ELECTIONS ’88 : MEASURE A : Experts Say There’s Relief but No Cure in Traffic Initiative
The Citizens’ Sensible Growth and Traffic Control Initiative on the June 7 ballot should relieve congestion at some south county intersections, transportation and urban planning experts say. But they quickly add that the measure is not the solution to all of the county’s growing traffic problems.
Says Kenneth Small, a transportation economist and associate professor of social science at UC Irvine: “I think the initiative is more a slow-growth initiative than a traffic control initiative, although I think it will have some traffic benefits.”
“The problem,” says Elizabeth Deakin, assistant professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, “is that new development can’t solve the problem caused by not having good growth management in the past.” But from a planning perspective, “the initiative gets you one step closer to where you want to be.”
Experts disagree about the potential impact of the initiative on the county’s economy. Some say it will wreak havoc; others say it will simply slow growth to a more manageable pace.
Even the impact on traffic patterns is difficult to predict, experts say, because no one knows exactly how developers might respond to passage of the measure--whether they will continue present building trends, turn their sights away from Orange County or otherwise modify existing development plans.
Nonetheless, because the initiative’s supporters tout it largely as an anti-gridlock strategy, The Times sought the assistance of several specialists in an attempt to weigh the measure’s potential effects. Four transportation and urban planning experts were asked to study the ballot measure and offer their views of its probable impact on traffic in the county.
In addition to Deakin and Small, The Times asked for analyses from Tony Gomez-Ibanez, professor of urban planning and public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and Graduate School of Design, and Manny Puentes, a traffic engineer and public services representative for the Automobile Club of Southern California. Deakin also holds a position with the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies, which has branches in Berkeley and Irvine.
The initiative, Measure A on the countywide ballot, would condition growth on the ability of local roads and public services to handle more traffic. It does not directly affect freeways, and its restrictions would be limited to unincorporated areas, though the vote on it will be countywide.
There are efforts under way to get similar measures on the books in some cities. Voters in San Clemente and Seal Beach will find citywide slow-growth measures on their June 7 ballots, as will voters in San Juan Capistrano, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach in November.
Under Measure A, a developer with a project affecting nearby traffic patterns would have three to five years to make road improvements to smooth the traffic flow or decrease average delays at intersections where they exceed 40 seconds.
Improvements are required if a new commercial or residential project would cause at least a 1% increase in average daily traffic volume on any road, or an additional half-second delay per vehicle at any intersection during rush hour.
Other features of the initiative include:
Ride-sharing and flexible work shift programs could be used as substitutes for road improvements.
Where new intersections are being built, they would have to be designed so that average delays would not exceed 40 seconds per vehicle during rush hour.
Here is what the experts had to say about the likely impact of the measure.
If the initiative passes, motorists in unincorporated areas of south Orange County may see some benefits, at least for a short time, she says. But drivers may save a few minutes on travel to north Orange County, where most people work, only to find traffic worse once they arrive.
Generally, she says, when an improvement in a road is made, “people go out there and use it, so over time the benefit disappears. . . . It really depends on the number of people who currently are deterred from travel during peak hours, and we don’t really know enough about that.”
Deakin says shortening the travel time on arterials between south and north county may actually worsen traffic in some cases. People, she says, may decide that the time saved allows them to commute a few extra miles, encouraging them to relocate even farther from their jobs.
“Forty-five minutes seems to be the threshold for most people. If you can save a few minutes off of that time, it only opens up the possibility of driving further, until they reach that psychological 45-minute threshold again.”
One unknown factor is the planned San Joaquin Hills tollway. Although slow-growth advocates disagree, county traffic planners believe the tollway will lessen the volume of traffic on such arterials as Irvine Center Drive, Moulton Parkway and Pacific Coast Highway.
If the planners are correct, says Deakin, the tollway could make it easier--and cheaper--for developers to meet the performance standards the initiative requires for county roads.
“Generally, if you dampen the pace of development, you may see a reduction in the growth of congestion. But the question of the initiative’s potential effects is really hard to answer. It really depends on the circumstances for land development.”
Correcting traffic flow problems, Deakin says, is not a substitute for proper land management.
She predicts that if the initiative passes, some developers--in order to save money--will seek locations for their projects that require fewer road improvements under the terms of the measure. If such “better” locations are on undeveloped land that could be preserved as open space, she points out, slow-growth advocates will not be pleased.
