Friday, July 31, 2015

Rainier Connector: When Neither Yes nor No Meets the Need

If memory serves, I was nine years old when my father introduced me to the possibility of questions having implicit but flawed propositions.  The example he used was “Have you stopped beating your wife?”  Because our brains perceive a simple yes/no answer as acceptance of the proposition, questions like this put the responder in a quandary, unsure how to disavow the incorrect premise.

(As a necessary digression, I’ve reported my father’s example question solely as a matter of historical accuracy.  It truly was the example he used.  But I’ll acknowledge that the question clanks on 21st century ears.  I don’t know what has changed since 1962, whether it’s our sense of humor, our sense of irony, or our acceptance of violence, but I still find it odd that my quiet, reserved father, who saved his ire almost exclusively for home improvement projects gone awry, used that particular example.  I can only assume that he was tone-deaf when he heard someone else use the example.

I’ll also note that other questions can illustrate the point equally well.  “Have you quit beating your husband?”, “Have you quit teasing the family dog?”, “Have you quit fudging your workout log?”, and “Have you quit cheating on your taxes?” are all examples.  In recognition of one element of the ongoing financial crisis in Greece, I’ll use the last for the remainder of this post.)

I mention this peculiar intersection between grammatical form and human cognition because a question with elements of “Have you quit cheating on your taxes?” will soon come before the Petaluma City Council.

I’ve written before about the Rainier Connector, a proposed Petaluma arterial that, although short in length, would be long in cost.  In its length of under a mile, it would pass beneath Highway 101 and over both the Petaluma River and the railroad mainline, all of which adds greatly to its estimated bottom line.  The estimated cost varies depending on assumptions about design and cost sharing, but $90 million is a commonly used number. 

Although a funding source for the Rainier Connector remains unknown, with voters having recently rejected two separate sales tax measures that would have provided at least partial funding for the project, the Petaluma Planning Department has been proceeding with the environmental impact process.  This work has been undertaken because of a need to align with an upcoming freeway design effort.

With the public vetting of the environmental studies now nearly complete, the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) is scheduled for consideration by the City Council on Monday, August 3.  The question that is implicit in the consideration is whether the FEIR adequately addresses the environmental impacts of the roadway project consistent with the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

This is the question that I find has much in common with “Have you quit cheating on your taxes?”  Neither yes nor no seems to meet the need because the question contains implicit propositions that I desperately want to disavow.

In my comments, I’ll write solely about the traffic impacts of the Connector.  It’s the aspect of the project with which I’m most familiar and about which I’ve often written, including here, here, and here, when I offered an urbanist perspective on the traffic issues around the project.

I know there are other important environmental issues, such as the impact of the river crossing on potential flooding, the effects on flora and fauna within the floodplain, the potential for erosion, construction noise, and many others.  All of those issues undoubtedly will be considered by the Council, but traffic is where I’ll focus today.

The traffic analysis in the FEIR shows traffic improvement at most intersections, with the only exceptions being the intersections approaching the Rainier Connector.  The improvements are more minor than many may have expected, but that’s largely the result of baseline traffic being expected to continue increasing between now and 2020, when the new roadway might be completed.

So far, so good.  But here’s the problem.  The traffic analysis was done using intersection level-of-service, an approach that has been used for decades, but is now increasingly perceived as being more about moving cars across town than people and is being steadily replaced in environmental studies by vehicle miles traveled, an approach that incorporates both greenhouse gas emissions and induced traffic.

Among the agencies that have adopted the new approach is the State of California, which sets the CEQA standards.  However, at last report, the state was still working on the rules to implement the new traffic study method.  Until that task is complete, cities such as Petaluma may continue using the soon-to-be-supplanted level-of-service standard.

Other California cities, notably Pasadena, eager to embrace the new model and to begin managing traffic growth with an eye toward climate change, have adopted their own rules in advance of the state.  But Petaluma chose not to follow that path, clinging to the old rules and publicly expressing skepticism about the new rules.

And so this is where we start entering the anomalous world of “Have you quit cheating on your taxes?”  Is the FEIR consistent with CEQA?  Probably, at least with regards to traffic.  But the CEQA rules are outdated and soon to be replaced.  And it’s hard to feel good about being consistent with obsolete rules, especially when the impact of following the old rules is increased risk of climate change.

Indeed, it’s likely that the roadway would fail the new vehicle miles traveled standard because the Rainier Connector will increase the number of vehicle miles traveled.  But the yes/no dichotomy being presented to the City Council doesn’t allow for exploring that possibility.

(Time for another digression.  Petaluma holds an anomalous role in the world of urbanist planning.  Among the first places, along with the State of Oregon, to adopt Urban Growth Boundaries as a planning tool and the very first to implement the cutting-edge SmartCode to direct urban development, Petaluma is sometimes perceived as a progressive planning community.

But that perspective ignores the rest of the history.  The single-family housing sprawl that continued even after the first Urban Growth Boundary was adopted.  The flawed drafting of several key provisions of the SmartCode that hamstrung urban developers, missteps that have only recently been corrected.

Petaluma’s planning history is known by many for its bold steps into the future and by others for its bumbling follow-up to those steps.

Planning for a $90 million roadway using traffic criteria that have already been disowned by much of the world, including the State of California, seems to align with the bumbling side of the Petaluma equation.)

Further complicating the yes/no calculus is the reason that the FEIR is coming forth at this time, far in advance of construction funding.  Without an approved FEIR, Caltrans can’t accommodate the Rainier underpass in the design of the widening Highway 101 that could perhaps occur in the next few years.

And, in my opinion, Petaluma truly does need the Rainier Connector.  It doesn’t need the new road today, but I suspect that the Rainier Connector may well be an essential element of the local transportation grid someday, perhaps in 2075 when the local population is 125,000.  By then, the roadway could be a vital path to provide efficient routes for city buses, to strengthen the bicycle network, and to connect people living in homes that haven’t yet been built to businesses that don’t yet exist.

But in 2075, it may be prohibitively expensive to build an underpass beneath an existing freeway.  So it’s reasonable to build the underpass today, making it available for the future time when it’s truly needed.

Pushed to make my own decision, and with my only choices being yes and no, I’d probably vote in favor of approving the FEIR.  But the vote would come with a strong caveat that I’d have no interest in building the Rainier Connector at this time, except for the freeway underpass.

I suspect that an alternative FEIR, one that addresses the question of building the underpass in the next decade, but not building the remainder of the road until a date that may be a half-century away, would meet even the coming CEQA traffic standards.  And I would expect it to be a FEIR that I could support whole-heartedly.  But that’s not the question before the City Council.

Nor am I alone in finding myself conflicted by the decision as now presented.  When the FEIR was reviewed by the Petaluma Planning Commission, it failed to win approval on a 3-3 tie vote.  Since that evening, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with a couple of the Commissioners who voted against approval after long and difficult consideration.  I’m proud to have fellow community members who worked so hard on the issue and voted the way that their heads and their hearts told them was right.

Does it make sense to laud Planning Commissioners who reached a different decision that I suspect I would have?  Not really.  But that’s what happens when we pose yes/no questions with flawed propositions.

I expect an interesting City Council meeting on the 3rd.

Meanwhile, yes, I’ve quit cheating on my taxes.  … I mean no, I haven’t quit cheating on my taxes.  …  No, no, no, what I mean is … Well, nuts.

In my next post, I’ll add one last detail to my thoughts on the Rainier Connector, an example of how flawed decision-making inevitably builds upon itself.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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