Optimism and observations for 2019


Daily Post Editor

I’d like to begin 2019 with a note of optimism. Yes, the mid-Peninsula has a lot of difficult problems, but I’m optimistic that we can get much done this year. With that in mind, the following are some short editorials and observations for the coming year.

SOLVING PROBLEMS: In the November election, seven of the 14 incumbents running for re-election in mid-Peninsula city council races were defeated. That’s unusual since more than 90% of incumbents have won re-election in previous years. I think this upheaval reflects a feeling that government isn’t getting the job done in areas such as traffic, affordable housing and controlling growth. To those taking office this month, they need to ask themselves how they can improve the lives of their constituents. Not by shuffling paper or creating new policies, but by actually getting things done that matter to people. If there isn’t any progress, more heads will roll in two years. I’m optimistic in believing that the people who are up for re-election in 2020 will take note of what happened last November and act accordingly.

FOCUS ON HOME: Obviously the U.S. House will be focused on investigating and impeaching President Trump. But I would urge the mid-Peninsula’s two members of Congress — Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto and Jackie Speier of San Mateo — to turn their attention to the needs of their constituents. There are other people in the House who can go after Trump.

In my opinion, Eshoo and Speier need to take on the enormous task of getting federal money to fund the grade separations for our rail crossings — whether they are bridges, viaducts, trenches or a tunnel. Local taxes, such as Santa Clara County’s Measure B in 2016 or San Mateo County’s Measure W in November, won’t provide enough money to get it built. It’s the job of a local member of congress to bring home the bacon when it comes to big projects like this.

It’s absurd that San Jose is getting a subway, San Francisco is getting at least two subways and we’re getting nothing.

With a quarter century in the House, Eshoo should have the clout by now to get things like this done.

I know what Eshoo and Speier will say: Trump and the Republicans are in control, and they won’t give California a dime. But in 2017, Trump’s Department of Transportation surprised everybody by approving $647 million to pay for a big chunk of Caltrain’s $2 billion electrification project. And the new minority leader in the house just happens to be from California — Kevin McCarthy. He’s always trying to cuddle up with the tech industry, so this might be the perfect place for some bipartisan cooperation.

In 2019, Congress and the White House are going to try and pass an infrastructure bill. I believe that if they work hard, Eshoo and Speier will be able to add a Caltrain tunnel (or whatever the community wants for grade separations) into that bill.

RAILROAD SAFETY: Speaking about Caltrain, it’s disappointing to see this agency repeatedly miss the deadline for installing a system called Positive Train Control, or PTC, which can prevent serious accidents, such train-on-train collisions and high-speed derailments. Nearly 300 people have died in train crashes that could have been prevented if railroads across the country had implemented PTC, the Associated Press found in 2017. Caltrain’s lack of PTC is like a ticking time bomb. No more delays.

RENTAL HOUSING: Last summer rents began to stabilize and, in some places, fell. Vacancies have been popping up. If the trend continues, it might slow the stream of people leaving our area for more affordable places. I think the way to bring down rents isn’t rent control (which reduces supply) but more construction of more housing. Of course it has to be done in the right places, not in the middle of neighborhoods of single-family homes.

One line of thinking is that developers of large office complexes need to build the same number of homes as the jobs they create — a 1-to-1 relationship between homes and jobs.
Had we required that a couple of decades ago, the cost of rental housing would be much more affordable today.

And when I say “building homes,” I don’t mean that the developer should be able to write a check that would be put in the city’s housing fund. Often those funds stay in the bank for years. When they are used, the local government has to bow to the unions and pay what’s called the “prevailing wage,” which is an inflated amount roughly double the actual wage paid for most construction. The prevailing wage reduces the number of homes that can be built by about half.

But if you require the office space developer to build those homes, you can avoid the prevailing wage and double the buying power of each housing dollar.

AN OBSERVATION: Gyms are popping up on every corner, it seems. National chains and local operators. They’re filling in the gaps created by retailers who have closed. And the definition of “gym” is becoming quite broad, encompassing yoga, Pilates, strength training, cardio, boxing and so on. It’s a terrific trend for a society that has been spending too much time online, in my opinion at least.

ANOTHER OBSERVATION: If you sit through a council meeting in any city in our area, you’ll probably hear the city manager complain once or twice that he or she can’t get things done because of a high number of employee vacancies.

Since it looks like we might be headed into a recession, I think it would be smart if the cities figured out how to make do with the people they’ve got already rather than filling vacancies. If a recession hits, this action will help a city avoid layoffs and deficits.

Hopefully, this will force city councils to reconsider what they hope to achieve in the coming year, dumping projects that won’t matter to residents and reassigning personnel to things that are important.

• • •

A correction

In last week’s year-end news quiz, I said that the Palo Alto Unified School District had three superintendents during calendar year 2018, Max McGee, Karen Hendricks (interim), Don Austin. Actually, McGee resigned in September 2017, and the district had only two superintendents last year, Hendricks and Austin.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is [email protected].

1 Comment

  1. 1-for-1 housing mitigation is a nice idea but it will never happen. The city council members who decide these things would never bite the corporate hands who feed them campaign contributions. You’re living a dream world if you think otherwise.

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