Gomez-Ibanez agrees that the effects of the slow-growth initiative are difficult to assess because of uncertainty about developers’ plans and the economy in general.
“First, you need to compare what would happen to Orange County’s traffic without the initiative,” says Gomez-Ibanez, of the Kennedy School at Harvard. “Second, you then have to assume there’s no initiative but public officials have a newly awakened desire to do something about traffic.
“Third, you would then compare those scenarios with what would happen to traffic without road improvement fees paid for by new development, in case developers flee the county. And without months of sophisticated, detailed study, you can’t get to the answers to those questions.”
The initiative’s potential impact on traffic, he says, depends to a large extent on whether there is another area nearby that developers can go to and obtain similar profits without the restrictions of the initiative.
“Is the return on development elsewhere so good that developers can afford to leave the Orange County market? If they can, then the value of undeveloped land in Orange County will be depressed. That might please some slow-growth activists locally, but it then creates growth--and traffic congestion--somewhere else.”
The initiative’s traffic standards may be too optimistic for urban intersections, Gomez-Ibanez adds, where high-rise construction is not only encouraged by planners but is tolerated by the public as well.
Still, Gomez-Ibanez says, adjusting growth so that it does not exceed the capacity of the county’s transportation system is “completely justifiable,” as long as people recognize that there will be some economic impact as well.
Gomez-Ibanez says he could not find “any obvious traffic loopholes” in the initiative’s proposed standards and is impressed with its detail.
“The specific terms make it hard for a developer to weasel out of making the necessary traffic improvements. There’s an auditing program right in the initiative. One of the games that developers play is overestimating the number of people who will use transit or who will ride-share.
“This thing (the initiative) has a lot of teeth in it to make sure there is compliance.”
Puentes, of the Auto Club, says that Measure A’s traffic standards are not a radical approach to traffic planning and that they make sense for a still relatively sparsely populated area, such as south Orange County. But he thinks they would produce only limited benefits for a small number of people.
“You may shorten the peak period (of rush hour) for some people. Instead of it getting longer and longer each year, it may compress. But the people caught in the middle of the peak hour will not notice any appreciable benefit, unless alternative routes--and freeways--are built.
“Small improvements at intersections don’t get noticed much. They reduce some local congestion or improve safety, but they don’t affect the regional system. And the regional system is only as good as its weakest link.
“When you look at the initiative’s fundamental principles, you see some good intent. But the weakest link in the system right now is the freeways. . . . To the extent that it will relieve the arterial network, the slow-growth initiative will help some people who don’t use the freeways. But the freeways account for 50% of all the travel that occurs in this county. You can’t ignore them.”
Puentes, however, is not as skeptical as some about the plight of north county drivers.
“North county will continue to grow even if the initiative passes. North county leaders will therefore see the wisdom of adopting land-use policies that help their areas compete with the quality of life in the unincorporated area, or which at least make the two areas complement each other.”
The main problem with the initiative’s traffic requirements, says Puentes, is that improvements will not occur uniformly. “They occur only when there’s a new construction project. So the pattern will depend on where new buildings are going up.”
“The initiative will make traffic somewhat better than it would have been otherwise,” says UCI’s Small, “but only a little, because there are enough people who are deterred now from driving during peak hours to assume that some would switch to driving in peak hours as soon as there is any perceptible relief in congestion.”
Small says this is a defect of nearly all traffic control plans that “refuse to recognize the subsidy to driving during peak periods that we now have.”
“Only raising the monetary cost of peak hour driving is going to have any major effect.”
But Small rejects the argument put forward by some critics of the initiative that it will force people to people to live farther from their jobs, thus increasing long-distance commuting.
Small says that the argument is true only if the initiative curtails residential development more than commercial development, and he sees “no evidence” of that happening.
“Some opponents talk about unemployment in one breath and then say there won’t be enough houses to house the workers. Come on. You just can’t have it both ways.
“The other (opposition) argument I hear often is that the initiative would reduce the financing of new highways from developer fees. I think that argument is really misleading because if they do halt construction because of this initiative, then of course that reduces the need for those traffic improvements.
“And if they don’t halt construction, the argument implies that the developers are now paying for more than their fair share. And to the extent that they continue to develop, that will still happen and there would be no difference just because of the initiative.”
