Facing crowded roads and construction, Cupertino establishes traffic impact fee

 

CUPERTINO — The City of Cupertino unanimously passed an ordinance Oct. 3 that directs funds to reducing traffic congestion in the area, which has grown busier since construction of Apple Inc.’s new headquarters was approved in 2013.

Almost all new developments in the city — residential, retail, office or hotel — will pay a traffic impact fee to fund road improvements, public transit and bicycle safety projects.

Cupertino joins its neighbors, including San Jose and Sunnyvale, in adopting fees to offset the traffic burden caused by new businesses and housing units.

But compared to other Bay Area cities where technology companies are headquartered, Cupertino lacks the public transit infrastructure to offset traffic caused by Apple’s 175-acre construction and the development it has triggered. The city is well connected to Interstate 280 and state Highway 85, but a limited bus system is the only public transit option.

“We have a very ineffective public transit system,” said Councilmember Rod Sinks in an interview. “It’s not a feasible thing for most people to consider public transit coming or going from the city of Cupertino.”

Sinks, who is also the city’s representative on the Valley Transportation Authority’s policy advisory committee, calls it a “transit desert.”

Yet in the last few years, the city approved the construction of hundreds of units of additional housing and Main Street Cupertino, an 18-acre mixed-use development. New hotels (including one across the street from Apple) are also in the works, according to Sinks.

“All those things came because Apple’s campus was nearby,” Sinks said.

“These new developments cause a significant amount of traffic congestion,” said fellow Councilmember Steven Scharf. With the traffic impact fee, Cupertino can begin to change that.

“Everyone’s going to be paying a fair share,” said Timm Borden, director of public works. “We’re trying to get as much as we can.”

The city adopted the maximum legally allowable traffic impact fee, according to Borden. It comes out to a $5,968 fee to build a single-family home in Cupertino, and $16.81 per square foot of new office space.

Apple Park was approved before this traffic impact fee came around. However, the company conducted $75 million in traffic improvements at the request of the city — including expanding lanes and off-ramps on I-280 exits near the campus.

When late Apple CEO Steve Jobs proposed the design for Apple Park at a 2011 Cupertino City Council meeting, “Some of the councilmembers were sort of falling all over themselves because Steve Jobs was in the room, and of course we’d approve anything,” said Sinks, who was not on the council at the time. “But you know the professional thing is you negotiate a deal.”

Cupertino residents overwhelmingly supported Apple’s campus proposal, Sinks said, and “have some real pride” in living in the same city the technology giant calls home. However, technology companies around the booming Silicon Valley clog freeways for much of the day, pushing traffic onto city streets and frustrating residents.

“People are starting to take the back route because the freeway’s packed, let’s face it, and Apple’s not even done,” said Cupertino resident Cathy Helgerson at the meeting. “We have a problem already.”

Some employees have already moved into Apple Park, but the company does not have an estimate for when the new campus will reach full capacity.

“I’m very concerned about how they’re going to handle the numbers of people,” Cupertino resident Richard Grimm said in an interview.

Cupertino constrained Apple to have less than 10,000 vehicles commuting to its campus per day by an anticipated 13,200 employees, according to a document published by the city’s community development department. More than a quarter of Apple employees currently commute using a means of transportation other than a personal vehicle, according to the city.

“We are proud to have a strong relationship with the community here,” Apple said in an emailed statement. “Long before we even broke ground for Apple Park, we have been connecting with our neighbors and doing our best to address their concerns.” Apple has been headquartered in Cupertino for more than 40 years.

Public information officer Brian Babcock said Cupertino will monitor streets around Apple Park each year and work with the company to meet its goals of having more than a third of employees using alternative commute methods. If Apple continues to miss its goals, the city could eventually fine the company.

Apple and other recent construction in Cupertino are just part of the city’s traffic problem. Councilmember Scharf said most congestion comes from non-Cupertino residents who pass through the city on their way to offices in Palo Alto or Mountain View. To him, a traffic impact fee falls short of fixing the bigger issues.

“It’s never going to be enough money to really mitigate [traffic],” said Scharf, who still voted for the ordinance. “It’s not enough to pay for new roads or new mass transit,” which he says is the long-term solution to traffic congestion. According to Scharf, impact fee money would likely go to smaller projects like repaving roads or improving bike lanes.

But bigger traffic mitigation projects may be on the horizon. Sinks is working to revive a plan from the 1990s that would extend public transit through the Highway 85 corridor, which runs from San Jose to Mountain View. He says the Bay Area must improve its transit — before it’s too late.

“If we don’t get ahead of this, you’re going to have more and more residents that are frustrated,” he said. “And they’re going to say no to growth, period.”