City Manager Weldon Rucker has taken steps to organize the city’s traffic and pedestrian safety efforts after two traffic specialists from different departments recently quit.
“The structure we had was feeding the conflict between the traffic engineer and the transportation planner,” Rucker said. “It’s not a conflict of personalities, but philosophy, approach and priorities.”
When Joe Kott, the city’s first transportation planner, quit on May 25, three weeks after he started, Rucker took steps to consolidate and organize the city’s traffic staff. During an exit interview, Kott told Rucker that the priorities of the Planning and Development Department were different than those of the Public Works Department.
Kott said, in an interview on Thursday, the two departments were not at odds but their different priorities made it difficult for them to work together.
Traffic Engineer Jeff Knolls, quit last December after eight months because he was offered a better paying position that was closer to his home. But Director of Public Works Rene Cardinaux said that Knolls also cited departmental organization as a factor in his leaving the city.
Advance Planning Manager Karen Haney-Owens said there is a cultural difference between the two departments. She said the Planning Department is used to the public process, listening to ideas and finding consensus and the Department of Public Works is used to looking at a project from a more practical and technological standpoint.
Cardinaux said one difference between the two positions as one of mindset. “The transportation planner creates a plan and engineers try to solve the plan’s problems,” he said.
Rucker said that when the city fills the two vacant positions, they will be working out of the City Manger’s Office temporarily, until a better organized system can be worked out.
“We’re having a little marriage over here,” Rucker said. “We’ll be trying out different organizational models until we figure out which one works best.”
Rucker said he has made traffic issues one of his priorities in light of pedestrian injuries and deaths and the general increases in traffic congestion throughout the Bay Area.
Kott, who returned to his former job as a traffic planner for Palo Alto, said Berkeley has tremendous assets for innovative solutions to transportation problems. “There’s AC Transit, BART and good geography for cycling. There’s also an interested and creative community with good ideas,” he said. “Berkeley has a terrific opportunity to become a model city as far as transportation goes. But currently the city’s plans just aren’t coming online.”
Kott said despite the good intentions of city commissioners, there is also a reluctance for the various traffic-related commissions to work together.
Kott, who’s job description included implementing the Bicycle Master Plan and developing the Bike Boulevards, spoke very highly of the Transportation Commission. He said the commissioners are dedicated to making transportation safer and cleaner in Berkeley.
“The problem is they are only one of 43 boards and commissions in Berkeley. They don’t have oversight on road paving, which is the domain of the Public Works Commission,” Kott said. “And, as anyone who rides a bicycle knows, the condition of the road surface is critical to biking issues.”
Sarah Syed, the project manager for Berkeley’s Safe Routes to School program, said staffing problems and lack of coordination between the Department of Public Works and the Planning Department nearly lost the city a $450,000 grant from the state.
The SRTS program examines traffic flow in the vicinity of Willard Middle School and LeConte Primary School and is mandated to create safe routes for students to walk and bicycle to school, according to Syed.
“We are trying to improve crossings around the schools, provide cages for secured bike parking and develop walking and biking education programs,” she said.
Syed said the program nearly lost its funding because plans that required input from the two departments weren’t sufficiently prepared to submit to the state. She said at the last minute, the Planning Department took the lead on the project, saving the grant, although the process was rushed.
Syed said city missed a May 22 deadline to apply for another SRTS grant because the Planning Department was too short-staffed to have someone write the grant request.
Rucker said it’s a bit of a trick to find the right kind of staff for city transportation jobs because of Berkeley’s well-known penchant for public participation.
“Berkeley is a very engaging and participatory community,” Rucker said. “I try to convey during interviews not only the number of community meetings there are, but their intensity as well because not everybody is suited to work in Berkeley.”