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San Francisco voters deliver ‘mandate’ on car-free streets
Craig Lee/The Examiner 

Bicyclists riding on car-free JFK Drive now called JFK Promenade, on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. The success of Prop. J demonstrates that a significant majority of San Francisco voters appreciate The City’s car-free streets and want them to remain that way.

Days before the election, supporters of Proposition J, the measure to affirm JFK Promenade’s permanent car-free status, were raising the alarm. The race was going to be a close one, polling showed, and many voters were getting confused about the differences between Prop. J and Prop. I, the competing measure that would bring cars back to JFK and the Great Highway on weekends.

It turns out those fears were unfounded. Prop. J sailed to victory, earning about 60% of the vote in early returns, and Prop. I went down by a similar margin. The election demonstrates that a significant majority of San Francisco voters appreciate The City’s car-free streets and want them to stay.

“This is a mandate for the direction The City needs to go,” said Marta Lindsey, communications director for Walk SF, one of the groups leading the Yes on J campaign. “A majority of our voters are ready to move in the right direction with safety, with climate and with livability. San Francisco should be leading the nation and this shows that we’re ready to do that.”

But until the election, Prop. J supporters weren’t so confident that would be the case. “I went into last night preparing for a really bad night,” Lindsey said on Wednesday. “I almost fell over” when the first batch of results were released, Lindsey said, “it was so beyond what we were expecting.”

Despite the tight polling, the Yes on J campaign had some unusual advantages. Canvassers were out on the JFK Promenade and the Great Highway every weekend since Labor Day, where they were able to connect with thousands of voters. “It’s so unique to have a campaign around a thing where you can actually go to that thing and talk to people and say, ‘Guess what, this could go away,’” Lindsey said.

The campaign also got a boost from the Golden Mile project, the art installations and special events that the Rec and Park Department began hosting on the Promenade in September. “The past few months has shown us the potential of what a public space that is designed for people can be,” said Robin Pam, campaign director for Yes on J, and an advocate with the group Kid Safe SF. Between events like the Oktoberfest beer garden and the Halloween carnival, “This space has touched so many people’s lives,” Pam said.

The Yes on I campaign — which was trying to restore car access to JFK and the Great Highway — also felt the Golden Mile project had an impact on the election.

“Today’s results are not surprising, considering our city government and many of San Francisco’s most powerful nonprofits staged an elaborate roadshow of public activities on JFK Drive to sway voters over the last few months,” the campaign wrote in a statement conceding defeat.

“Despite the outcome, City Hall politicians should take note of the large swath of voters that supported Prop. I and the reopening of these major roads,” the statement continues. “Our elected leaders need to develop policies that balance the concerns of all members of the public, instead of promoting ideas that benefit a select few.”

City officials are continuing to release updated vote tallies every afternoon, but the new numbers haven’t changed the results in any races. According to early returns, which account for roughly half of all ballots, there are stark geographical divides separating those who wish to keep JFK and the Great Highway car-free, and those who don’t.

Prop. J won in The City’s denser neighborhoods where people are less likely to own cars, in a geography stretching from North Beach to Bernal Heights, and from the Inner Sunset to Dogpatch. Support was particularly strong in the Haight-Ashbury precincts directly adjacent to JFK, where as many as 80% of voters supported Prop. J. Large percentages of voters in SoMa, Hayes Valley and Noe Valley also supported the measure, according to Election Map SF, produced by Chris Arvin.

Prop. J lost in a L-shaped swath of neighborhoods on the western and southern edges of The City, where residents are more likely to own cars and drive everywhere. Opposition was particularly strong in Seacliff and the Outer Richmond, where close to 70% of voters opposed the measure. Parts of the Sunset, West of Twin Peaks, Oceanview and Visitacion Valley all voted down the measure.

Still, Prop. J was broadly popular, and the voters it brought to the polls might have had an impact on Prop. L, the extension of the half-cent transportation sales tax. Like Prop. J, Prop. L was polling poorly leading up to the election, and supporters were worried. But with roughly half of the votes in, Prop. L had about 69% of the vote, slightly above the two-thirds majority the measure needs to pass.

“Measure J got some people to vote who probably wouldn’t have, and they were aligned with L,” said Lindsey, whose organization, Walk SF, also campaigned for Prop. L. “All of the things we’re pushing The City to do with safe streets, none of that would happen without L because there would be no money.”

Jim Ross, a longtime San Francisco political consultant who didn’t work on any local campaigns this year, was surprised by Prop. L’s strong performance, especially given the defeat of Proposition A, the transportation bond measure, in June.

“There was a grassroots groundswell for a vision of transportation for San Francisco that’s not car-focused,” Ross said of Propositions J and L.

