University City You want to construct an addition to your house that requires a building permit. Wouldn’t it be wise to get the permit before buying a detailed architectural plan? The San Diego City Council is proceeding with the Regents Road bridge over Rose Canyon the other way around. The council admits that, after one failed environmental impact report, a new one is required. Yet last October 16, councilmembers approved spending $4.8 million for “full engineering and design of the bridge.” They say planners will look at the next environmental impact report later.
Proponents argue that the new bridge would be the best solution to relieving north/south traffic on Genesee Avenue, which already crosses Rose Canyon on a bridge. The reason? Regents Road runs parallel to Genesee about a half mile to the west. But Rose Canyon now divides Regents in two, so that motorists cannot use the road to drive back and forth between the southern and northern ends of the community. As far back as the mid-1980s, University City’s community plan called for both widening Genesee and connecting the two sections of Regents with the bridge. But the City soon realized that paying for both would be too expensive. Local residents then began vying over which one to choose.
Former District One councilmember Harry Mathis was a proponent of the bridge, and in the mid-1990s, he created a 15-member citizens’ committee to evaluate it. As part of its work, the committee studied an opinion written by Frank Belock, then the City’s assistant director of engineering and capital projects. Belock argued, largely on the basis of traffic studies, that the bridge should not be built. So the committee voted 12 to 3 against the bridge and in favor of the Genesee widening. But it also asked Mathis not to do anything further about solving Genesee’s traffic problems until improvements on and near I-805 near Nobel Drive were completed.
When Mathis termed out in 2000, his replacement, Scott Peters, created another public committee to study alternatives to solving Genesee Avenue traffic. I speak with two members of that committee, UCSD physics professor Dan Arovas and Debbie Knight, president of Friends of Rose Canyon.
“The committee divided sharply over which project to choose,” remembers Arovas. “But we reached strong consensus on the criteria by which to evaluate them. From a dozen or two criteria, we voted three as having the highest priority: to relieve Genesee traffic, to minimize impacts to the natural environment, and to minimize cost. And by all three of these criteria, the bridge turns out to be a lousy project.”
Nevertheless, plans for the bridge moved forward, including a contract the City awarded to Project Design Consultants to write an environmental impact report. That report took three years to complete, cost $1.8 million, and now sits on the shelf. In late 2006, Friends of Rose Canyon filed a lawsuit declaring that the document downplayed the impact to the canyon. Last spring, the city council brought the lawsuit to an end when it admitted that the contractor’s effort was flawed. The city council promised to require a new environmental impact report. Only in the last several months has the City put out a request for proposals to write the new environmental impact report.
Should the City widen Genesee Avenue instead? The latest estimates indicate that the widening would cost the City $24 million as opposed to $46 million for the Regents Road bridge over Rose Canyon. The difference might be worth it if the bridge will divert significant amounts of Genesee traffic onto Regents. Dan Arovas says it won’t.
“In the interests of full disclosure, however,” Arovas continues, “I first want to admit that I live close to where the bridge would be built. Most bridge proponents live along the Genesee corridor. There is NIMBYism on both sides. So I decided to study the numbers for a more objective picture.”
The first environmental impact report contained a 2003 traffic study that examined University City intersections and Genesee road segments under five situations: the current state of Genesee traffic; and projected traffic in 2030 with the Rose Canyon bridge, with the Genesee widening, with no project, and with both projects.
Arovas shows me a group of tables from the traffic study. For road segments, such as Genesee between Nobel and Decoro Street, he says, “dividing the average daily trips by the number of lanes gives you a figure, which is translated into a letter grade, much like we used to get in school.” An A grade means the traffic is smooth sailing, while E is too congested, and F is practically intolerable. “Traffic engineers say that D or better is acceptable. It’s E and F that they want to avoid,” according to Arovas.
The 2003 traffic study showed that the bridge would give four segments of Genesee two Ds, an E, and an F, while the widening would give them all Cs. In a more detailed breakdown, the bridge would create on Genesee one better situation and the widening ten better situations.
The intersection studies focused not on average daily trips but on delay times at peak hours, once in the morning and once in the evening. The studies had to consider 12 possible movements at each intersection: turning right, turning left, and going straight, from four possible directions. The results were not as dramatic, though similar to the segment studies. In studies of 24 intersections in University City, the Genesee widening did better than the Rose Canyon bridge 13 times, while the bridge did better than the widening 4 times. A table for the total stretch along Genesee from State Route 52 to Eastgate Mall shows the widening producing a 13.9-minute delay with the bridge yielding a 16.1-minute delay.
Of all the tables Arovas displays, my favorite is called “seconds commute time saved per million dollars spent.” It shows that the widening would save drivers 17.1 seconds per million dollars to the bridge’s 7.9.
“There are lots of ways you can slice the numbers,” says Arovas. “Looking at all of them, I don’t see how anyone could say that the bridge would be a superior project to the widening. But during the city council’s first discussion of the bridge in August 2006, there was embarrassingly little discussion of the traffic information.” The council’s eventual decision to go ahead with the bridge “was really justified on the basis of so-called overriding considerations, which are supposed to allow them to skirt [the California Environmental Quality Act] and choose a less effective project.”