This evening Alameda City Council will receive annual reports on how well we're reducing locally produced greenhouse gas emissions, reducing deaths and serious injuries on local roadways, and producing more housing for all income levels across a wide range of neighborhoods.

Since reading these reports a few weeks ago, I've been toggling back and forth between a "glass half full" interpretation of the City's progress and a "glass half empty" interpretation.

Thinking positively, it's impressive what the city is able to accomplish despite having such a small staff in its Planning and Public Works departments. And it's impressive to see improvements made to the city's built environment and infrastructure in the face of a backlog of approximately $200,000,000 in deferred maintenance.

But more realistically, it's sad to see Alameda adopt plans like the Climate Action and Resiliency Plan, the Housing Element, the Active Transportation Plan, and the Vision Zero Action Plan... and then just kind of waffle on actually delivering the programs, timelines, and targets detailed in those plans.

Mixed results are especially maddening at this moment time, as funding isn't the problem it once was.

At the national level, 1.2 trillion — with a "t" — dollars are still just beginning to coarse their way through the US Department of Transportation, state DOTs, and the many governmental agencies tasked with tackling deferred maintenance, readying for climate change, and transitioning off carbon-producing fuels.

Practically each month brings a new "NOFO" that may be a relevant opportunity for Alameda to apply for federal funding:

Do Alameda's City Council and City Manager want to compete effectively to secure as much of this funding as possible to fix and improve local infrastructure for ourselves and our neighbors?

To be frank, the answer appears to be "no."

No, neither the City Council nor the City Manager recognize that instead of just failing behind on a couple timelines and targets, the city is missing out on a number of once-in-a-generation opportunities.

No, the City Council nor the City Manager want to evaluate how their own executive-level decisions — such as the re-think of the re-think of Grand Street — have compounded with region-wide challenges like ever-increasing construction bids to further exacerbate delays.

One of the interesting surprises of the most recent Grand Street "process" is that, ultimately, money was not a factor. The City Manager found $2mm for a higher quality design than had originally been considered when staff were only working with the budget associated with the original safety and re-surfacing project.

Conversely, just having more of certain types of funds can only help so much. After County Supervisor Wilma Chan was killed by a motorist while she walked across an Alameda crosswalk in 2022, Alameda's City Council authorized "an additional $2 million dollars to be expended to accelerate transportation improvement projects." I've asked where the $2mm one-time-budget-boost "in memory" of Supervisor Chan went — and it sounds like much of those funds just filled budget gaps in existing projects. That's not necessarily bad — but it means that the majority of City Council members who voted for the resolution "Making Significant Safety Improvements to Alameda Streets in 2022 and Beyond to End Fatalities and Serious Injuries" were just voting for a bit more of what was already in the pipeline.

So, it seems like it's easy — or at least possible — to find an extra $2mm for capital expenditures whenever there's enough political pressure about a pressing problem with transportation in Alameda.

But what is apparently harder is for this City Council and this City Manager to allocate sufficient staff headcount to strategically carry out the city's adopted policies and plans for climate change and traffic safety.

This is hard feedback to deliver effectively.

For example, Bike Walk Alameda's board of directors have tried to track progress on the city's transportation projects over the past year:

So far, we’ve just tracked the Capital Projects that were planned to begin or complete construction in 2023, and we found that over half of these projects were delayed! That’s a lot of red, and it’s urgent that our City correct course now.
[The work plan in the annual report] envisions a lot of construction this year (quite a few are projects that didn’t get done last year). But some very important projects, like Slow Streets conversions to Neighborhood Greenways, Safe Routes to School infrastructure, and Daylighting of High Injury Corridors, have unfortunately been scaled down or pushed back. We’ve been asking that those important projects not be delayed, but so far have not seen any changes to the proposed Work Plan.

This is critical feedback and it's constructive feedback. But even before Bike Walk Alameda submitted this or any other letters to City Council, the agenda packet was released with a "City of Alameda Response to Bike Walk Alameda Correspondence" — a pre-rebuttable of sorts. What staff apparently heard was only the critical side of the feedback, not the constructive side.

To be clear, I'm an outsider and I don't know the internal dynamics of the City of Alameda as a workplace or as a bureaucracy. I trust that the staff involved in these details of these reports are trying their best to do their jobs — but also that's why it's all the more important for these issues to go up to the actual executive decision-makers.

The City Manager and City Council took staff on a big journey to re-think the re-think of Grand Street — without consideration for the consequences of what would fall off of staff's to-do lists in the meantime.

The City Manger and City Council should also consider another "lesson" of Grand Street: They laid down an unstated expectation that all future transportation projects will involve maximal public input. The delays in the city's Neighborhood Greenways program are for two reasons: first, the lack of staff time, and second because the program is expecting to pause for public engagement at every single incremental step.

I've previously written about how City Council should seek a "Goldilocks amount" of public input on transportation projects: not too much or too little. A few local electeds have reached out to me to push back on this. I stand by my original argument. If the City of Alameda is going to be effective in meeting its climate and traffic safety goals, then the city's leadership need to make pro-active and strategic choices about when and how public engagement happens for transportation projects. Or at a minimum, the electeds and executives need to acknowledge that asking for more public input requires allocating more staff resources.

Alameda adopted great goals in its climate change and traffic safety plans (also in its subsidized affordable housing plans, which I'll save for another blog post). If the City Council and City Manager are serious about these plans, they need to support existing staff and add additional staff roles. Our leaders should not miss this opportunity.

More NOFOs and Insufficient Headcount: Part II