Are Staff and Council Up to the Task of Fixing the Richards Blvd-Olive Drive Traffic Mess and Managing Future Traffic Problems Arising from the Proposed Nishi and Mace Developments?
By Alan Pryor
On Tuesday, Council approved Staff’s proposal for “improving” traffic flow through the Richards Blvd. – Olive Dr. intersection. This approval was given despite the fact that there was absolutely no baseline modeling of the impact of the proposed changes or any review by the Bicycling, Transportation, and Traffic Safety Commission (BTTSC). This inadequate, incomplete, and unfair traffic management plan will probably force Dutch Bros Coffee out of business while handing the Patels’ motel/restaurant property on Richards Blvd a sweet early Christmas present. More importantly, this proposed and approved project calls into question the ability of Staff to adequately analyze and solve traffic management problems in the future that may arise from the Nishi or Mace projects
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
David Greenwald’s article in the Vanguard on Wednesday (Council Pushes For Changes To Richards, Working with UCD; Examines a Possible Olive to L St Connection) reported on the Tuesday night City Council agenda item in which Council approved spending $180,000 for restriping and bollard installations on Richards Blvd and West Olive and the purchase and installation of new traffic signals along First St that would have communications capabilities. Staff claimed these physical changes on Richards and Olive and the street signal operational improvements on First St would allow the signals to be synchronized and sequenced and result in greater traffic flow efficiency. David’s primary focus in his article about this agenda item, however, was about the somewhat tangential comments made by the Council about the need for improved access to Nishi if that development project is to go forward subject to a June 2016 vote.
Looking at the actual roadway changes approved by the Council on Tuesday, though, there are serious questions about whether any improvement in traffic flow will ever be realized by these band-aid changes. This is because Staff failed to provide any objective justification for the project and, continuing their recent practice, Staff did not bring these proposed changes to the Bicycling, Transportation, and Traffic Safety Commission for review before bringing them to Council.
For instance, Staff failed to provide any modeling of the expected outcome of the currently proposed roadway changes in terms of improvements in traffic flow. Further, Staff falsely claimed they did not have any baseline data upon which to base the modeling requested by Council. Additionally, there is clearly a disproportionate impact of these proposed changes on affected businesses on Richards Blvd with some clear winners and losers selected by Staff’s design. The willingness by the Council to embrace these most recently proposed traffic control measures proposed by Staff without questioning deficiencies and ambiguities, as also evidenced by Council’s approval of the Conference Center traffic study and MND, calls into question whether or not Council has the willingness and capabilities to objectively analyze future complex traffic problems and quantitatively evaluate different solutions that will certainly arise from any future business center development at Nishi and Mace.
Before discussing the specifics of this most recent ill-advised traffic control project approved by Council this past Tuesday, however, I first want to state that I am generally in favor of the proposed Nishi project and my objections to the processes recently employed by Staff and their lack of transparency seen in their recent traffic-related proposals to Council do not reflect any underlying or fundamental discontent with the Nishi project as some have suggested. In fact, I think the Nishi Sustainability Report was state-of-the art and one of the best I have ever seen. I am supportive of the projected economic analysis of the project even though it showed an insignificantly minor negative impact on City finances. I do believe the overall benefits to the City will be substantial in terms of alleviating UCD-driven housing shortages and providing needed R&D space for new ventures.
But all of these benefits will be overshadowed if a potentially huge traffic problem results from the project as I believe will be the case without adequate review and oversight of the proposed Nishi traffic plan. It is absolutely critical that Staff and Council manage the apparent and obvious traffic-related problems that will arise due to the Nishi project in a professional, quantitative, and expedient manner. Unfortunately, based on recent past performance by Staff and actions by Council, this does not at all appear to be the likely outcome.
PHYSICAL AND OPERATIONAL CHANGES PROPOSED BY STAFF AND ACCEPTED BY COUNCIL FOR THE RICHARDS BLVD – OLIVE DRIVE INTERSECTION
The striping and street configuration changes proposed by Staff and approved by Council on Tuesday are as follows
1) Restriping – Staff proposed restriping the approaches to the intersection and intersection crosswalks and claimed it will make it more clear where vehicular and pedestrian/bike traffic should flow through the intersection thus increasing traffic throughput without jeopardizing safety.
2) Bollard Placement on Richards Blvd – Staff proposed to install traffic bollards on the Richards median to only allow left hand turns from Richards into the parking lot entrance of the Patels’ property including Cafe Italia and their motel and left turn exits out of the same lot back onto Richards Blvd heading into the tunnel. But no left hand turns into and out of Dutch Bros Coffee, In ‘n Out Burger or the Shell gas station will be allowed from Richards Blvd. Staff claims eliminating these left hand turns for these three businesses will mean less disruption of traffic flow on Richards Blvd but does not explain why allowing similar left hand turns into and out of the Patel property will not similarly disrupt traffic.
