Analysis of Stanford's growth leaves unanswered questions | January 9, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - January 9, 2019

Analysis of Stanford's growth leaves unanswered questions

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto is hoping Stanford University will help pay for the realignment of Caltrain rail crossings so that tracks and roadways will no longer intersect. Menlo Park is requesting that the university consider creating new satellite lots with new shuttles or a "gondola" moving people from these lots to the university's growing campus.

Mountain View is calling for the university to pay its "fair share" for future improvements to local intersections.

These transportation-centered requests, as well as dozens of others pertaining to housing, schools and more, were submitted by Peninsula cities, agencies and residents as part of a new environmental analysis for Stanford's proposed expansion. The final environmental Impact report (EIR), which Santa Clara County released on Dec. 21, pertains to Stanford's application for a "general use permit" (GUP), which would allow the university to build up to 2.275 million square feet of academic space, 3,150 new housing units or beds (this includes 550 that would be available for faculty, staff, postdoctoral scholars and medical residents), and 40,000 square feet for child care centers and transit hubs by 2035.

Publication of the voluminous document marks a key milestone for the county's review process of a project that Joe Simitian, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, has described as the largest development application in the history of the county, which has jurisdiction over land not governed by the cities. But while the new analysis devotes hundreds of pages to analyzing traffic impacts (as well as everything from noise and water quality), it is unlikely to satisfy city leaders who for months have been calling for the county to require stronger action from Stanford to mitigate the consequences of its growth.


In the new report, the county is noncommittal on most proposed solutions, including requiring Stanford to chip in for Caltrain improvements or to roll out more Marguerite shuttles. County officials have also rejected calls to encourage more satellite parking lots and to revise Stanford's existing "No Net New Commute Trips" policy, which currently applies only to campus-related trips in the commute direction during peak hours (8-9 a.m. and 5-6 p.m.)

The policy, which was introduced under Stanford's last GUP in 2000, has been the county's strongest tool to ensure Stanford's growth would not result in overwhelming traffic. It has spurred Stanford to, among other things, expand its Marguerite shuttle program, increase parking fees and introduce car- and ride-share programs. As a result, Stanford's rate of solo drivers has dropped from 69 percent in 2003 to 43 percent today, according to the county.

But while Stanford's traffic-reduction programs are generally viewed as a gold standard in the region, many are skeptical that the policy will continue to hold up in the face of millions of square feet of new development.

Palo Alto and East Palo Alto are among those cities that have argued in favor of a more expansive definition of "peak hours," which they say does not currently reflect actual travel patterns. A letter from East Palo Alto, signed by former Mayor Ruben Abrica, states that the city is "gravely concerned about traffic," especially given that 84 percent of the peak-hour traffic on University Avenue are commuters and that Stanford's proposal would add about 5,000 new jobs.

Palo Alto expressed similar concerns and pointed to "a recent trend of peak spreading," the tendency of Stanford commuters to drive just before or just after the "peak period." To support this position, the city hired a consulting firm, Hexagon, to review data from Stanford's cordon counts. The consultant noted that even the county's environmental analysis uses the broader "peak period" times of 7 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. in analyzing intersection counts.

Hexagon cited its own count data as evidence that the morning peak hour frequently occurs after 9 a.m. and the afternoon peak frequently occurs after 6 p.m.

The county, however, was not swayed. It offered its own data, measured twice yearly, which showed the number of cars entering and exiting Stanford during the 8-9 a.m. and 5-6 p.m. hours decreased between 2012 and 2016. The data also showed that in every year since 2014, the pattern of traffic during the broader peak hours remained consistent, directly contradicting the Hexagon assertion.

County officials have indicated that they are generally amenable to Stanford establishing its own programs, provided that they meet the goals of not adding new commute traffic during peak hours.

The EIR identifies several transportation-related programs that Stanford has proposed to implement as part of its growth plan. These include new dedicated bus lanes and express bus services, dynamic real-time carpooling apps like Scoop, the use of parking rates to discourage driving, financial incentives for non-drivers and increased use of telework and flexible work schedules, according to the EIR.

In response to community concerns, the county is requiring Stanford to pay a "fair share" for improvements at intersections that are expected to see an increase in reverse-commuters. These include the El Camino Real and Ravenswood Road intersection in Menlo Park and the Alma Street and Charleston Road intersection in Palo Alto. The precise share is based on the number of reverse-commute trips that would be attributable to the Stanford project.


While the county analysis did not go as far as some cities had wanted in considering Stanford's impact on traffic, it has been largely responsive to concerns related to housing. In June, the county released two new alternatives that would go well beyond the 3,150 housing units Stanford proposed. One would include 5,699 units, while the other calls for 4,425.

The Board of Supervisors has also been aggressively pursuing new policies, independent of the environmental-analysis process, aimed at requiring more contributions of money from Stanford for housing. These include a new policy that raises the "affordable housing fee" that Stanford pays for each square foot of new development from $20 to $68.50, effective July 1, 2020. The other requires Stanford to designate 16 percent of new units to affordable housing.

Stanford last month filed lawsuits in federal and state courts challenging the new inclusionary-zoning requirement, which it argues violates the "equal protection" clauses of the U.S. and California constitutions. It also plans to legally challenge the new impact fee.

Palo Alto argued that the county should go further and require Stanford to actually build housing and transportation improvements before it constructs new academic space. The environmental analysis does not propose such a policy, noting that the issue is better suited for a policy debate than an environmental analysis.

Gennady Sheyner writes for the Palo Alto Weekly, The Almanac's sister publication.


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