Analysis: Will Improvements to Richards Corridor Fix Traffic Problems?



The Vanguard has documented the problems along the Richards Boulevard corridor for some time.  The reality of financing in these post-redevelopment times are that major improvements to congested roadways has to come from two sources: either grants for state and federal funding or on the backs of developers.

Yesterday the Vanguard ran the announcement that the city released plans that have been submitted to CalTrans for the Richards Corridor – which is required to be completed prior to the construction of the Nishi Gateway project.

With the combination of the undercrossing at UC Davis from Old Davis Road, it is expected to be $23 million.  That leaves another $10 million for the improvements, that is expected to come from state and federal funding.

Opponents of the project have seized on traffic impacts, as the area is already congested and now the city plans to potentially develop both the Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center, in addition to Nishi.

As the Vanguard has chronicled, there are several problems with the traffic flow along Richards, as one moves north toward the Richards Tunnel.  The lights are way out of sequence, which actually impacts the entire stretch from Pole Line Road all the way through 1st Street. The lights cause traffic to, at times, have to stop at every intersection and causes traffic to back up from 1st Street back under the underpass.

While the city has at times looked at widening the underpass to four lanes to accommodate more traffic, the traffic actually continues to back up past the underpass, not just because of the light sequencing but also the inability of 1st St. to handle peak hour traffic flows.

From the Vanguard’s observations the biggest problem with peak hour flow is that commuters are using Richards Blvd. as their access point to campus, which means they drive through the tunnel, turn left at 1st Street and then either enter the campus at the end of 1st St., or turn right onto B St. and left onto Russell and enter the campus on the north side.

Council has already noted the need to figure out ways to reroute traffic so that vehicles would enter UC Davis from the west, either along I-80 or at the Hutchison Drive exit off Hwy. 113.

The problems along Richards Blvd. are exacerbated by the illogical series of freeway off ramps that funnel traffic without lights or control directly onto Richards, with the most precarious being a forced merge for westbound I-80 traffic onto northbound Richards Blvd.  This creates a back up, both on Richards and the off ramp, and puts motor vehicles, buses, bikes and pedestrians into a single-merge condition.

The corridor plan will do several things to alleviate these problems.  First, it will widen the westbound off ramp to three lanes, which will “prevent cars from dangerously stacking up on I-80. This will provide a smoother transition and added capacity for people traveling to downtown, campus and south Davis.”

Second, it will move the off ramp closer to the bridge, with a tight diamond to create more distance from the Olive Drive intersection.  “This will eliminate the dangerous weave conditions from the existing cloverleaf reads that conflict with cyclists.”

The new formation, coupled with the building of Nishi, will also potentially alleviate stress on the tunnel and the downtown traffic.

The plan calls for an extra lane to “turn left onto West Olive Drive from Richards Boulevard, which allows people traveling to campus to bypass the Richards tunnel entirely.”

This may be the key to the whole puzzle.  There are comments that express skepticism that Nishi could become a main thoroughfare via West Olive.

Proposed Nishi Underpass leading to campus through the Nishi project
Proposed Nishi Underpass leading to campus through the Nishi project

Our analysis suggests it could work in one of two ways.  First, it may create a much more direct route to campus, where vehicles coming from I-80 westbound would exit on Richards, turn left onto Olive and drive onto campus very near the parking garage by the Mondavi Center.  That would eliminate the traffic going through the tunnel and entering campus on the east or north.

As the release notes, “West Olive Drive widened at the intersection with Richards to accommodate traffic to and from campus using the new bypass route.”

There seems to be some concern that West Olive and Nishi will not be able to accommodate that level of traffic.  That seems to be a key question, but, even if it does not, creating an additional route that bypasses the tunnel should reduce the traffic congestion on Richards Blvd.

Will that fix the problem of Nishi?  It is hard to know.  But clearly the $23 million in infrastructure improvements, along with the additional $10 million from state and federal sources, will give the city the funding to help deal with the existing traffic problems in a way that is probably not possible without the money from the developers.

Skeptics, of course, are arguing that you do not fix traffic problems by adding more residents and businesses to a congested area.

The developers argue that Nishi will invest $23 million into infrastructure improvements without new taxes on residents and this will create “a new access road from Nishi to campus and Old Davis Road so people living and working on Nishi can access I-80 from the underutilized Old Davis Road I-80 interchange. Both these major circulation improvements must be completed before any building can occur on the Nishi project.”

The real question is whether these access points can handle the traffic volumes that are currently going through the tunnel and whether the new business activity and residents will overwhelm the system.

It is here that we would want to see more analysis.  However, at face value, the ability to bypass the tunnel seems to be the best bet to improving the traffic situation and the redesign here seems to hold at least the promise of being able to re-route traffic without a new major undertaking.