On the impact on freeways, Small says: “The slow-growth initiative will help the regional freeways a little bit. Not much. But by slowing development down in the south, you reduce the number of people who would be added to the freeways otherwise. Some people locating in the south will be commuting to north Orange County or Los Angeles County. To the extent that this is reduced, the traffic on those freeways will be reduced also.”
Building the planned San Joaquin Hills tollway could produce a paradox, Small says. County traffic planners say the tollway will draw some traffic away from such arterials as Pacific Coast Highway, Irvine Center Drive and Moulton Parkway, and that would make it easier and cheaper for developers to meet the traffic standards contained in the slow-growth initiative.
“Which means indirectly that building the San Joaquin Hills tollway could result in more development that will introduce more traffic on (such roads as) Moulton Parkway.
“What I see as the most serious disadvantage of this measure is that it’s going to make it harder to provide for a heterogeneous population. It will make it harder to provide low-income housing. But I’m not sure all the parties in the debate would consider that a disadvantage.”
ROAD IMPROVEMENTS LIKELY UNDER SLOW-GROWTH INITIATIVE
Traffic engineers at Orange County’s Environmental Management Agency say the following intersections are the ones most likely to need improvements in order to operate at levels of service required by the Citizens’ Sensible Growth and Traffic Control Initiative. The list, including estimated costs of bringing the intersections up to the standards of the initiative, was compiled using data on existing traffic conditions and forecasts of future intersection capacity utilization. Cost estimates are preliminary.
INTERSECTION TOTAL COST 1. Moulton Parkway at Lake Forest Drive $300,000 2. Lake Forest Drive at Avenida de la Carlota $250,000 3. Avenida de la Carlota at Paseo de Valencia $350,000 4. Avenida de la Carlota at El Toro Road $350,000 5. Avenida de la Carlota at Los Alisos Boulevard $300,000 6. La Paz Road at Cabot Road $600,000 7. Moulton Parkway at El Toro Road $750,000 8. Moulton Parkway at La Paz Road $400,000 9. Paseo de Valencia at La Paz Road $500,000 10. Rockfield Boulevard at El Toro Road $700,000 11. Rockfield Boulevard at Los Alisos Boulevard $450,000 12. Rockfield Boulevard at Lake Forest Drive $650,000 13. Muirlands Boulevard at El Toro Road $600,000 14. Muirlands Boulevard at Alicia Parkway $500,000 15. Muirlands Boulevard at La Paz Road $600,000 16. Jeronimo Road at Lake Forest Drive $350,000 17. Jeronimo Road at El Toro Road $500,000 18. Jeronimo Road at Alicia Parkway $500,000 19. Trabuco Road at Lake Forest Drive $600,000 20. Trabuco Road at El Toro Road $700,000 21. Trabuco Road at La Paz Road $500,000 22. Marguerite Parkway at La Paz Road $600,000 23. Marguerite Parkway at Oso Parkway $450,000 24. Marguerite Parkway at Avery Parkway $650,000 25. Santa Margarita Parkway at El Toro Road* $450,000 26. Bridger Road at El Toro Road $450,000 27. Muirlands Boulevard at Lake Forest Drive $500,000 28. Muirlands Boulevard at Los Alisos Boulevard $550,000 TOTAL INTERSECTION IMPROVEMENTS $14,100,000
* Developer to construct to four-way
In addition to the intersection improvements, the county’s traffic engineers say the following road links may have to be improved to meet the initiative’s standards:
INTERSECTION TOTAL COST 1. El Toro Road from Trabuco Road to $1,700,000 Santa Margarita Parkway 2. Irvine Boulevard from Sand Canyon to Alton Parkway $4,500,000 3. Moulton Parkway from La Paz Road to Alicia Parkway $5,500,000 (also portion in Irvine from Lake Forest Drive to I-405) $5,200,000 4. Santiago Canyon Road from Black Star Canyon to $5,000,000 Live Oak Canyon 5. Los Alisos interchanges (partial) $3,000,000 6. Bake Parkway interchanges $12,500,000 TOTAL LINK IMPROVEMENTS $37,400,000 TOTAL INTERSECTION IMPROVEMENTS $14,100,000 GRAND TOTAL $51,500,000
Source: Orange County Environmental Management Agency