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Muni needs money and new development could pave the way

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A gondola that transports passengers up to Salesforce Park is suspended in the air during the grand opening of Salesforce Tower on May 22, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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Muni needs money. Improving conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians requires analysis and new features. Drivers need proper training. Both electric trolley bus garages are more than 100 years old and susceptible to an earthquake. Last month, The City decided to ditch its old, diesel buses for a cleaner, more efficient electric fleet.

Keeping our transit system safe, swift and sustainable costs money, and the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency has identified a $22 billion funding gap.

Less clear is where to get the cash. So far, riders and residents have willingly handed over their “fare” share. In 2016, more than 60 percent of voters passed Proposition J, which increased taxes to pay for transportation services. Polls indicate voters also support Regional Measure 3 on the June 5 ballot, which would generate necessary revenue for transit.

But developers of office high-rise buildings, like Salesforce Tower, should invest more in Muni, too. While high taxes and fees may discourage development, a failing transit system also impacts real estate value and the local economy. This summer, San Francisco should ask commercial developers for more help tearing down the SFMTA’s backlog.

“A strong public transit system is an asset because it is a catalyst for increased property values,” Mantill Williams of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the only association in North America representing all modes of public transportation, told me. “Many developments and properties near transit can be more valuable than beachfront property.”

A recent report published by the association details why. Public transportation helps people get to work, conferences and events easier and faster. When buses breakdown and service is unreliable, it hurts productivity and profits. Fewer businesses locate to areas with poor transit service. Organizations choose to hold their events elsewhere.

According to the APTA, Muni’s billion-dollar backlog costs businesses $2.9 billion in wages and San Francisco’s economy $9 billion.

The economic importance of transit is not lost on real estate developers who are making significant bets on San Francisco’s success. They already pay The City money to offset the strain new residents and employees put on public services. These fees help relieve traffic congestion, reduce crowding and create safer streets.

But developers can and should pay more. New legislation introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin would increase fees for office high-rise development. The modest proposal, which would generate millions more for Muni, didn’t receive obvious opposition from developers at the Board of Supervisors committee hearing last week.

“What’s before us is a policy decision that, frankly, I think, we should have made some time ago before the Salesforce Tower went up and before the office boom that continues to be at a fever pitch throughout The City,” Peskin said. “Today, we have the opportunity to plan for the future and not make that same mistake again.”

New, large office buildings in the South of Market neighborhood are in high demand. Earlier this month, Facebook signed a lease at Park Tower, and Instagram moved into 181 Fremont St. Asking rents are reportedly around $100 per square foot, significantly higher than the $74 per square foot The City assumed when calculating development fees.

“It blows my mind,” Jeremy Pollock, aide to former Supervisor John Avalos, told me. “The huge gap shows how profitable the buildings are, and they’ll do just fine with higher fee levels.”

Pollock analyzed transit funding opportunities when Avalos initially proposed raising fees in 2016. In a recent Medium post, he encouraged supervisors to ask developers of large, non-residential projects for additional contributions to transit. Pollock suggested a tiered fee structure for office projects larger than 400,000 square feet or 800,000 square feet.

It’s also hard to overlook the opportunity The City will have this summer as it debates rezoning the Central SoMa area. The plan is expected to generate about six million square feet of office space and enable additional large, tech companies to open doors locally without displacing older establishments.

New development in San Francisco can benefit the environment. It can reduce sprawl, traffic and air pollution. The trick is keeping The City’s infrastructure in balance with growth.

Asking large office buildings to invest in healthy transit shouldn’t discourage development. Instead, it will keep San Francisco an attractive place to live, visit and work now and in the future.

GREEN SPACE Q&A

“I have a drawer full of old batteries. What am I supposed to do with them?” — Brad Drda

Batteries are very recyclable. Your dead batteries can be recycled into golf clubs, cooking pots and pans, sheet steel, new batteries and even sunscreen. But they don’t belong in your blue bin.

If you live in a single-family home or small apartment building with five units units or fewer, you can “top it.” Place your dead batteries in a clear zipper bag, close it up and put on top of your black bin on regular collection day.

If you live in an apartment building with six or more units, you can “bucket.” Look for a small orange bucket with a hole in the top in your laundry room or next to your recycling and compost bins. If your building doesn’t have a bucket, ask your property manager to request one.

The Department of Environment also partners with more than 100 retail sites, like Cole Hardware and Walgreens, where you can “take back” dead batteries for recycling. Look for locations at recyclewhere.org.

I get a charge out of answering your sorting questions. Email me more at bluegreenorblack@gmail.com.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Proposition K passed in 2016.

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