The other question to ask is whether the city would be able to get money for these traffic improvements without Nishi – the answer appears to be that the city would seek such monies but the project would be seen by SACOG (Sacramento Area Council of Governments) as a lower priority without the project.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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26 thoughts on “Analysis: Will Improvements to Richards Corridor Fix Traffic Problems?”

  1. Jim Frame

    I’ve said in the past that I wouldn’t support Measure A if it included allowing vehicle access via West Olive Drive, but I’ve backed away from that position.  While I still have traffic concerns, I’m hopeful that the route into campus via Nishi will divert enough traffic from the Richards undercrossing to make the West Olive access a net benefit.

    1. hpierce

      If UCD gets on board with a vehicular connection, if  a significant amount of ‘pass-by’ trips currently using the Richards funnel choose a non-intuitive route via Nishi, there will be a strong blow-back when units are occupied, to divert and/or “calm” the ‘non-neighborhood’ traffic… as a certain Emptyprize columnist might say, “… trust me on this!”

      Jim, you may want to re-think your re-thinking…  I clearly see a scenario that the UCD connection will still be a “we are considering this” thing 10-15 years from now…

      1. DavisforNishiGateway

        hpierce, it is written in the project baseline features that before any construction can begin at Nishi, the access point to campus along with the improvements to Richards and Olive drive must be completed. Project baseline features can only be altered by another citywide vote. Therefore, there is no possible scenario in which units are built at Nishi before the UCD connection has been completed. Thus, there really is nothing to worry about with regards to UCD dragging their feet. Furthermore, Nishi will make Old Davis Road which is currently underutilized a viable connection to campus and downtown which will have the effect of diverting traffic through there as well.

        1. The Pugilist

          DFNG: That was my thought after reading hpierce’s comment as well.  If UC Davis doesn’t com in on this, Nishi doesn’t get built.  So what’s the risk here?

        2. Topcat

          Nishi will make Old Davis Road which is currently underutilized a viable connection to campus and downtown which will have the effect of diverting traffic through there as well.

          Old Davis Road is currently not configured to be a major thoroughfare.  It has a number of intersections that create very slow travel because of a high level of pedestrian and bicycle travel.  If this were to be a viable plan, Old Davis Road will need to have some fairly major modifications so that traffic can flow.

        3. The Pugilist

          It will be a little like Fifth Street at 9 am and 5 pm.  But you want to not have major traffic in the heart of a city, you want to push it to the periphery.

      2. DavisforNishiGateway

        Topcat, the EIR did request improvements be made to the Old Davis Road roundabout. Furthermore, there will be more improvements identified through the LRDP which is in process.

  2. Misanthrop

    Its the long game of the anti-growth scene. They blocked the widening of the tunnel around 20 years ago creating the bottle neck on Richards. Now the same people (only they are much older) want to use the traffic jam they created to stop the construction at Nishi. They were against the water project too. What is the pattern? Its to do anything they can in opposition of growth of the city. Why? They often cite traffic but traffic is really an irritation they can exploit when possible but they are also willing to cause traffic jams in pursuit of the real goal, they don’t want to let anyone else in. They have their over valued houses, careers, jobs or pensions so they think they gain nothing from letting others into Davis.

    The great irony is that they live in a place that is only what it is because of the opportunity it grants to others through education and research. They want to make it hard for others to prosper while at the same time they benefit from the prosperity that others have brought to Davis.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Widening Richards Boulevard would not have fixed the bottleneck.  Evidenced by the fact that getting through the tunnel doesn’t for you to drive most during peak hours. You get hit on first Street.

      1. Topcat

        Widening Richards Boulevard would not have fixed the bottleneck.

        Yes; and re-routing traffic through Nishi to Old Davis Road will create the same kind of bottleneck at the new Railroad underpass unless the University makes some major modifications to the roadways on their side of the tracks.

        1. Topcat

          What is the basis for that claim?

          I frequently travel on Old Davis Road and I’ve seen how slow it is.  This is due to several intersections where there is a lot of pedestrian and bicycle travel.  When there is a Mondavi show the traffic congestion getting out of the parking lot results in LONG delays because of the inability of Old Davis Road to handle a lot of traffic (yes, I do realize that this is an unusual situation that only happens a few times a week).  Old Davis Road as it is currently configured is not a good thoroughfare for traffic coming from I-80 to the University.

