Revised Transit Fee Program Before Planning Commission

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday June 13, 2006

Attempting to balance Berkeley’s ever-mounting gridlock with smart economic growth, the Planning Commission will consider a program that charges transit fees for future development projects. 

The Transportation Services Fee (TSF) program would impose tolls on development shown to exacerbate Berkeley’s vehicular traffic. Fees would depend on the nature of the project and the amount of traffic generation anticipated. Those funds would support alternative transportation programs, like EcoPass and the Downtown Berkeley Bike Station, among others. 

Planning commissioners are slated Wednesday to hold a public hearing and possibly take action to recommend the program to the City Council. 

The Planning Commission looked into adopting transportation services fees in November per recommendations from the Transportation Commission but declined to pass a resolution expressing support. Commissioners cited concerns with the fee schedule, which charged higher rates overall and failed to distinguish between new development and change-of-use projects.  

According to Planning Commissioner Harry Pollack, the proposal overlooked broader land use issues. 

“It was not done with a planning perspective, it was only done wearing transportation glasses,” he said. 

The updated proposal, developed by transportation, planning and economic development staff, would exact a fee of $2,543 per car trip generated on new buildings and $1,381 on existing structures redeveloped for new use. 

A new 1,000-square-foot café, for instance, would rack up $4,059 in transportation services fees, but converting a comparably sized space from a retail outlet to a café would not involve any transit costs because it would not likely generate additional traffic. 

Pollack lauded the structure, pointing out that a flat fee could deter businesses from setting up shop in Berkeley. 

“For existing buildings, a fee generally is not a good thing because it will make it more difficult to change uses,” he said. “As we see from Cody’s and Radstons and the empty storefronts downtown, we have enough trouble keeping stores.” 

The new fee proposal also cuts a deal for “priority uses,” or projects designated by city plans as germane to neighborhood revitalization and economic development. Those include: theaters, food service and product stores, exercise and dance studios, nightlife establishments, childcare facilities, nursing homes, community centers and several others. Affordable housing would be exempt from any transportation fees. 

With the exception of the latter use, Transportation Commissioner Rob Wrenn said he is completely against reducing the fee for certain projects. “This won’t generate any money,” he said. “It’s a joke. It’s letting developers off the hook.” 

Steve Wollmer, a vociferous opponent of a proposed mixed-use building at 1885 University Ave. that would include a Trader Joe’s grocery store, agreed, pointing out that giving some projects priority over others could encourage developers to lobby for exemptions.  

“They won’t be paying for the real impact they’re going to have,” he said. Projects like 1885 University Ave. “have enormous impacts, and you’re saying you’re going to exempt them? It opens the door to all kinds of pleading from other sources.” 

Several East Bay cities levy transportation fees in some form. For a mixed-use 176-unit apartment-retail structure, developers in Fremont would pay more than $348,000 in transportation and traffic fees. In Emeryville, the levy would be around $94,000, compared with almost $104,000 in Berkeley.  

Erecting a new café would involve roughly $5,000 in transit costs in Emeryville and Fremont, and slightly less ($4,059) in Berkeley. 

Berkeley used to require developers to pay transportation fees, but due to legal uncertainties, the city ceased collecting, said Pollack. 

The TSF program would fund marketing and incentive campaigns aimed at encouraging alternatives to cars, transit service and signage improvements, and pedestrian and bicycle facilities. 

City staff expects the program proposal to move to the City Council by July 11.  

On Wednesday, the Planning Commission will also take a look at the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, City Council action on the Creeks Ordinance revision and recommendations on the UC Berkeley Southeast Campus Integrated Projects draft environmental impact report. The meeting takes place at 7 p.m., at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.