‘He said; he said’ colors discussion on road impacts

By From page A1 | December 20, 2013

While no one accused anyone of lying, intentional misuse or misstatements of fact, disparate interest groups disagreed on several issues related to traffic, the impact of new residential development on traffic and the current condition of county and state roads. How to interpret the traffic data generated by the Traffic Demand Model, proposed as a basis of an update to the county’s General Plan, is the crux of the argument.

The Tuesday, Dec. 10, El Dorado County Board of Supervisors meeting featured a presentation by former District 4 Supervisor Bill Center representing the Measure Y Committee and Rural Communities United. Measure Y is an element in the General Plan that limits residential development if it is determined that the impacts of additional traffic would cause the Level of Service on local roads and highways to reach or to be kept at the “F” category, that is failing, according to traffic engineers and Caltrans. The committee and grassroots resident groups have used LOS data in their opposition to several proposed, large housing projects, particularly in the west county.

According to Caltrans and the committee, Highway 50 is currently at LOS F between El Dorado Hills Boulevard and the county line during both morning and evening commute hours. The highway is at LOS E between El Dorado Hills Boulevard and Cameron Park Drive, according to the committee. A drop from level E to F is forecast within the next several years at current rates of use. Center described the first segment as “maxed out” and predicted that “in the very near future” the next segment would follow suit.

“It already violates the General Plan standards,” he said and continued, noting that recent improvements at El Dorado Hills Boulevard and future work at Silva Valley will provide relief for cross traffic but do nothing to decongest Highway 50. Center’s presentation included statistics on the number of land parcels that are undeveloped but approved by entitlement. Of 16,228 countywide, 7,709 are in El Dorado Hills and nearly 1,000 more are spread between Cameron Park, Shingle Springs and Rescue. More than half of the county’s total entitled parcels thus would presumably impact Highway 50 at some point.

He quoted a recent Caltrans communication to the county that basically said the state “is saying no to improvements on Highway 50 … no matter what.” Nothing is on the Caltrans Highway 50 corridor calendar for at least 10 years and likely more than 20 that would improve the west county elements of the highway.

Center told the board that “all of the data (he presented) is sourced from traffic consultants and county staff” and that, “according to the General Plan we must stop residential subdivisions.” In a discussion worthy of a graduate engineering seminar, Center tried to explain why the county should not accept the Travel Demand Model produced by county staff and professional traffic and modeling consultants. He said actual data contradicted the conclusions developed from the traffic modeling processes used to forecast future use on many county roads. As an example, he said, the most recent data was collected in 2010 and showed the actual number of vehicle trips on a specific segment of Mt. Murphy Road to be 302. Mt. Murphy climbs north out of the Coloma-Lotus valley and is a narrow, winding, partially gravel-based road.

The county’s Travel Demand Model (TDM) forecasts 4,023 vehicle trips on the road within a few years. The discrepancy far exceeds the model’s “error target rate of 15 percent,” for Rural Arterial Roads, Center noted. He showed page after page of similar examples of wildly divergent numbers from the “actual” to those forecast within the TDM. He also stated that if 30 percent of the entitled parcels were built out, a comparable traffic increase on Highway 50 of  30 percent would result.

Contrasting Highway 50 and several other main arterials that are at or close to maximum service capacity, Center noted that “90 percent of our local roads have plenty of capacity,” according to his data. “Numbers used in the TDM aren’t always high or low, they’re just off … Models can be perfectly correct but are often wrong.” He also said the Travel Demand Model is “deficient with respect to TIM fees.”

Based on the the Measure Y Committee’s data collection and interpretation, Center moved the presentation into the area of Traffic Impact Mitigation fees (TIM). “TIM fees are too high and unnecessary,” he said.

TIM fees are collected from residential and commercial developers prior to issuance of permits and represent a significant portion of the county’s Capital Improvement Program’s road and infrastructure projects.

Center explained that opposition to the TDM was not solely based on Measure Y issues. It’s about the General Plan. “We want to review the plan regarding TIM fees, relook at reducing TIM fees. It isn’t just Measure Y,” he said.

The General Plan includes elements dealing with the county’s economy and jobs and states that each new home built should create 1.5 jobs for residents — a ratio “we’ve done a poor job of creating,” Center said. “And we’ve increased traffic on 50 much faster than new houses would reflect.”

“TIM fees on commercial improvements are a job killer,” Center said while showing a slide with the county’s TIM fee schedule. The fee for a 4,000-square-foot commercial project west of Placerville, including Cameron Park and Shingle Springs is nearly $42,000, the chart shows. In El Dorado Hills, the fee would be $34,400, while east of Pollock Pines, it drops to $30,640. He suggested that an addition to a small chain saw shop or mechanic shop would cost the owner that $30,640 up front and that is unreasonable given the reality of small business operations.

Virtually closing the circle of TIM fee discussion, Center read from slide No. 10 of his presentation, “TIM fees can be greatly reduced when we stop approving major subdivisions.”

Regarding the Travel Demand Model, Center said that according to county staff, “the TDM meets industry standards for accuracy.” However, he added that an October review of the data prepared by county traffic consultant Kimley-Horn found that “65 percent of the TDM forecasts are in error.”

Concluding his presentation, Center put up a slide asking, “What are the Next Steps?”

First, “The board needs to hold public hearings to decide whether Highway 50 can be kept below LOS F,” and second, “If Highway 50 can’t be kept below LOS F, the General Plan must be updated to reflect that reality.”

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kim Kerr challenged the conclusions of the Measure Y Committee as presented by Center and said, “Staff doesn’t want to keep coming and arguing point by point (of the TDM) … and we need to be able to counter (Center’s data) with our consultants.”

Self-described small developer and former county resident Henry Batsell, acknowledging that “our transportation system is broken,” said “Bill Center is wrong — 30 percent increase in houses does not increase vehicle trips by 30 percent.”

Camino’s Sue Taylor, a frequent speaker at county meetings and advocate for “living within our means,” said the local conversation too often centers on “building out the county, but we don’t really talk about the health of the county.” Taylor also suggested community leaders could, “throw all this (data and forecasting) out and just drive down the road. We don’t need more staff or consultants.” She also stressed “compatibility” as a more effective basis for planning and land-use decisions.

Somewhat taken aback by the conflicting conclusions, board members struggled to determine how to direct county staff to proceed. Board Chairman Ron Briggs asked what view staff might have on Level of Service F, and Kerr interjected, “That’s a legal opinion” and later, “Is it LOS F by our definition or by Caltrans?”

County Counsel Ed Knapp explained, “Part of this is about facts and another part is legal ramifications (that might issue from the facts).”

As a result of the uncertainty that arose Tuesday, supervisors set Feb. 24 for a special meeting to deal with the issues.

“I’m a black-and-white guy,” Briggs noted. “I want to know what the facts are and what solves LOS F on Highway 50.”

Supervisor Ray Nutting represented others in the room when he said, “I don’t understand. We’re paying consultants and now I’m concerned about the data.”

Supervisor Brian Veerkamp earlier in the meeting noted that the Community Economic Development Advisory Committee “brought this to our attention over a year ago. How do we facilitate growth within our limitations? Every Tuesday we’re working from the seat of our pants (that is, not according to a well-established plan).”

Center advised that prior to the February special meeting, the board could benefit from an independent analysis of Level of Service F from Caltrans and traffic engineers. “You do have resources other than staff,” he said.

Chris Daley

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