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.”
Those overriding considerations were emergency services. The City “trotted out Fire Chief Tracy Jarman to talk about them,” says Arovas. “And that was interesting, because, first of all, emergency services were not addressed in the first environmental impact report. Second, back when our committee met, improving emergency services was one of the criteria we considered, but they were ranked low. That was before the Cedar Fire, by the way, and it certainly would have been appropriate to rank them higher. Still, the City did nothing until about two weeks before the city council meeting when Chief Jarman made her appearance.”
Jarman presented to the council comparisons of emergency response times to south University City from fire stations in La Jolla, Clairemont, and north University City. Not surprisingly, they showed substantial time improvements when the bridge linked the northern and southern Regents Road sections. Only one problem. “Her numbers were wrong,” says Arovas.
Since Jarman had sent out her numbers before the council hearing, Arovas had been able to check them with his automobile odometer. He also recruited a friend to do the same on his odometer. Finally, Arovas consulted a colleague who is a specialist in “spatial information systems” at the UCSD Supercomputer Center. “So we had the right numbers and knew that Jarman was mistaken,” says Arovas.
“In some cases,” he continues, “the distance that Jarman said the fire engines would cover using the bridge would be shorter than if they flew, that is, shorter than the straight-line distance. Something wasn’t adding up. In fact, all her numbers weren’t adding up. She was basically off by a factor of three.”
At the August 2006 council meeting, Arovas detailed his corrections to the distances Jarman was citing. Toward the close of the bridge discussion that day, Jarman came forward once more and admitted that her numbers were incorrect. She nevertheless recommended building the bridge, saying that it would still offer some improvement in emergency response times in south University City.
“And that’s true with some routes,” admits Arovas. “But the real emergency response problem we have in our community is not poor road connectivity. It’s the lack of a fire station. Recently, information came out about a number of San Diego communities that will soon get new fire stations. But south University City wasn’t one of them. If the City is serious about giving us better emergency response, they could build a fire station. That would do a hell of a lot better than another bridge over the canyon, and it would cost less too.”
And then there are the bridge project’s environmental effects. Proponents like to say that a bridge will only span Rose Canyon, not damage it. To demonstrate why that’s not true, Friends of Rose Canyon president Debbie Knight takes me on a walk. At the terminus of Regents Road on the canyon’s southern edge, we descend a narrow path that has a hill on its right. A Regents Road bridge would need a 700-foot road that lops off the top of that hill. The road would lead to the bridge’s southern jumping-off point overlooking the canyon. From there, an 860-foot bridge is to span Rose Creek and the railroad tracks running north of it.
“There would have to be a lot of cut and fill,” Knight tells me. As we walk farther into the canyon, she gives me a little background on its habitat protection. Currently, Rose Canyon’s habitat would seem to be shielded three times over, first, as a preserve of San Diego County’s Multiple Species Conservation Program. Second, the City in 1998 received a state grant for the canyon’s habitat restoration under the aegis of the California Wildlife Protection Act. The area is especially rich in bird life. And third, the City has dedicated Rose Canyon as an open-space park.
Dedicated open-space parkland is the highest level of protection in San Diego. “But there’s a giant loophole in it,” says Knight. “Normally, to do anything in a dedicated open-space park, you need a vote of the people of San Diego. The exception is that the city council can put a road through dedicated parkland. So how the City approaches this is really a bellwether for whether they care about San Diego’s open-space parks in general.
“In accepting the 1998 state grant for riparian restoration here,” Knight continues, “the City committed to preserve this area in perpetuity.” She points out how, under the program, the banks of a small streambed at the base of the hillside to our right have been cleared of Arundo donax. It resembles bamboo and is an especially pernicious invasive species found in California riparian habitats. “Now, gradually, it is being replaced by these willows you see here below,” says Knight. “And willows are a native species.
“For the bridge,” says Knight, “they would be doing lots of cut and fill, cutting away the hillside, filling in this finger canyon where we are walking, and putting through a major road. The State told the City the only way they can get around their agreement is to get an act of the legislature. With these grants, that’s almost never happened, maybe once in 15 years. The contractor, Project Design Consultants, then got the City to write a letter to the state parks department saying, ‘Oh no, we’re not going to [damage] the area.’ Well, that’s ridiculous. Yes, they are. Project Design Consultants wrote the first environmental impact report, which was so bad that the City had to put it on the shelf and agree to do another one. So having done such horribly bad work for the City, having wasted millions of dollars, who gets the contract to do final design for the bridge? The City is now giving it to Project Design Consultants, in violation of state conflict of interest laws. That also rewards the company for its earlier bad work. I mean, nobody of sound mind would do this in their own life. It’s crazy; they need to have their heads examined.
“Now the new environmental impact report is supposed to be written at the same time that Project Design Consultants does the final design. And it’s possible that the final design will be done before the environmental report. The City’s schedule shows that the final design, which starts first and cannot be changed, will finish simultaneously with the environmental impact report. That way they can go to construction the minute the report is done. But it’s possible that the final design will be done before the environmental impact report,” says Knight. That’s because the final design work has already been commissioned, whereas the City has yet to award the contract to write the new environmental impact report.
The fate of the last environmental document suggests that the $4.8 million the City is spending for final design may well go down the drain, since it is quite possible that no adequate environmental document will ever lead to constructing the Regents Road bridge.
Friends of Rose Canyon has noted that starting final design before completion of an environmental impact report amounts to pre-committing to the Rose Canyon bridge. “And the California Environmental Quality Act forbids pre-committing to projects,” says Knight. “But the City just wants to shortcut these pesky legalities.” So in December, her organization filed its second lawsuit to stop the City from moving forward.
If the bridge is such a bad solution, I ask, why does the city council keep supporting it? Does a big majority of people in University City prefer the bridge over the Genesee widening? “Scott Peters keeps telling us that the community is evenly split,” Knight answers. “But he’s ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The Evans family that has so many hotels in San Diego also owns the Marketplace shopping center at the corner of Governor Drive and Regents. For a time Anne Evans was head of the chamber of commerce. Her family has contributed heavily to Mayor Sanders’s political campaigns. They are also using John Kern as a lobbyist. [Kern is the former chief of staff for Mayor Dick Murphy.] If the Regents Road bridge goes through, many more cars will be driving by Marketplace, which is only two blocks from Rose Canyon.
“Just recently,” Knight tells me, “the courts awarded attorney fees to the law firm that argued our first lawsuit. Usually, courts award only part of what the attorneys ask for. But this time they awarded the full amount, $450,000. Do councilmembers care? The City is just going to take the money out of developer impact fees. That’s a cookie jar they have. But developer impact fees have been set aside for parks and libraries and such. They’re not for the city council to compensate wasting money on illegal projects.”