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

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From page A1 | December 20, 2013 | 8 Comments

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.

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Discussion | 8 comments

  • Bill WeltyDecember 20, 2013 - 9:41 am

    As the saying goes, "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck......it's a duck!" An old rural adage. If Caltrans stipulates that Highway 50 is at LOS F; if the county's own data show that Highway 50 is at LOSF, then it's probably safe to say that Highway 50 is a duck. I understand why the county stutters each time it's asked to opine on the LOS status of 50. Just can't get the letter "F" out. It's no secret: There a reputation to uphold and a fair amount of money on the table with Marble Valley, Dixon Ranch, etc. projects holding in the wings. So, let's do this: on the BOS meeting of February 24, in addition to coming to terms with the "F" word, we should also have an assessment of the economic impacts on the county if indeed Highway 50 is at LOS F, putting Measure Y in play, and requiring the BOS to update the GP to reflect the new reality. It seems many are afraid of the unknown consequences of declaring Highway LOS F and curtailing development beyond the 16,000 already approved. Afraid, because no one knows. THAT's the study that is needed. What is the worst that can happen? At this point, seems like all we have to "fear is fear itself." We've spent enough on traffic engineers; let's employ a few economists. Like Sue Taylor suggests, if we want to live in a rural county let's learn to live within our means. The price of "fearing the worst" and ignoring the principles of Measure Y is serious congestion, high TIM fees, and a loss of EDC quality of life. What's it going to cost to keep EDC more rural than not? -Bill

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  • EllenDecember 21, 2013 - 8:04 am

    Something left out of the presentation about the TDM was an explanation of "industry standard". If the projected data is within 15 percent of the actual data, it meets the standard, and it's calculated like this: if a count is too high by 20 percent on one segment, and too low by 20 percent on another segment, industry standard adds these together to say the results are perfect, rather than showing the actual fluctuation (…they do not use standard deviation). This is why the crazy numbers presented meet the industry standard. Traffic modeling is HUGELY imprecise, and this point has not yet been made to the Board or the public by our county staff. Caltrans counts are NOT based on modeling; they are actual real time counts reflecting the density of cars, from the people who have jurisdiction over Hwy 50. Why does Kim Kerr feel legitimate in suggesting that El Dorado County should get to redefine LOS F?

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  • ObservationDecember 22, 2013 - 6:54 am

    LOS F, per the General Plan and Measure Y, should have been defined in this article. The perception is that it means gridlock which is not true and thus it becomes a marketing message. US50 may have a LOS F based on Caltrans method of calculation which is car count based, but those cars are traveling at over 50 mph. Far from gridlock or even the perception of gridlock. The county counts differently because it was defined by the Measure Y boys. It is their words in the plan created to impact others and benefit themselves. Step away from the punch bowl.

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  • Bill WeltyDecember 22, 2013 - 7:51 am

    Think "Big Yellow Taxi": Joni Mitchel captured this one decades ago with, "don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you got till it's gone. They paved paradise and put in a parking lot." The notion of Level F is like brakes on your car: to be applied as you approach the wall, not just moments before impact. We can quibble over the data, but we probably all agree that Highway 50 has a limited capacity for traffic. And we know it's not infinite. It's really a matter of drawing that line, not just for those of us that use it today, but for those who will want to use it 10, 15, 30 years from now. Developers can still develop 16,000 units today; that's another 160,000 daily trips going somewhere, from Apple Hill to Sacramento. There are two questions to be answered as we move forward: 1) realistically, how many more cars does the county believe Highway 50 can absorb before critical mass is achieved, where gridlock is a certain reality that everyone, including county staff, will complain about? And 2) what's the economic impact on the county if the line is drawn at 16,000 units, deferring any future developments until the impact of those units are well known? As they say, plan with the end in mind; not like Sisyphus, pushing the rock that is traffic to it's limits, hoping that no one will notice, until it's too late, and impossible to fix (San Jose, Santa Clara, LA, SF, EDH/Folsom at peak hours...). Observation, please answer these questions! If you can't, then the argument for Measure Y and its call for throttling traffic before we turn paradise into a parking lot should be compelling to you.

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  • ObservationDecember 22, 2013 - 9:34 am

    Time of day issues does not necessarily mean gridlock. If the commute was that horrible then at some point it becomes a self limiting factor. The reality is that the commute is substantially better than even just a few years ago. Next, the wealthy keep moving into the county and the working class can not afford to stay. EDC has the third highest per capita income in the state. Nobody wants "those people" living next door to them. There is little conversation about the bigger picture of what does it take to create jobs, reduce commuting and building a self sufficient community in this county. Look at the Crossings commercial development at Missouri Flat Road . It has reverse traffic flow, local spending, retail, management and construction jobs and still negative comments abound even with an interchange built for traffic. Choking off the big pipeline is a tactic of opposition looking for any technicality in the pursuit of NO. However, the outcome ultimately creates an obstacle to a independent, self sustaining economy.

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  • bill weltyDecember 22, 2013 - 10:43 am

    Right. Crossings! Commerce. Not rooftops. Local traffic will support businesses, on roads with capacity. Creating, sustaining local jobs. Local economy wins one, notwithstanding disruptions. Agree on balance. But don't kill the patient in long run to save her in the short.

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  • EllenDecember 22, 2013 - 12:42 pm

    also to 'Observation': The idea of traffic being 'self limiting' is more myth than reality, as is the idea that the commute is better than it was a few years back. Simply not true. The numbers do not back you up. If the county continues to approve large subdivisions, the traffic will continue to get worse. It is just that basic.

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  • EllenDecember 22, 2013 - 12:40 pm

    'Observation': The LOS F on 50 occurs at peak hour, and those cars are NOT traveling at 50 mph. You are mistaken. They are sitting immobile, or creeping very slowly. Also, the Caltrans method of calculating LOS F is compatible with the county method of calculation, and both utilize the 2010 Highway Capacity Manual. The Measure Y boys did NOT redefine the method of calculating LOS F.

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