Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Oh Irony, Thy Name is Caltrans!

Most, if not all, of the organizations in Sacramento that commented on the Caltrans DEIR
analyzing Highway 50 expansion expressed disbelief at the idea that expanding the carrying capacity of the freeway by somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent would not increase traffic volumes. Nevertheless, that's what Caltrans claimed.  The Caltrans party line is that the 
project would accomodate growth (and an increase in traffic) rather than inducing it.  What's really growth inducing, they say, is land use policy.  From Caltrans' perspective, transportation planners merely work to clean up the messes created by land use decisions by local governments that permit sprawling urban and suburban growth.  Highways don't cause traffic; people cause traffic.

Caltrans' denial that its projects induce traffic demand may sound disingenuous or tongue-in-cheek.  Apparently, however, the agency is dead serious.  Caltrans has developed this notion to the point where its legal arm is now suing local governments to recover "impact fees" for increased traffic on the state's freeways caused by urban development.  Until very recently, one of the local jurisdictions to feel the wrath of the Caltrans lawyers was the City of Sacramento.

Local governments, needless to say, are not happy about competing with the state 
transportation agency for impact fees.  And advocates for
equitable and sustainable transportation might be tempted to view the Caltrans
position with equal measures of cynicism and disbelief.  When Caltrans focuses its litigious energies on high-density 'smart-growth' projects in highly urbanized areas (as it did in Sacramento), it is particularly easy to view the agency's position with a jaundiced eye.

But to tell the truth, Caltrans may have a point.  Both
land use policy and transportation policy have direct impacts on traffic volumes and air quality.  Allowing jurisdictions to build out at will without accounting for the costs of the increasing traffic demand is just another way that we subsidize automobile travel.  And if developers and local governments were forced to pay for the impacts of their projects on state highways, then they might seriously consider whether congestion-reducing mass transportation projects offer more bang for the buck.

Could Caltrans' aggressive position toward land use policies eventually drive local governments to increase investment in 
light rail or other forms of mass transit? 

No CEQA review for highways?

Even when talk of global warming, alternative fuels, and reducing dependence on petroleum is all the rage among the elected set, too often it's still the legislation that facilitates traffic and 
sprawl that moves forward.  

Case in point: This story from the Victorville Daily Press about the plans of the San Bernadino Associated Governments and certain Republican legislators to exempt some road projects from environmental review mandated by CEQA.
Many Victor Valley officials share a frustration with EIRs and have alleged that they hold up road construction when cities have the funding to move them forward.

[Victorville City Councilman Mike] Rothschild is a vocal opponent of the studies on some projects, and initiated the discussion at SANBAG by asking the association to lobby for elimination of EIRs on interchange projects along existing highway corridors.
Thankfully, the Legislature's leadership has turned a cold shoulder in recent years to legislation that would further soften up CEQA.    It's a good bet that this proposal won't get very far either.
Still, it's indicative of the mentality of those policymakers who continue to see road construction as the panacea for traffic-related growing pains in California.  For some, the environmental impacts of road projects are unimportant, or at best incidental.  And the legal  requirement that an agency need to determine the impacts of road projects is a bureaucratic inconvenience that keeps federal funds from raining down on local construction projects.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Land Use Humor

Wanna see something funny?

If you're ever down on your own job, take a moment to pity the poor
planning staff in Sac County who are working on the General Plan. Their
job is to pretend to treat with utmost seriousness the suggestions made by
AKT, and similarly mercenary developers, that capture the fancy of the
supervisors. They must treat these proposals without condescension or
sarcasm. Unlike us, they're not allowed to dismiss proposals based on
common sense or suspicions about the source.

We already know that AKT has proposed opening up portions of rural
Sacramento County at the extreme eastern frontier to development, in total disregard of the existing Urban Services Boundary. We know
that county staff opposes the suggestion, pointing to the immense amount
of developable land within the existing USB and the moderate expansion
area proposed by staff. We know that even SACOG objects to the idea of
developing the Eastern Sacramento/El Dorado frontier, since it would
effectively eviscerate their "Blueprint" land use model. Still, county
staff has to take this proposal at face value.

This is county staff's response.

Don't be fooled by the sober and understated tone. Page by page, this
document makes a mockery of the Tsakapoulos development plan. With
admirable restraint, county staff destroys the notion that the development
of this region is justified by the minimial amount of development
occurring on the El Dorado side of the line. With a saintly lack of
sarcasm, they consider the question of whether the proposal is consistent
with the blueprint, and whether the project would result in traffic
impacts or increased infrastructure demands on the county.

Please take a moment to thank county staff for their hard and honest work
by speaking to their bosses on Wednesday afternoon at 4 PM-- that's when
the BOS will hold a workshop on the proposed "update" of the county
General Plan.  If there is any justice in the world, the whole county planning staff should get a raise that is recuperated from the salaries of any supervisors who support the AKT land use scheme.