      2. Misanthrop

        Speculation David. We don’t know what the situation would be if the tunnel had been widened. The nature of roads is that people use them until they fill up so of course Davis will always have traffic issues. Arguing that someplace shouldn’t grow because of traffic is an ace in the hole for the anti-growth scene. They can always play that card and if instead of upgrading infrastructure as we grow to accommodate more traffic we stop growing all we are doing is denying opportunity to those who don’t live here today. Of course this is what the opponents of Nishi really want. The irony is that Nishi might actually make things better on Richards. Because the residents won’t be commuting in cars to the university the project could end up with fewer commuters driving into Davis for work and school than if the project isn’t built.

    2. Alan Miller


      I was against the widening of the tunnel and always will be.  All it would do is spill the traffic into downtown where it would bottleneck entering downtown.  The Davis Gateway Arch addresses tunnel issues with added turn and access lanes and bike/ped access.  This Davis Gateway Arch project should be Davis Priority #1.

      I am fully for Nishi and access via West Olive.  Totally different concepts.  Maybe the pure anti-growther crowd really do want the tunnel filled in with concrete to keep everyone out.  I wouldn’t know.  But there are plenty of us who oppose tunnel widening who are also FOR Nishi.

      1. Dave Hart

        It’s possible Misanthrop is misinformed and mistaken on her conclusions.  I actually walked my local precinct to stop the widening of Richards, have voted for the original Measure J, and I have always fully supported the water project.  In fact, I believe that refusing to widen Richards way back in history is ultimately resulting in a push to find an alternate and more rational route to campus from commuters.  I am strongly leaning toward support of Measure A.  So what is the pattern here?

        1. Misanthrop

          I’m sure there are many like Dave and Allen who are for Nishi and opposed the tunnel being widened. Its the people who I described earlier for whom I reserve my ire. The pattern is they have opposed everything since I moved here, Wildhorse, widening the tunnel, the water project, Covell Village, the 1990’s sports complex, Cannery and now Nishi.

  3. Alan Miller

    As I said yesterday, having this through campus traffic go through Nishi has been the plan by the developers of Nishi all along.  This will take much morning and evening traffic off of 1st street.  Not ‘eliminate’ as this article says, but reduce.  Yes, there will be more people and jobs.  Davis putting a wall around itself will not eliminate campus or regional growth nor the effects on Davis.  Nishi is the best development on Davis’ table.  Nishi is one we would be wise to build for the good of Davis.

  4. The Pugilist

    Jim Frame is someone I always read with interest because he’s a good bellwether of how many in this community will go.  This proposal seems to fix the access and traffic problems.

  5. Michael Harrington

    Puglist:  let me see  if I understand this.    They have 325,000 of office construction that requires at 500 to 1 a total of 650 parking spaces, 20,000 of retail at 300 to 1 -67 parking spaces, 440 apartments (1 and 2 bedroom) an average of 660 parking spaces, and 200 condos with 2 spaces per unit or 400 parking spaces.  This is a total of 1,777 cars that would be able to use the olive drive exit. 

    And all this drama, all this huge expenditure of public money to totally re-do all public access roads all the way back to the freeway, to do what?  Basically add 640 apts???    Isn’t Sterling Homes doing something close to this level, with little fuss or mess, or public funding, on 5th Street?

    The current Nishi project is total madness, and it will completely screw up the roads in that entire quadrant of the city for years to come.  It’s all about fattening the family trust funds of these two rich local families, the Ruffs and the Whitcombs.  And this CC gave it to them?? And threw in an extra $11.5 million in public affordable housing cash??


    1. Topcat

      If you can’t build housing and jobs near the university – where are we going to go?

      What should be happening is for the University to be building a lot more student housing in West Village as well as redeveloping Orchard Park and Solano Park as higher density student housing.

  6. ryankelly

    I would support widening the bike tunnel and Olive Drive so that cars, bikes and pedestrians are not scrunched into the same narrow streets. Creating a separation between bike/pedestrians and cars is a good plan.  Having bike or pedestrian only traffic signals might help also.

    Access for Nishi via the UC Davis exit is going to be easier at times and drivers will learn.  People who live in Central Davis have learned to choose certain exits at different times.  Sometimes it is faster to use Mace Blvd. if the freeway is backed up.  Sometimes it is easier to use Richards and then swing around to the Poleline over-crossing.  Sometimes it is easier to exit at UC Davis and cut around to 1st & A or all the way around to Russell and Anderson.  Sometimes Hwy 113 and exiting at Hutchinson, Russell or Covell is better.  For trips in town, riding a bike is often much easier than driving a car.  People figure it out.

    Mike Harrington seems to want everyone to believe that everyone will get into their car at the same time and use Olive Drive/Richards Blvd to go somewhere.  He ignores the fact that many will not drive anywhere at all, but will walk or bike since Nishi is so conveniently located near UCD, downtown Davis, bus stops and the train station.  They may even have work locations right there in their neighborhood.

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