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Stop Wasting Taxpayer Dollars

City Staff: Stop Wasting Taxpayer Dollars
by Eugenie Thomson, P.E.

Have you ever said to yourself, I wish bureaucrats understood real money? Or thought, why does City Hall make things so complicated and expensive?

Those are my thoughts of late, not to mention wondering why, as a retiree, I’m spending my time trying to right a wrong, rather than puttering in my garden! It would be convenient to turn a blind eye to problems at city hall and just plant another petunia, but I’m not going to take the easy way out. I am going to do what is right – for taxpayers and for our children. All this leads to my latest, eye-opening experience with city hall.

As you know, any Alameda resident who gathers enough signatures on a petition can compel City Council to officially consider just about anything. In this case, a couple of residents thought it would be nice to have a park and a roundabout by their homes near the intersection of Southwood, Gibbons and Northwood Drives. So they persuaded their neighbors to sign a petition.

On receiving the petition, the City Public Works staff – eager to please voters – was dismayed to find no money in the budget. Not to be deterred, they put their heads together and came up with a nifty solution – one that would not only please the voters who signed the petition, but also provide federal funds for staffing. They decided to make the roundabout an issue of children’s safety. And in doing so, they conjured up a scenario that just doesn’t exist.

The City Public Works staff applied for federal grant money meant for school children safety. And in answering question 177 on page 30 of the grant application – worth a whopping 30 points out of 100 – the city stated (emphasis added):

“The ALL WAY STOP controls and channelized traffic will reduce vehicular speeds and will encourage more predictable behavior. The reduced speeds will decrease both the frequency and severity of collisions.

There is just one problem with the city’s answer to question 177: Alameda Police Department records indicate there have been NO accidents in the last ten years at or near this intersection. Zero. It’s pretty hard to have fewer accidents than that.

That one mis-statement on a federal grant application is appalling enough. The tall tales in the city’s grant application would be laughable if they weren’t part of a serious play for federal tax dollars.

To wit: The statements in the grant application include statements that 100 students would benefit (totally unsubstantiated), that the intersection is on the safe or shortest routes to school (false), that 159 pedestrian and bicycle accidents have occurred within 2 miles in 4 1/2 years (but none anywhere near the intersection), that the intersection does not meet minimum stopping sight distance (undocumented and easily fixed with red curbs), that there are no traffic control devices for school children(there is a stop sign on the Southwood Drive approach and stop signs at Lincoln are within 150 ft with a school crossing guard) and the excessive uncontrollable speeds (questioned and undocumented.)

These fabrications played well with Caltrans officials, who awarded the City $184,600 in funds from the Federal Safe Routes to School Program. But allowing only concrete islands and ALL WAY stop signs: no mini park and no roundabout. A roundabout, City staff says, would cost a quarter of a million dollars more!!

This is a quiet neighborhood intersection. According to city records, traffic on Gibbons Drive has actually dropped from 4,100 vehicles per day in 1960 to currently only 1,700 vehicles per day. If any fixes are in order – and with no accidents on record, that is a big question – there are far simpler, less expensive ways to accomplish them.

Crosswalks could be painted to provide definite walking paths. The sight distance can be easily improved by removing bushes and painting some of the curb red. In the event traffic increases on Gibbons Drive, a single stop sign could be installed for southbound traffic heading toward Lincoln, giving Northwood drivers a gap by which to easily merge into Gibbons. But this could be accomplished with $1,500.

Sure, the acute angle of Northwood’s alignment is a bit awkward, but it has been this way for more than 60 years, and there are no accidents on record as a result. Need we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Adding obstacles such as islands where they are not needed increases risk and liability. Moreover, using simple solutions has long been the hallmark of civil engineering practice. The California Vehicle Code and the California Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices clearly state that engineering studies must be conducted and simple options must be considered first. But we found no engineering studies for this project in city files.

Not only is this a waste of taxpayer dollars, this misguided project could well take funding away from a project elsewhere that is actually needed to save children’s lives.

And just as with the land swap, City Hall refuses to do the right thing – admit their error and make amends.

That is why I am calling on Alameda citizens to rise up and object to this debacle. Tell the City Council to divert this large federal school children safety grant to some other locale where safety is a genuine concern.

The city staff should stop finagling ways to pay for their jobs and start doing their jobs. They should define the problem, provide cost-effective solutions and obtain Council approval before spending large amounts of our taxpayers’ dollars. Further, the council needs to carefully scrutinize all federal grant applications to ensure the veracity of all information they contain. Doing less can only give our city a black eye, and may result in far worse repercussions.

And lastly, the City staff’s actions on projects like this are the reasons I will vote NO on Sales Tax Measure C.

— Eugenie Thomson P.E. Past board member of the California Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors

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