Supporters of the JFK Promenade are hoping to build off of the momentum of Prop. J’s victory.

“The JFK Promenade is really just getting started as one of the city’s most treasured and joyful public spaces,” said Pam, the Yes on J campaign manager. “We’re just at the beginning of this really exciting journey here in S.F.”

Other states were also considering measures to regulate reproductive health after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June and ruled that states could decide whether to allow abortion.

New CPUC rule puts the dimmer on solar power

The California Public Utilities Commission moved one step closer to reshaping how Californians pay for and benefit from residential rooftop solar power Thursday, issuing a revision of a wonky but closely watched policy called net energy metering — a billing mechanism that allows residents who generate power to receive financial credit for any surplus energy they send to the grid.

The long-anticipated proposal comes after an earlier version, released last year, was met with fierce criticism over its move to slash those credits and require additional fees to maintain the power grid — provisions that critics claimed would kill the rooftop solar industry.

But this week’s release has given the solar industry new life. The latest version will have no impact on existing rooftop solar customers, the proposal said, meaning that the rate of return for energy shared with the grid remains the same, and no monthly fees will be levied.

However, starting in April, the proposal would cut the return benefit by about 75% for new rooftop solar customers, a decision that has left solar rights advocates outraged.

“Slashing solar credits by 75% on average for most consumers and even more for churches, schools and businesses will inevitably slow down the growth of rooftop solar in California,” said David Rosenfeld, executive director of Solar Rights Alliance, an association of California solar users. “This proposal cuts against the state’s clean energy goals while also cheating working families out of the best tool out there to control their energy bills.”

Despite this, shares of rooftop solar companies surged on Thursday following the report’s release, with Sunrun Inc. gaining as much as 31% and SunPower Corp. jumping by 21%.

The decision has also left advocacy groups and energy experts that have long pushed policy reforms reeling. “This is basically all about making sure that these solar companies can still sell their product, which is just not, I believe, the correct purview of the CPUC or the state legislature,” said Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at UC Berkeley.

Two decades ago, net metering was introduced as a way to incentivize rooftop solar panels — which, at the time, were prohibitively expensive — and jump start a market that didn’t exist.

It worked: Today, 1.5 million California rooftops boast shiny blue panels, resulting collectively in over 12 gigawatts of clean, sun-powered energy, or the equivalent of 12 nuclear power plants.

Much of that growth has Bay Area roots. Many major players, including Sunrun, SunPower and Tesla, are headquartered here, and local programs such as GoSolarSF have brought 5,800 rooftop solar systems to San Francisco homes and businesses.

But net metering has also had a lopsided effect. At issue is something called the cost shift, which places a greater burden on middle- and lower-income residents who are often unable to install solar panels on their homes to reduce their energy costs.

Basically, explained Borenstein, those who have solar panels tend to be wealthy homeowners, who use the credits to shave their electricity bills down, sometimes to less than zero, while continuing to use the grid at night. That makes energy more expensive for everyone else — especially given the rising costs of maintaining grid infrastructure amid climate effects like higher temperatures and increasing wildfires.

“Somebody still has to pay for the grid — somebody still has to pay for wildfire management, for energy efficiency programs, for the low-income programs,” he said. “All of that stuff is paid for through rates.”

But solar rights advocates call this notion of a cost shift a fallacy. “If you’re taking away the very policies that incentivize (increasing access to affordable solar), you’re actually rolling back that future we’re fighting for,” said Jessica Tovar of the Local Clean Energy Alliance, which advocates for community solar projects that operate independently of investor-owned utilities like PG&E.

Still, even the CPUC has recognized the cost shift problem and introduced more rebates for low-income communities in its latest proposal to narrow the gap. But its efforts were met with swift rebukes from energy groups.

The revision “continues to drive up electricity bills for the 90% of residential customers that don’t own solar,” said Matthew Freedman, an attorney at the Utility Reform Network, TURN. “The wealth and race gap between renters and homeowners would be further exacerbated by the overpayments to homeowners who choose to install solar systems.”

The proposal also places new emphasis on battery storage, a tactic aimed at alleviating strains on the grid. It does so by encouraging residents to store excess energy generated during the day for nighttime use, when demand for energy peaks. While batteries may be an essential part of the state’s future, Borenstein said, the rollout of batteries in the new proposal remains an inadequate solution to the larger issue of energy equity in a rapidly warming state.

More batteries are not inherently bad, he said, “But it’s not good if it’s not operated as part of the grid because it will be operated in the interests of the household — and that is just not efficient for the grid. It’s pretending that you’re not part of the grid ... and the grid is what makes your power reliable.”    

Pâté en Croûte de Canard aux Poire et Epices (duck, pear and spices) at Maison Nico épicerie and café.