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CVP challenges the Draft EIR for the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard Rehab Project

Community Venture Partners has sent the following public comment letter to Dan Dawson, Principal Transportation Planner in charge of the proposed Sir Francis Drake Boulevard Rehabilitation Project and its Draft Environmental Impact Report.

Dear Mr. Dawson:

We have reviewed the SFD DEIR and respectfully submit the following comments:

As you 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 proposed changes to the roadway include reconfiguration of all the major intersections and per your descriptions, “modifications” (narrowing) of the vehicular traffic lane widths for the entire length of the roadway included in the project.

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 review are numerous. In summary, the County has:

(1) Violated CEQA by failing to provide an adequate “project description” containing specific information about what the “modifications” of vehicular traffic will actually entail, i.e., the DEIR provides no dimensions or other design specifics about how much lane narrowing will actually occur or where it will occur, though from your correspondence with us, we are informed it will be “throughout the corridor”;

(2) Violated CEQA by failing to provide any credible analysis of the potential significant impacts of the proposed traffic lane narrowing and intersection changes, as required, because all traffic projections are based on the existing roadway design/configurations not the proposed new design/configurations;

(3) Used data and analysis in the DEIR that is incorrect, inconsistent, contradictory to professional standards and based on erroneous assumptions; and

(4) Illegally avoided addressing any CEQA requirements for such analysis by claiming a fictitious exemption based on adherence to an unrelated highway design standard published by Caltrans.

These CEQA violations are noted in our comments herein, and in comments by independent traffic and air quality experts (see comment letters by Robert Harrison and Geoffery Hornek, attached). The technical violations of CEQA are enumerated in the letter by Edward Yates, dated December 1, 2017 (click here to read the Yates' CEQA legal comment letter).

In addition, in our correspondence you have confirmed these CEQA violations.

1 – The DEIR fails to provide adequate information about the proposed project design violates the CEQA requirement for a complete “project description.”

The Sir Francis Drake DEIR fails to provide a complete project description. CEQA requires that the project description be complete and that it clearly articulate and explain the total scope of the proposed rehabilitation. The DEIR provides no dimensioned 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.

In response to my query regarding this issue, on October 30, 2017, you wrote:

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]

For a project description for a proposal of this magnitude, the DEIR documents must provide fully dimensioned and adequately notated plans, cross-sections and other engineering drawings that depict the specific changes being proposed, showing the traffic lane widths for the entire length of the section of the Boulevard being rehabilitated, both “before” and “after” that rehabilitation. Without such information neither the public nor independent analysts have a way to be informed of the true scope of the work, nor can they assess or comment intelligently on potentially significant impacts.

For example, if a person drives on certain sections of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and they have a history of experiencing very bad traffic congestion, it would be important to them to know that the section they 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 apparently be reduced to as narrow as 11 feet wide. Without this information they cannot form an opinion or comment intelligently. This is why CEQA requires a project description to be complete.

Further, you have admitted that under the standard the County has chosen to use, lane widths could be as narrow as 10 feet. But, you only provide your personal assurance that this is not the case. However, in the absence of any dimensions on the plans this assurance amounts to no more than "trust me." CEQA does not recognize that as an adequate project description.

2 – The DEIR fails to provide adequate analysis of the potential significant impacts of the proposed traffic lane narrowing and intersection changes, including but not limited to increased traffic congestion, air quality impacts and public safety impacts, violates the requirements of CEQA

Traffic congestion has been the number one concern expressed by the public throughout the public workshop and design scoping process. The Sir Francis Drake Boulevard Rehabilitation DEIR does not contain or otherwise acknowledge any assessment or analysis of the potential impacts resulting from the proposed changes to traffic lane widths.

In response to my query on this matter, on October 30, 2017, you wrote

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.

Your admission that no analysis has been done by the County is an acknowledgment that the County has violated CEQA. As explained in more detail below and in the comment letter by our legal counsel Edward Yates, dated December 1, 2017, the County has no legal authority under CEQA to defer analysis based on any “adopted standard,” as you suggest. Further, without specific analysis of potential impacts of the proposed project, the DEIR, by your own admission, provides no analysis to substantiate its claim that the new design modifications “do not alter vehicle throughput.”

The essential requirement of CEQA is that decisions must be evidence-based (i.e., based on project specific analysis) and not based on conjecture or opinion or unrelated design standards.

Of greater concern is that the DEIR bases its decisions entirely on the data, traffic volumes and traffic flow rates of the existing roadway configurations and vehicular traffic lane widths, not those for the proposed plan. In doing so, the County is attempting 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.

Lane narrowing is a well-known tool planners use to implement “traffic calming,” a euphemism for slowing traffic down. But, there is no question that slower traffic what Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is not what is needed.

In addition, it is an indisputable fact that increased traffic congestion can have significant air quality and public safety impacts. Under CEQA, these must be projected and analyzed for the proposed design. This would also require a baseline study be performed to assess the existing conditions.

The DEIR lacks both of these.

