By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – In 2016 a narrow majority of voters made a mistake, fearing the traffic impacts from the Nishi project onto Richards, they voted down the Nishi Project. The result was about $10 million that would have gone to create a new route to campus from Richards through Nishi was taken off the table.
The city with the help of grant money from SACOG is redesigning the Richards / I-80 Interchange to help traffic flow, but that money that would have helped to siphon a good portion of traffic away from the downtown disappeared when the voters voted down Nishi in 2016 and then voted for Nishi without Richards Blvd access in 2018.
The situation on Richards will hopefully be improved with the changes, but in the end, you are still funneling the same amount of traffic through the narrow underpass and onto the narrow downtown streets.
We are facing similar decisions now with Mace and DiSC 2022. In 2020, the voters narrowly rejected DISC, a big part of that was likely fears about traffic impacts.
While Mace congestion has gotten less attention on the north side of I-80, in the pre-pandemic days, it was nearly as congested as the south side. Traffic during late afternoon hours would often back up in the south bound direction onto the Mace Curve, nearly to Harper Junior High.
There are similar problems with Mace as existed with Richards – too much traffic onto an overpass built at a different time and not meant to handle that volume of traffic which now backs up from the freeway which during peak hours is near a standstill.
We know from Nishi and Richards, that even a fairly clear cut solution may not win at the ballot box. It took Nishi removing Richards from the equation to win. DiSC has no such realistic luxury.
Having a reduced sized project – which was by necessity of one of the land owners pulling out, not a strategic decision – is actually a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it does reduce the impact of the project on traffic, but it also reduces greatly the amount of private money that can go into infrastructure upgrades.
Even with the full project, there was not enough money from the project alone to really fix the roadway. Now with a reduced sized project, that money will be even more limited.
I already see a full court press to create a bike/ ped under crossing at Mace. There is nothing wrong with that per se. But if we go that route, it probably leaves less money for the applicants to address the bigger problem which I think is Mace and not whether or not we have bike and pedestrian connectivity.
That is sacrilege in Davis, but it is the reality. If we can only deal with one problem – the road is the far bigger one.
Fortunately for Davis, we probably have a once in a lifetime opportunity to fix this thing. There is all sorts of federal money available for roadways and transportation. There is grant money from the American Recovery Plan and now there is additional billions that could come available through the Federal Infrastructure Bill.
In addition, CalTrans has already prioritized the I-80 corridor for upgrades and billions more will come available through the infrastructure bill.
Finally there is SACOG who ended up funding upgrades to Richards Blvd.
In addition to the public monies, the city will see at least three potential projects along Covell – one at Wildhorse Ranch, one at Shriner’s in addition to DiSC.
All of this comes together in a way that we really have the opportunity to fix this infrastructure and roadway in a way we will probably never have again.
So what does this look like? Can we actually fix the road way and I-80 exchange?
I have no idea.
One thing I will caution people on – it is extremely dangerous and problematic to try to play amateur traffic engineer here – and frankly way too many people are. It was like when a citizen last go around attempted to estimate traffic impacts from DISC and came up with five hour delays on Mace – a finding that belied common sense and was so far off from the professional traffic engineering estimates as to render it comical.
There is a reason why you hire traffic engineers to do this stuff, no sense in trying to do an amateur job. This is way above my pay grade.
Instead , what I would like to see is a conceptual plan that the city and developers lay out on the table prior to the project being put on the ballot. The voters need to have an idea of what they are voting on, and how we address issues of traffic prior to be asking to vote a project up or down.
With the amount of money and projects coming in, we can afford hopefully to go big and at least partly address issues of traffic and connectivity to the site.
The goal of the city and the developers should be to develop a plan that can actually improve things over the current conditions. Can they do that? I don’t know. If we were building Mace today, would it look like it does now? If not, how can we redesign it to make it more functional?
In a lot of ways, whether or not DiSC passes in June will depend on the developer and city’s ability to answer these questions. But as history warns, that may not be enough. The voters lost an opportunity to really fix Richards in 2016, hopefully they will get a chance to fix Mace in 2022 and not fumble that chance.