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County attempts to avoid analysis of traffic congestion on Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

In the summer of 2014, Marin County planners began investigating a proposal to rehabilitate Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from the Highway 101 interchange to Kentfield. This was followed by community workshops and studies, which culminated in the issuance of a Draft Environmental Impact Report (“DEIR”) on October 11th of 2017. A full list of the pertinent documents can be found at this link.

The proposed changes to the roadway include reconfiguration of all the major intersections and “modifications” (narrowing) of the vehicular traffic lane widths. As we know, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is one of the most important thoroughfares in the county and it is well known for its intolerable traffic congestion. After reviewing the DEIR, CVP questions whether the improvements being proposed won’t in fact make traffic congestion even worse.

The details of the County's plan are purportedly described in the recently published DEIR. However, this document is problematic.

Our review of the DEIR and its attachments finds them to be deficient and in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).

The findings from our initial review are numerous. The County has (1) failed to provide any specific information about what the “modifications” of vehicular traffic actually entail (i.e., it provides no dimensions or other specifics about how much lane narrowing will actually occur or where it will occur), (2) failed to provide any analysis of the potential significant impacts of the proposed traffic lane narrowing and intersection changes, and (3) is attempting to illegally avoid addressing CEQA requirements by claiming a fictitious exemption.

In order to be sure we fully understood the documents, CVP wrote to Dan Dawson, requesting clarification. I wrote,

The DEIR does not note or otherwise acknowledge or analyze any changes to any lane widths or the potential impacts of such changes. The DEIR analysis assumes the present vehicular traffic lane widths remain. Can you please confirm that this is accurate and that the final plans do not change the existing vehicular lane widths in any section of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard?

If that is not the case and vehicular lanes are reduced or otherwise changed in any sections of the boulevard, can you (1) please point me to that information in the documentation, and (2) explain why the DEIR does not include any analysis of the potential impacts of such changes.

Dan Dawson’s response was,

Lane widths were not analyzed in the DEIR as the project does not propose constructing any lanes at a width less than adopted design standards in the Caltrans Highway Design Manual, which specifies a minimum lane width of 11.’ The HDM does allow 10’ lanes under certain limited circumstances but no 10’ travel lanes are included in the project. [Emphasis added]

Dawson’s admission that no analysis has been done is significant. He is acknowledging that the County has violated CEQA. He also notes that based on the standard the County has chosen to use, lane widths could be as narrow as 10 feet. Unfortunately, in the absence of any dimensions on the plans or a proper CEQA review, his assurance that this will not be the case amounts to little more than "trust me." He also didn't answer my questions.

In response, I wrote,

Thanks for the quick response. However, you did not answer my question. Is the plan proposing to reduce lane widths from the present lane widths (which constitute the basis of the baseline data)? CEQA does not provide an exemption from analysis simply because a design follows a "design standard." CEQA requires analysis that is project specific. So, to ask this again, does the proposed design reduce lane widths to less than the current lane widths in any section of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard? That is a yes or no question. If so, please provide me with information on exactly where that occurs.

Dan Dawson’s response was,

The current lane widths, which vary throughout the corridor, and the multiple proposed lane modifications are both within adopted standards, do not alter vehicle throughput, and are thus analysis is not necessary under CEQA. …For the purposes of your inquiry, you can assume that lane widths will be modified throughout the corridor. [Emphasis added]

Once again, he claims a CEQA exemption and has again failed to answer the question of where in the DEIR can the public find information about what the actual lane width changes are going to be and where they are going to be. Without that information, how can a reasonable person make any assessment of the potential impacts of the new design or be able to comment intelligently on those changes.

For example, if you drive on certain sections of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and you have a history of experiencing very bad traffic congestion, it would be important to you to know that the section you typically drive on is going to be significantly narrower than it presently is; e.g., some of the existing vehicular traffic lanes that are presently 15 feet wide, will be reduced to as narrow as 11 feet wide.

Lane narrowing is a well-known tool planners use to implement “traffic calming,” a euphemism for slowing down cars. But, is slower traffic what Sir Francis Drake Boulevard really needs?

Since Mr. Dawson had still not answered my questions, I tried one last time. I wrote

For the second time you've declined to answer my simple questions.

1 - Does the new plan reduce the width of existing vehicle travel lanes?
2 - If yes, can you please indicate in what sections of the street this narrowing occurs?
In addition, you now say that these changes "do not alter vehicle throughput." Can you please point me to the analysis in the DEIR that makes this determination?