3) Bollard Placement on Olive Dr – Bollards will also be installed for a short stretch along West Olive Dr to prohibit any left hand turns into and out of Dutch Bros Coffee onto Olive Dr.. Staff did not make any claims to justify sealing off Dutch Bros Coffee in this manner but it is abundantly clear that the measure is designed solely to reduce traffic into and out of the Dutch Bros drive-through by functionally restricting traffic flow.
These proposed changes are graphically shown in the following image from the Staff report to Council.
4) New Traffic Signals on First St – Staff additionally proposed to completely replace all traffic signals along First St that have apparently lost communications capabilities over the last 4 years. Staff claims this will allow the lights to be synchronized and sequenced again because the existing equipment has lost that functionality over the past 4 years. Staff did not explain why this equipment has not been maintained to date and the situation allowed to deteriorate for so long.
DEFICIENCIES OF THIS APPROVED PLAN AND LACK OF TRANSPARENCY IN RECENT TRAFFIC PROJECT REVIEW
1) Recent traffic management analysis and proposals by Staff attempted to completely avoid any oversight by the Bicycle Traffic and Transportation Safety Commission (BTTSC).
This failure by Staff to submit the most recently proposed traffic changes to the BTTSC for review prior to submittal to Council is the 3rd time within several months that Staff has attempted or actually prevented review of Richards Blvd – Olive Dr traffic-related matters by the Bicycling Transportation and Traffic Safety Commission (BTTSC). This can hardly be by accident and it is thus becoming abundantly clear that this is a conscious decision and effort on Staff’s part to avoid all transparent review of these Richards Blvd -Olive Dr. traffic-related matter matters by the BTTSC. The actual motives for these specific Staff actions are unknown but could be explained by the fact that some City employees have recently reported that some senior City Staff are not in favor of ongoing Commission review activities and are actively attempting to minimize Commission influence in City decision-making processes. Staff actions in recent Richard Blvd-Olive Dr traffic management proposals are consistent with those assertions.
As an example, Council initially approved the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for the Richards Blvd. Conference Center without any input by the BTTSC on the traffic impacts or the efficacy of the proposed roadway changes. Indeed, the Conference Center proposal was not reviewed by ANY City advisory Commissions whatsoever which is unheard of for a project of that size in Davis. This decision by Staff was clearly shortsighted. Perhaps such a review by the BTTSC may have provided insight into the shortcomings of Staff’s analysis in the MND that could have otherwise avoided the lawsuit now obstructing this particular project – and potentially overhanging and adversely impacting a Measure J/R vote on Nishi next year. Indeed, the plaintiff in that recent lawsuit repeatedly mentioned to the Council that the failure of the City to have the project reviewed by all applicable Commissions was one of the reasons for his opposition to the project.
Subsequently, despite Staff presentations to and review of the Nishi Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) by every other related advisory Commission in the City, the Nishi DEIR was NOT initially scheduled to be reviewed at all by the BTTSC. This was despite abundant time in the review process for this to be scheduled and the importance of traffic management to the eventual viability and success of the Nishi project. It was only after a public protest at the October 8 BTTSC meeting alerting Commission members of this intentional oversight that the Commission scheduled a special meeting on October 27 to review the project. At that special meeting, the BTTSC resoundingly rejected support of the Nishi project’s DEIR as otherwise requested by Staff. Instead, Commission Minutes for the special meeting noted the following motions and comments:
Motion (Mitchell, Watterson): Project must commit to a minimum of two entrances / exits: Olive
Drive and UC Davis.
Motion carries, 5-1 (Skeen dissenting: No cure for Olive Dr. intersection).
Motion (Berg, Skeen): Description of road configuration is highly desirable and should be
incorporated to help mitigate traffic impacts.
Motion carries, 6-0.
Motion (Watterson, Berg): Another, more extensive and inclusive study should be done as part of the EIR combining the cumulative impacts of the Nishi Downtown / Gateway and hotel conference center on Richards Blvd and Olive Drive between the WB I-80 off ramp and proposed Nishi Downtown /
Motion carries 6-0.
Motion (Renaud, Skeen): Project is NOT (emphasis added by author) consistent with staff recommendation #1
Skeen: Question validity of numbers.
Berg: We don’t know what will actually happen to Richards.
Renaud: Transportation Element is alternative transportation focused. Project reality is a substantial increase in vehicle miles traveled.
Berg: Too many uncertainties.
Watterson: Would like to see more detailed schematic on multi-modal operation.
Motion carries (5-0-1, Berg abstention)
(Authors Note: Staff recommendation #1 was a broad statement affirming support for the traffic plan for the project. The recommendation was prepared by Staff and verbally submitted to the BTTSC along with a request for its approval. The actual text of this Staff recommendation was not part of Staff’s online report or the online minutes for the special meeting so the exact text of the Staff recommendation is not available).
Motion (Renaud, Mitchell): Project does NOT (emphasis added by author) appropriately meet Transportation Principle approved for Davis Innovation Center(s).
Mitchell: Too vague without commitments and more detailed plans.
