Monday, February 19, 2007

T is for Traffic (and Traffic Studies)

In the last post, the Growler discussed how the City of Alexandria has promised to restrict permits for residents of many recent new developments, but then fallen down on how it manages and issues the permits.

The Cranky One also presented evidence that officials have the technical resources to get a handle on how much on-street parking is available citywide but have chosen not to.

Now let's talk about traffic. Here City staff are also complicit in developers' attempts to mislead citizens about the extent that new development will affect traffic.

Case in point is the traffic study conducted by Gorove/Slade for the proposed condos at 621 N. Payne Street. You won't find this document online; it's only available if you trot down to the Planning & Zoning and ask for it. The Growler made the trip so you (dear reader) wouldn't have to, and found some whoppers in just the first few pages.

To start with, the study acknowledges that key nearby intersections along Route 1 are already at capacity.

"The existing conditions analyses show the studied intersections operate at acceptable levels during the morning and evening peak hours. However, field observations noted that conditions along the southbound North Henry Street corridor appeared to be oversaturated." (Executive Summary, p. iii) [Emphasis added]

And this a little later on:

"In addition, the intersection of North Henry Street and Pendleton Street currently show acceptable levels of service during the evening peak hour. However, based on field observations, it was noted that southbound North Henry Street approaches to Wythe Street and Pendleton Street appear to be oversaturated. Vehicles attempting to maneuver through the intersection are limited by the geometric constraints of the corridor." (Executive Summmary, p. 7) [Emphasis added]

In their study, Gorove/Slade also examined traffic loads both with existing and with future development. Unfortunately, the firm — which is paid by the developer, not the City — cherry-picked which future developments to consider.

Their engineers included the Monarch, the Prescott, and the proposed Braddock Place Condominiums in Table 2, "Background Developments Site Trip Generation," but omitted the Madison. Here's their rationale:

"Other proposed developments are in the study area, such as the potential development at 800 North Henry Street [Madison]. As this development is not yet approved and, if approved in the near future, may not be completed by 2010, the
trips from this development were assumed as part of the inherent growth rate."
So the Madison has not been reviewed by Planning Commission or approved by City Council? But neither has the Braddock Place condominiums.

And unless the developer is going to undertake another complete redesign (and waste another three years), it's already known to planners how many residential units and how much commercial space will be included in the Madison. It's hardly quantum physics to calculate its impact on traffic.

We've seen this selective approach before. When the Monarch was under consideration in 2003-2004, the traffic study just happened to leave out the impact of the Prescott three blocks away, until neighbors protested.

So why was the Madison not included? Looks pretty clear to the Growler: the project directly fronts on N. Henry Street, which Gorove/Slade already acknowledges by field observation has saturated intersections. There's going to be an even bigger mess with local traffic turnoff if the City and the developer can eventually find a grocery store tenant to replace Harris-Teeter. Erego, it was politically necessary to exclude the Madison from the analysis to make the numbers work.

But the Madison isn't the only project that was excluded. Planning & Zoning publishes quarterly lists of residential and commercial development projects that are currently underway, approved but not yet under construction, and projects still in review.

According to the 4th Quarter 2006 list of residential projects under review, there's other development that will be completed by 2010 and will undoubtedly have a major impact, yet were not included in Gorove/Slade's study. One of the biggest is the 699-unit building at 1200 N. Fayette (in the "Gateway" area).

Interestingly, the 4th Quarter report omits the Madison. Is this project no longer under discussion or was it axed from the list because of the Growler's probing? The Cranky One printed a copy of the 3rd Quarter report and is going to check to see if it was on the last version.

At the February 6 Planning Commission hearing, K. Hovnanian Homes' zoning attorney Bud Hart defended the traffic study, saying that it was based on the same principles as the draft Braddock Road Metro Small Area Plan. Which makes the Growler even more suspicious about the assumptions and omissions in the transportation consultants' study, which form the basis for one of the most critical sections of the draft plan.

So we have traffic studies that are the greatest fiction since Faulkner. And what is P&Z's role in all of this? They, along with Transportation & Environmental Services (T&ES) are supposed to review the traffic studies. They can make suggestions and even shape the outlines for the study.

Are P&Z staff, particularly the Development Division, therefore complicit in misleading citizens?