Dawson’s response was,

Once again, for the purposes of your inquiry, you can assume that lane widths will be modified throughout the corridor, varying between 11’ and 12’. All of the analysis conducted is contained in the DEIR and appendices and includes current conditions (baseline) and the project plus the various alternatives.

The problem is that contrary to his claim there is no analysis of the proposed plan's traffic impacts in the DEIR, as required under CEQA. Further, there are no plans or cross sections showing the proposed dimensions of lanes, sidewalks, islands or other changes in each particular section of the boulevard. The DEIR simply contains what might be called preliminary concept sketches of the roadway and intersections, without any engineering specifics.

The County is claiming that it is exempt from CEQA requirements simply because it intends to follow the guidelines noted in the Caltrans Design Manual. This claim by the County is patently false.

In a final response to my continued questioning, Dawson summed up his position that no CEQA review is required for the County to move forward, by stating that

Environmental review is done at the Preliminary Engineering phase. Detailed construction drawings and bid specifications would be prepared once the EIR is certified and the Board of Supervisors adopts a final project.

While this is true if the preliminary engineering phase is complete, in this case, it is not. That is the issue.

Bait and switch

Traffic congestion has been the number one concern expressed by the public throughout the public workshop and design scoping process. Yet, the County’s DEIR fails to even disclose to the public, clearly, what the “before” and “after” widths and conditions of the rehabilitated roadway will be, much less provide any analysis of that.

The County is basically attempting to pull off a bait and switch, using the performance of the existing lane widths as the basis for the proposed plan’s projected congestion performance, even though the proposed design has narrower lanes, and then justifying it by claiming to be adhering to an unrelated highway design standard.

Increased traffic congestion can have significant air quality and public safety impacts, which must be projected, calculated and analyzed under CEQA, for the proposed design. The essential requirement of CEQA is that design decisions must be “evidence” based and not the conjecture of paid consultants or politicized opinions.

What is also concerning here is that nowhere in this entire process will the public have the opportunity to fully comprehend or comment on the final plan. The County intends to have the Board of Supervisors certify the final EIR before they do the actual streetscape design details (e.g., lane widths). Since no specifically dimensioned design exists in the DEIR documentation, how will the public be properly informed what that final design and its details will be before the Final EIR is certified?

It appears that the County’s approach here is to (1) rely on data of the existing performance of the street to defend the performance of the proposal, then (2) circulate a DEIR without any detailed or dimensioned drawings, or any analysis or other evaluation to determine if there are any significant impacts, then (3) close the public comment period and issue what will likely be a list of responses, which will simply disagree with opposing opinions, then finally, (4) move on to the Board of Supervisors with essentially the same documents we now have in hand, which will then be called the Final EIR, in order to get that FEIR and design proposal certified… a design the public will actually never even get to see or comment on.

This is an example of what we have been calling "Hide the ball."

Why is the County doing this?

Are the County’s actions intentional or just a big screw-up? Are Dan Dawson’s responses the product of intentional scheming or just evidence of profound ignorance of the law? Frankly, at this point, CVP questions that the lack of traffic congestion analysis in the DEIR is accidental. Could it be intentional in order to avoid public scrutiny about this highly charged issue?

It is simply inconceivable that LSA, the highly paid consultant that created the DEIR documents, could be this ignorant of the legal requirements for analysis and evidence, under CEQA. In any case, the County must be forced to adhere to CEQA and analyze and disclose the impacts of their proposals.

It is extremely important for the public to write comments and demand that the County fully disclose the specifics of the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard Rehabilitation Plan and the potential traffic congestion impacts of the changes, in particular, before seeking public comment.

Once the FEIR is certified and the 30 day statutory period for a legal challenge has expired, the County could essentially engineer and build any traffic lane sizing they chose to -- because the diagrams in the DEIR do not contain any specific dimensions -- and the public will not even know about it until the roadway rehabilitation construction is completed.

Not only is this lack of transparency a violation of the letter and spirit of the law, but to allow it to pass uncontested would set an extremely bad precedent for public process in Marin, going forward.

In response, CVP has retained legal counsel and traffic and other environmental experts to evaluate and comment on the Draft EIR, prior to the December 6, 2017 deadline. In addition, we continue to question the County on their claim of CEQA exemption.