3 – The County used data and analysis in the DEIR that is incorrect, inconsistent, contradictory to professional standards and based on erroneous assumptions.

a – Traffic:

Attached please find the Memorandum by independent traffic engineer and transportation expert Robert L. Harrison, dated October 29, 2017. In that document, Mr. Harrison points out major flaws in the data and methodologies used by the County’s DEIR consultants in analyzing the potentially significant traffic congestion impacts of the Sir Francis Drake Rehabilitation Plan. Among those are:

This independent finding is consistent with your written admission in our email exchanges that the “Lane widths were not analyzed in the DEIR,” and therefore any potential impacts of those changes in lane widths were also not analyzed, nor were significant impacts determined in any logical way, which in turn indicates that no assessment of potentially required mitigation was properly considered.

Among one of the egregious flaws noted, which corroborates our comments “1” and “2” above, is that “the DEIR LOS calculations assume no change in lane width from the existing widths.” This directly contradicts the rest of the information provided in the DEIR, further confirming the inadequacy of the project description. It appears the County’s own traffic consultant couldn’t understand what the project entailed.

In summary, with regard to traffic congestion and required environmental assessments, the DEIR’s conclusion of less than significant impacts is baseless because the County has admitted to having done no traffic analysis based on the proposed design. Therefore, there remains the possibility that the impacts are significant and in need of mitigation. Without such analysis no conclusions can be drawn or relied upon.

At a minimum a complete project description information and all associated data – i.e., the basis for traffic projections and analysis -- needs to be provided and otherwise made consistent, and a Revised DEIR must then be recirculated for public review and comment.

b – Air Quality:

Attached please find the Memorandum by independent air quality expert Geoffrey Hornek, dated November 29, 2017. In that document, Mr. Hornek points out major flaws in the data and methodologies used by the County’s DEIR consultants, with regard to analyzing the potentially significant air quality impacts of the Sir Francis Drake Rehabilitation Plan.

Among those are:

In summary, with regard to air quality and its associated environmental and public safety impacts, the DEIR’s conclusions of less than significant impacts are baseless because the County has failed to do proper quantitative analysis. To that point, Mr. Hornek comments

The DEIR does not include dimensioned plans of project-related lane width changes or other roadway configuration changes or traffic link levels of service or of idling times at intersections. The lack of information about lane widths and similar design data makes impossible to perform dispersion modeling of air quality impacts; consequently, the DEIR's air quality conclusions are unsupported. Given the DEIR's failure to do proper quantitative analysis, as noted herein, there remains the distinct possibility that project impacts on ambient air quality and health risk will be significant and unmitigated.

4 – The County is illegally avoiding addressing CEQA requirements by claiming a fictitious exemption based on adherence to an unrelated highway design standard published by Caltrans .

You have claimed an exemption from CEQA required analysis of potentially significant traffic congestion impacts due to your reliance on the guidelines noted in the Caltrans Design Manual. This claim is patently false. CEQA does not grant any such legal authority for exemption.

We provided you with an opportunity to substantiate this claim. On November 2, 2017, our legal counsel, Edward Yates, wrote to you, explaining why such authority does not exist and requesting that you please provide the legal authority “for the County’s position that where a project’s proposed lane widths are within Caltrans or other agency adopted standards, a complete project description and environmental analysis are not required by CEQA.” (Letter attached)

You ignored our request and failed to provide any citation of legal authority. CEQA does not provide any such exemption from analysis simply because an agency follows an arbitrary "design standard" of its own choosing. CEQA requires analysis that is project specific.

Summation of Comments on the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard Rehabilitation Plan DEIR

In your most recent response to my continued questioning of your claims of exemption from CEQA, you wrote:

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 may be true if the preliminary engineering phase is complete and includes a complete project description and adequate assessment and analysis of potentially significant impacts, in this instance that is not the case.

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 that required mitigation, then (3) close the public comment period and issue responses, which may 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, which the public will never actually have the opportunity to see or comment on.

What is greatly concerning here is that nowhere in this entire process will the public have the opportunity to fully comprehend the final plan, much less comment on it. This violates the primary purpose of CEQA.

It appears that your agency is attempting to have the Board of Supervisors certify the final EIR before the actual streetscape design (e.g., lane widths) is decided. Since no specifically dimensioned design exists in the DEIR documentation, how will the Board of Supervisors, our decision making body, be properly informed what that final design and its impacts will be before they are asked to certify the Final EIR?

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.

Furthermore, once the FEIR is certified and the 30 day statutory period for a legal challenge has expired, the Department of Public Works could essentially engineer and build any traffic lane sizing they chose to and neither the Board of Supervisor nor the public will 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 uncontested, it would set an extremely bad precedent for public process in Marin, going forward.

For these and the other reasons stated herein, the County must immediately withdraw the DEIR, complete the project description, undertake the assessments and analysis required under CEQA, then recirculate a Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report for public comment.


Bob Silvestri – President, Community Venture Partners, Inc.

Cc: Matthew H. Hymel, Katie Rice, Dennis Rodoni

Community Venture Partners, Inc. is a community serving, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support the work of CVP please click here to donate.