Granted, Mira Mesa needs traffic relief, especially for entering and exiting the I-15. But how does Caltrans justify a project that is likely to increase already dangerous traffic next to a local elementary school? The answer might be to enlist some in the community to do the heavy lifting.
James Sullivan is not exactly a Mira Mesa community member. But he lives immediately on the other side of I-15 in Scripps Ranch. Over the summer, Sullivan succeeded in persuading Caltrans to put up a noise-abatement wall on the east side of the freeway. The wall will reduce noise levels at the 160-unit Scripps Townhomes where Sullivan lives. He is also the complex’s homeowner’s association president.
As a result of Sullivan’s success with Caltrans, several planning groups invited him to attend their meetings and explain how they could get a noise wall too. He told them the key was to move beyond haranguing agency officials and to research how its decisions are made. He didn’t just ask why a wall couldn’t be put up, he tells me, “I learned the process they used. If they said the decibel levels didn’t justify a wall, I asked to see the numbers and where they put the sensors.” In some cases, Sullivan found, the sensors weren’t even in the right places.
In going to group meetings, Sullivan occasionally witnessed community members berate Caltrans officials, such as Gustavo Dallarda, the agency’s corridor director for the I-15 expansion project. Sullivan commends Dallarda for always attending the meetings and doing his best to address local citizen complaints. Most of the time, Sullivan tells me, Caltrans’s hands were tied by federal noise-abatement standards.
On October 25, when construction of the noise wall was already under way, Sullivan and a colleague at Scripps Townhomes received an email from Dallarda regarding a bigger project. The draft environmental impact report for a long-planned direct-access ramp in Mira Mesa would be made public in November. The ramp is intended to take traffic from the west side of I-15, over the southbound lanes, and spew it into four new high occupancy vehicle lanes in the center of the freeway. Concrete barriers are to be moved according to time of day so that three of the center lanes are always available to the heaviest traffic.
“I thought I would give you a heads-up about [the project],” read Dallarda’s email, which ended, “You may want to take a look and participate in the public comment process due to the proximity of your community.” Three days later, Dallarda sent Sullivan another email, saying that the draft environmental document was then available to be read online or at the Caltrans office in Old Town, the Scripps Miramar Ranch Branch Library, and the Mira Mesa Branch Library. Sullivan, who previously knew nothing about a planned ramp, tells me he immediately dove into the report and learned all he could about the project. One thing he discovered was that, of two sites being considered for the ramp, the northern alternative would cause partial destruction of the noise wall he had labored so hard to obtain. (Environmental impact reports are required to analyze alternatives to the proposed project, plus a no-build alternative.)
On November 6, Caltrans published in the San Diego Union-Tribune a Notice of Availability for the project’s environmental document. The same locations for reading it were given, plus the website dot.ca.gov/dist11. The document is 379 pages in length. The newspaper notice also stated that a public hearing would be held in Mira Mesa six days later, on November 12.
By phone, I ask Dallarda if six days is enough time to allow the public to digest a complicated 379-page planning document. “It’s a typical period of announcement that we use,” he says. “If you make it longer, people forget about the meeting. Besides, a meeting of that sort is only one component of a longer period of notification and discussion. The public had much more opportunity [until December 8] to voice their views on the project before a final environmental impact report is published. And a direct-access ramp in Mira Mesa has long been known to be part of developing the I-15 corridor.”
Until recently, however, the ramp has not been on many people’s radar. Why, I ask, did you single out Sullivan for notice of the meeting almost two weeks prior to the public announcement? “He was hardly the only one,” says Dallarda. “I informed a number of people I knew whose interests would be affected by the project.”
But, apparently, Dallarda did not give advance notice to two elementary school principals, each of whose campuses is near one of the alternative sites for the new ramp. They didn’t see it in the newspaper either. Community members gave them their heads-up.
The first is Hage Elementary School on Galvin Avenue. The northern-alternative ramp, which would require some destruction of the noise wall, would be built two blocks north of Mira Mesa Boulevard, leading traffic west past the school. The on-ramp would run 83 feet from the school’s property. Everyone seems to agree that traffic problems near the school are already severe. Ethel Daniels, Hage’s principal, tells me that two students have been injured in traffic mishaps at the school. Not only would the northern alternative involve some destruction of the noise wall, the existing on- and off-ramps for I-15 at Mira Mesa Boulevard would have to be reconfigured.
The second school is Walker Elementary on Hillery Drive, a quarter mile south of Mira Mesa Boulevard. The school is less than a block west of where Hillery intersects Black Mountain Road. The southern alternative ramp would be built by extending westbound Hillery past Black Mountain Road east to I-15. The ramp at this site would cost less than half the northern alternative. According to the environmental impact report, the southern alternative was discussed on July 19, 2007, during a “public scoping” meeting at Walker Elementary.
Since the public notice, the danger of the northern on-ramp to children at Hage Elementary seems to have elicited the most outrage in Mira Mesa. That doesn’t make people feel good about how the southern alternative is likely to affect children at Walker Elementary. Nevertheless, the current traffic in Mira Mesa isn’t convincing anyone that a “no-build” alternative is acceptable. Mira Mesans want to be able to enter and leave their community in a reasonable traffic flow.