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August 9, 2005 > Editorial: Transit Oriented Development - will it help?

Editorial: Transit Oriented Development - will it help?

It's Monday morning and Mr. Art Smith wakes, showers and dresses for a day at the office. He smiles as a local newscaster forecasts the usual traffic jams. Jill Smith is getting ready for her workday too. Closing the door to their home, Art and Jill walk to the commuter station where he hops aboard a train to travel across the bay and she catches a BART train for a pleasant ride to her office. That evening, Art stops by the conveniently located market to pick up some ingredients for dinner and Jill buys flowers from the local florist. Both walk the short distance to their home without battling highway commute hassles. Is this realistic? Planners for mass transit stations are hoping so.

Among the topics discussed at a July 26th meeting of the Dumbarton Rail Policy Committee, was the need for, and requirements that would be imposed by funding agencies for Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) would vote the next day on Resolution 3434, requiring agencies extending public transit to provide a "corridor threshold" of housing within one-half mile of new stations.

The $300 million Dumbarton Rail Corridor (DRC) is expected to begin commuter rail service in 2010 across the South Bay linking the Peninsula and the East Bay. Anyone holding purse strings for the project has a lot of clout...and MTC fits that category. Not only does Dumbarton Rail fall under the monetary axe of the MTC, but so do a host of other Bay Area projects including the BART extension to Warm Springs and VTA's service from Warm Springs to San Jose.

The requirement for DRC is 2,200 housing units within a one-half mile radius of proposed stations; the requirement is 3,850 for BART and 3,300 for light rail. In order to push an agenda that includes as much low and very low income housing as possible, "below-market" housing units will receive a 50% bonus toward meeting the corridor threshold (i.e. 1000 below market units will result in a credit of an additional 500 units to meet the threshold). MTC staff recommended the bonus "due to the fact that lower income residents have a higher propensity to take transit."

With an emphasis on dense, low-cost housing near transit hubs, the question is whether planners are creating new pockets of crime-ridden, poorly maintained slums rather than, as described in a memo to the MTC Planning and Operations Committee, "opportunities to define vibrant mixed use, accessible transit villages and quality transit-oriented development - places where people will want to live, work, shop and spend time."

Soon developers will be knocking on the doors of planning commissions and councils to present their housing projects for approval. The public needs to be vigilant and monitor the type of developments proposed for transit hub areas. Decades ago, the federal government, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, thought they had a good idea too when erecting urban apartment complexes for low income folks. These so-called "projects" quickly became concentrations of crime and blight. In that case, the opening scenario of the Smith's story could easily turn into a nightmare adding to the burgeoning traffic problems these transit centers are designed to solve. Let's hope the planners learned a lesson and will emphasize quality of life rather than mindless quotas.

For those interested in following the progress of the Dumbarton Rail Corridor and TOD, a website to check is The Metropolitan Transit Commission site is The following are members of the Dumbarton Rail Policy Committee:
Tom Blalock (Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board), David Casas (Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority), Dean Chu (Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority), Mark Green (Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority), Scott Haggerty (Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority), Jim Hartnett (Caltrain Joint Powers Board), Breene Kerr (Santa Clara Valley Transportation, Sue Lempert (Metropolitan Transportation Commission), John McLemore (Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority), Alan Nagy (Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority), Donna Rutherford (East Palo Alto City Councilmember), Bob Wasserman (Mayor of Fremont).

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