May 23, 2011

Honk if you believe this!

When my husband Larry was in grammar school, there was at least one reporting period when he was, shall we say, not the most stellar of scholars. Not wanting to upset his parents, or trigger some foreseen consequence, he handled the situation by grabbing a pen and changing that "F" to an "A".

My husband's childhood shenanigan was the first thing I thought of when I looked at the Wal-Mart Draft Environmental Impact Report(DEIP). Local traffic is graded on an A-F scale based on something called "LOS" or "level of service". "A" is the best grade and "F" is the worst. In the Wal-Mart DEIR, the traffic report card shows that the current condition of all major south Poway intersections are at LOS of "A", "B" or "C" with one exception. The intersection of Stowe and Community got a "D" for the afternoon peak hours.

This is a pretty amazing traffic report card. Remarkably amazing. Especially since, every year since 1996, Poway staff have produced a traffic map showing that the roads around Wal-Mart were LOS "D" or "E".

California state law requires cities to allow second dwelling units (think "granny flats") to be built unless that city has some overriding infrastructure or traffic problems. Every year since 1996, Poway has claimed that north Poway's water and sewer, and south Poway's traffic are too clogged up to handle any second dwelling units in any area of the city except the extreme fringes. To support their claims, the staff report has included a traffic map showing the LOS of the major roadways from the previous year. Here is the first LOS traffic map from the 1996 declaration(with 1995 LOS traffic map). Note that every road is level "D" or "E" or "F". (Click on map to enlarge.)

From 1996 until last year, the city insisted that traffic was level "D" and "E" on all south Poway Rds near Wal-Mart. Those same roads that are now marked with a current LOS of "A", "B" and "C" on the Wal-Mart DEIR. I've posted copies of the traffic maps for each year on scribd. Here are the links if you want to look at them.

Here is the most recent Poway traffic map from the 2010 resolution on second dwelling units:

So how did the roads go from LOS "D" and "E" to "A", "B" and "C" in one year? Wal-Mart didn't take a pen and change an "F" to a "B", but they might as well have. What they did do was to redefine each grade.

For example, consider LOS "C". Here is the original method of defining it:

Level of Service C describes with delay in the range of 15.1 to 25.0 sec per vehicle. These higher delays may result from fair progression and/or longer cycle lengths. Individual cycle failures may begin to appear in this level. The number of vehicles stopping is significant at this level, although many still pass through the intersection without stopping.
What they are saying, is that at LOS "C", some cars might have to stop for the traffic light and be stopped for 15 to 25 seconds.

Here how LOS "C" is described in the Wal-Mart DEIR:
This level still represents stable operating conditions. Occassionally drivers may have to wait through more than one red signal indication, and backups may develop behind turning vehicles. Most drivers feel somewhat restricted, but not objectionably so.
Really? Most drivers don't object to sitting in traffic for a couple of rotations of the light? Who are they kidding? There are a lot of drivers out there who seem ready to plow through my vehicle if I stop at a red light, and you want me to believe they are only mildly vexed at having to sit through a couple of rotations of the light? I don't believe it.

There seems to be a huge difference between the old Level "C" and the new, Wal-Mart revised, level "C". But, hey, descriptions and their interpretation can be subjective. To get a more precise and unbiased look at how LOS definitions have changed, we can look at the numerical data used for the old traffic report cards and compare it to the numerical data used in the Wal-Mart DEIR.

Criteria for LOS of Signalized Intersections

Do you see what I see? I see some pretty serious grade inflation. In the good old days, if most of the cars had to wait 30 seconds to get through an intersection, that intersection would have been graded "D". In the Wal-Mart DEIR, that roadway is graded "C". Just last year, if the average wait at an intersection was 55 sec, that intersection was graded "E", and very nearly graded "F". The Wal-Mart DEIR says that intersection gets a "D" grade.

According to Poway's General Plan, the LOS is an important consideration in the approval of any planned project. The 2nd strategy under land use and transportation says:
2. Prohibit development which will result in Level of Service E or F at any intersection unless no feasible alternatives exist and overriding public need can be demonstrated.
All of the major intersections near Wal-Mart were identified as LOS "D" and "E" on city maps for the last 15 yrs. The increased traffic from the Wal-Mart expansion would have downgraded them to LOS "E" and "F". Thus, the need for the new grading system which I am naming "The Wal-Mart Curve".

The Wal-Mart curve is a bit unsettling. Our council members are not young grammar school kids. They are adults. Supposedly, reasonable adults. What does it say about how they govern if they use one set of rules for 15 yrs, then adjust the rules to get the desired outcome for a proposed project that can't pass under the old rules? If the council accepts the Wal-Mart DEIR as it is, then our General Plan is a completely meaningless jumble of words, subject to arbitrary interpretation and implementation.