Traffic will get worse if growth is unabated
March 7, 2007
Douglas County is in the midst of what’s been called a rancorous debate over growth. County officials are searching for a compromise that can bring people together. I believe the draft transportation plan presented on March 1 provides a legally defensible basis for that. We’ve heard a lot of opinions about a growth limit. The transportation plan presents an opportunity to proceed on facts and analysis instead. And I’d like to think that if we do that, the facts combined with reason will lead us to a common conclusion.
We all experience traffic on a daily basis and know from that experience that it has a direct relationship to public health, safety and welfare. When traffic worsens, efficiency and safety decline.
Traffic engineers grade traffic flow by what they call Level of Service, from A through F, just like your old report card. Douglas County has adopted LOS C as the local standard for assuring safe and efficient traffic flow. With a few exceptions in the north county, our roads now operate at LOS C or better. The transportation plan is designed to keep us at LOS C as population grows.
Douglas County currently has a population of about 51,000. The transportation plan is designed around a future population of 83,500.
To maintain Level of Service C with a population of 83,500, the transportation plan proposes 32 road improvement projects. A few are redundant options but even accounting for those redundancies, the total cost is well over one-half billion dollars.
The simple fact is that if we allow growth to proceed without those improvements, the level of service will drop, congestion and delay will increase dramatically and, most importantly, we will experience more accidents, injuries and fatalities. A common and clearly defensible purpose of an annual growth limit is to pace growth to the construction of the infrastructure necessary to serve it. By keeping population and infrastructure in sync we avoid many of the adverse effects of growth.
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So, how long might it take to complete the infrastructure outlined in the transportation plan? That’s a question that might best be put to the county’s consultants. But I think we can all agree from observation of similar projects elsewhere that 30 plus transportation projects totaling over one-half billion dollars will take a considerable period of time. It is important to remember that this is not entirely within county control. Many of the proposed projects rely on substantial state and federal funding and must compete with other worthy projects statewide (can you say Las Vegas?). I personally think 30 years would be a realistic, possibly even optimistic, time frame for planning purposes.
So let’s do the math on that basis. Population growth estimated by the transportation plan is 32,500. The county uses 2.5 persons per household for planning purposes. So that equates to 13,000 dwellings.
Spread over the 30 years I suggest, that’s 433 units per year.
But there has been considerable discussion of the need to exempt from a growth limit certain projects that have already been approved by the county. On March 1, in our first official signal that we are likely to have a growth limit here, Commissioner Jim Baushke proposed that we exempt 4,000 units in approved projects while adopting an annual growth limit as close as possible to what the voters approved in 2002, 280 units per year. Let’s look at the effect of that on the above calculations.
If we deduct the 4,000 units that Commissioner Baushke proposes to exempt from the 13,000 additional units on which the transportation plan is based, we’re left with 9,000 units. Spread that evenly over the 30 years it might take to complete the transportation infrastructure and we have an annual limit of 300 units, pretty close to Commissioner Baushke’s proposal.
To me the transportation plan is a compelling basis for planning future growth. We’re at LOS C. We need to construct about 30 projects totaling over one-half billion dollars to keep it that way while we add 13,000 units here. Given the complexities of that and the need to compete for funding, 30 years seems a reasonable time frame over which to spread that growth. I have no objection in these circumstances to Commissioner Baushke’s desire to exempt certain approved units from the annual limit. If we exempt more, the annual limit goes down, fewer and it goes up. The important thing is that total growth not exceed 13,000 units over the time period it will take to complete the transportation infrastructure needed to serve that level of growth.
Finally, how much of a hindrance would this actually be to the builders here and how much of a disappointment to SGI and its supporters? Well, the transportation consultants estimated future unconstrained growth here at 560 units per year. And, of course, SGI advocates 280 units per year but also seems to have accepted the legal necessity of exempting at least 2,600 previously approved units. So the unconstrained growth over 30 years that the builders would prefer might total about 16,800 units. And SGI seems to have accepted an approach that would result in about 11,000 units over the same time frame. The average of those two is 13,900, not far from the 13,000 total over 30 years on which the above calculations are based.
So, could we come together on this basis and agree that we must pace growth to transportation infrastructure and derive our growth limit from the transportation plan in a way that balances the interests of both sides of this debate? Maybe Lynn Hettrick and John Garvin should get together to discuss that. How about a joint presentation to the County Commission when it meets again April 5 to continue its consideration of a growth limit?
— Terry Burnes is a retired Bay area planner.