into the proposal with Sacramento asks developers to open wallets to keep city streets from clogging (SacBee 2016-12-08). My initial guess was that this is in response to the failure of Measure B, but this proposal has been worked on since at least August, so that is not the case. The city has a webpage on development impact fees, with two documents specifically about the transportation DIF. I have not had the time to delve into the details, nor do I have any expertise in this area, so these are my initial thoughts.

I support the idea of developer impact fees for transportation. Our transportation system should be funded by general taxes (to some degree), user fees (mostly, such as gas tax, mileage tax, congestion fees, etc.), and fees on beneficiaries, such as this development impact fee. The proposal’s reduction in fees for transit oriented or transit proximity development encourages infill development. I’d argue that greenfield development actually impacts the entire network in a much more significant way than suggested by the fees, so these fees should be higher. The proposal would be better than what we have now, which is an almost entire subsidy of all development-generated transportation costs.

However, I see some major issues with the proposal:

  1. All of the money goes to “improvements” and none to maintenance. The long-term expenses of maintenance far exceeds initial construction costs, but the impact of the development is to put more traffic on streets and accelerate the deterioration and needed maintenance. This lack of attention to maintenance is not just present in the impact fee, but is a flaw in our overall transportation spending priorities.
  2. The proposal accepts and uses level of service (LOS) as the measure of necessary roadway improvements. LOS is now recognized as an insufficient and discredited method of transportation planning, and under new state regulations cannot be used as the primary measurement for planning. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will be used instead. This is not a weakness of the current proposal, but a weakness of the city’s overall approach to transportation, which is stuck in the 1970s. If a process starts by assuming the problem to be solved is LOS congestion, then the solutions are all about roadway expansion. If a process starts with accessibility, allowing people to make choices about how to reach the places they need and want to reach, then the solutions are quite different. Though the proposal pays lip service to VMT reduction (as it must under state law), the projects are all about congestion mitigation.
  3. The projects suggested are almost all roadway expansion. Yes, there is mention of complete streets, but a “complete street” arterial with a speed limit higher than 25 mph is not a street that pedestrians and bicyclists are comfortable using, nor does the complete streets concept as it is usually implemented even address frequent safe street crossings. Every lane added to a roadway makes it a less desirable place for pedestrians and bicyclists, no matter what the other features. Of the $126M (million) costs projected to be covered by the fee, only $31M is allocated to alternative modes, about one-quarter.
  4. The proposal recognizes that the central city needs accessibility improvements, as defined by the Grid 3.0 Plan, with roadway adjustments (no expansions), pedestrian and bicyclist improvements, and transit improvements. But the proposal only generates $16M to contribute to those changes, only 10% of what is needed.
  5. The proposal is very specific about the 20 roadway projects, providing road segments and costs, but does not provide even a list of alternative mode investments. The proposal states, “Alternative modes facilities costs included in the TDIF are described later in this chapter,” but that information is missing. I guess the consultants writing the proposal did not consider these important enough to detail.

So, how could this proposal be improved?

  1. Fund maintenance of existing roadways impacted by new development, to bring them up to a pavement condition that can handle the increased traffic.
  2. Use the central city as a model for the entire city. Investments throughout the city should prioritize walking, bicycling, transit, and roadway reconfiguration. There may be rare instances when a very large development does require additional roadway capacity, but the list of 20 roadway expansion projects is grossly excessive. These expansions would induce additional traffic and congestion as additional trips not related to the new development fill up the capacity that has been funded by the development and should be available to the development.
  3. Remove parking minimums throughout the city, and require that all parking provided in new development be unbundled, in other words, not free. Free parking generates additional trips, removal of free parking minimizes trips.
  4. Invest fees in improved bus service. The central city does identify some rail transit improvements, but so far as I can tell, there was never any consideration of increasing capacity in the central city and entire city by increasing the frequency of bus service or adding routes. This, despite the fact the the SACOG MTP/SCS depends so heavily on increased transit use to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) contribution of motor vehicles.
  5. Reduce (though not eliminate) the impact fee paid for developers providing services such as transit passes for residents, on-site car sharing service, secure bicycle parking, and lockers and showers for bicycling employees. By encouraging residential development and the other ten types of development to reduce or eliminate motor vehicle ownership and use, the need for roadway expansion can be reduced or eliminated.

These are steps being taken by many cities in the United States to not only mitigate the impact of development, but to use infill development as a tool for achieving overall livability goals. Sacramento has taken some small steps in this direction, such as removing parking minimums from the central city, but it is time to take some big steps, and the TDIF is an excellent opportunity.

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