A road less taken
A few weekends ago my husband and I really put a strain on our marriage: we tried to drive through Sonoma. Despite tacking their one-page ad up on my bulletin board, I had forgotten that Sunset Magazine was holding its new Test Kitchen and Gardens Opening exactly at the moment we hit Highway 121. The traffic at the intersection of highways 116 and 121 was backed up for miles. I grabbed my cell phone to see if I could find out what was causing the delay as we inched towards the four-way stop at the 76 Station. If you Google “traffic delay” as I did, an ad for Traffic Rush 2 pops up. It’s a video game update from Donut Games where with charming 3D VOXELS you can “direct rushing vehicles without causing a crash”, open “new streets” with imaginary coins you spend, and “use your finger to flick rushing cars across the intersection without crashing.” We were still on Highway 121 and not moving, so I tried the game. In 15 seconds I had snarled traffic at the imaginary intersection and caused two accidents. My husband was not amused. I told him that if we got through the real-life intersection and we were still stopped, we would just go home. No imaginary streets opened up. No cars whisked through the intersection. Game over. We crossed the double yellow line along with ten other cars and went home.
This made me wonder if Cal Trans knew about the event and the delays. So I called them and, yep, they did. The event had pulled a permit and hired the CHP to manage traffic, so that’s all that’s required. I asked the safety officer if they know how bad the traffic normally is in that area and he said that it has been that way for 15 years. And just to clarify, the planned roundabout that is on the drawing board (sort of) for this intersection will not solve traffic problems and neither will another traffic count.
According to a recent traffic impact study prepared for the Kenwood Vineyard expansion, 15,900 cars travel through the Warm Springs/Highway 12 intersection each day and that number increases to 22,000 as you approach Santa Rosa. These counts are triggered by metering strips on highways and are used for presenting a statewide picture of traffic flow, evaluating traffic trends, computing accident rates, and planning and designing highways among other purposes. These traffic volumes do not differentiate between six-lane Interstates and two-lane rural highways unless a major development proposal triggers a full-blown traffic impact study. Here’s where things get interesting.
Traffic impact studies are supposed to take into account seasonal trends, rush hour traffic, turn lane habits of drivers, neighboring businesses and their traffic (called pass-by trips), road speeds, rural highway conditions where shoulders are minimal or not present, bicycle and pedestrian safety, truck versus car travel, and more. Developers have to project usage far into the future and factor in growth of new developments or businesses that will impact roads, parking, and nearby neighborhoods. Problems in forecasting these cumulative impacts occur when official traffic impact reports rely on present (or past) data as indicators or refer to county General Plan growth standards, which are vague. In recent traffic impact studies that we have reviewed in Sonoma County, the impacts of multiple projects on the horizon have not been factored in. Events that bring large numbers of people to a location with limited parking are treated as normal impacts. However, adequate parking is based on normal daily use predictions with 2.5 people predicted per car. Often, employee parking or shoulders of access roads are listed as client parking areas. These studies are paid for by the developers and have even been done on days of inclement weather. This distorts the studies, which VOTMA has had to point out to local planners.
According to Oregon’s Department of Transportation, underestimating projected impacts from development or over-assuming available capacity can affect community livability. According to them, “Outcomes from this situation can include unanticipated congestion and safety problems, inappropriate or ‘throw-away’ mitigation, and a ‘chasing the last trip’ phenomenon, meaning the traffic effects of approved and built projects become the burden of future development.”
If we’re chasing “the last trip,” where do we see ourselves down the road? According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, travel on roads in California increased four percent between March of 2015 and March of 2016. Travel on rural roads skyrockets in the summer and Sonoma County has the second largest number of rural roads in the state. So we can look forward to more traffic unless we plan carefully. Just fixing our roads is not enough. And if we invite the world to our doorstep, we have to be able to move with, idle alongside of, and park it … somewhere.
Mark your calendars!
On July 20, 7 p.m. at the Kenwood Depot, VOTMA is hosting an informative and entertaining presentation by Padi Selwyn and Reuben Weinzveg called “Trouble in Paradise.” They explore the benefits and costs of tourism and the wine industry. It was presented in Oakmont at the Sunday Symposium on May 22 to a full house. Join us on July 20.
The Valley of the Moon Alliance was formed to promote the preservation, protection and maintenance of the agricultural character, natural resources and rural beauty of Sonoma Valley. We are committed to providing a forum for research, information, education and recommendations on projects that affect the environmental qualities of the valley communities.