Motion carries (6-0)
Unfortunately, this pattern of Staff circumventing BTTSC review of their traffic-related proposals continued with Staff’s most recent proposal for the Richards Blvd-Olive Dr. changes approved by Council on Tuesday in that this proposal was also NOT vetted or reviewed by the BTTSC at all prior to submittal and approval by Council.
These continued instances where Staff intentionally does NOT inform or consult with the BTTSC about very important and far reaching proposed traffic-related changes in Davis is very disconcerting because it prevents complete transparent disclosure, review, and oversight of all major traffic-related projects in the City. Presenting Staff and developer-generated proposals directly from Staff to the Council has never been the “Davis Way” which demands full citizen engagement. The acceptance by the City Council of this newly formulated practice and strategy to circumvent full and transparent review of these traffic-related matters by the BTTSC will invariably lead to the question by voters, “What are they trying to hide?” and almost certainly adversely affect any vote on Nishi next spring.
2) The proposal for the striping, bollard placement, and signal replacement was prepared by Staff and approved by Council without the benefit of any modeling or independent review by qualified traffic engineering professionals of the impact they will have on traffic flow through Richards and the adjacent downtown core area.
At the most recent Council meeting last Tuesday at which these roadway and signal changes were approved, Councilmembers Brett Lee and Robb Davis at least asked the question of the City’s Chief Traffic Engineer, Roxanne Namazi, if any modeling or review of these proposed changes had occurred so that Council may later assess the success or failure of the proposed changes in reducing traffic congestion. After an uncomfortably long silence, Ms. Namazi confirmed that such a modeling study had not been done but stated that modeling the traffic flow would not be possible because no baseline conditions had been established against which to compare post-change traffic improvements. This statement by Ms. Namazi was demonstrably false, however. One only has to look at the traffic study for either the Conference Center or Nishi to see that traffic counts have already been made for all nearby affected intersections which could have as easily served as a baseline for analyzing the impacts of this approved project just as it was used in the Conference Center and Nishi projects. Council should have demanded that appropriate traffic modeling be performed to model the efficacy of Staff’s proposed changes. Failure to do so calls into question the ability of Council to effectively manage traffic growth in the City by instead relying on back-of-the-envelope guesses by Staff. This is no way to manage a growing City with developing and increasing traffic problems.
3) These roadway changes proposed by Staff and approved by Council disproportionately benefit the Patels’ existing motel and restaurant property while severely adversely affecting other major businesses at the Richards Blvd – Olive Drive intersection.
Any casual observer can easily see that the bollard placement on Richards Blvd and Olive Dr. functionally prevents any easy access to Dutch Bros Coffee and drivers seeking their daily brew from Dutch Bros Coffee will only be functionally able to gain access from Richards Blvd when heading from downtown to the freeways. This is because not only are left hand turns into and out of Dutch Bros Coffee from Richards Blvd going to be prohibited because of bollard placement on Richards Blvd, but also because the bollard placement on the Olive Drive median also prevents left hand turns into and out of the Dutch Bros drive-through from Olive Ave. Staff and the Council have made it abundantly clear in past meetings that they do not like the existence of Dutch Bros Coffee on this corner and these approved traffic flow changes will almost certainly assure that their drive-through business will dry up and probably put them out of business in short order.
It seems hard to imaging a more discriminatory pattern of traffic management could be proposed that favors the small volume of traffic going into and out of the Patel’s existing restaurant and motel while almost completely cutting off Dutch Bros Coffee from their customer traffic and restricting access to the Shell gasoline station and the In ‘n Out Burger franchise. If I were the owner of the Dutch Bros Coffee outlet and were a litigious sort, my lawyer would be drawing up the lawsuit as you read this article.
4) Council authorized a total expenditure of $180,000 for this project of which the striping and bollard placement could potentially have a very short useful lifetime. This is because the investment will be scraped during the construction of either the Conference Center or Nishi based on currently proposed traffic solutions for those projects.
It is hard to justify this $180,000 temporary fix that presumably will be abandoned and completely redone when (if) the Conference Center or Nishi is actually built (possibly beginning as early as next spring if the Conference Center lawsuit is resolved). Indeed, it is possible the project may not even be completed by then as Staff claims they need a minimum of 3-6 months to implement the changes. The only possible reason I can see for Council’s action is that they are attempting to put lipstick on the Richards Blvd. pig to try to pretty it up before a planned 2016 Nishi ballot. This is a very dangerous game, however, because the risk is that project implementation does not go smoothly and traffic is snarled due to construction snafus right when Davisites are going to the polls in June to vote on the Nishi ballot. Such traffic events could easily turn-off enough voters to make the difference between success and failure of the ballot initiative.
In summary, this project demonstrates a complete lack of transparency and quantitative thinking by Staff and proper oversight by Council. These shortcomings do not bode well for the quality of future proposed traffic management changes in Davis and could potentially adversely affect the Nishi ballot measure in June.