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.
Rochelle Dawes has been the principal at Walker Elementary for a year. She tells me by phone that she polled her teachers about the meeting that the environmental document claims took place at Walker six months before she arrived. None of the teachers remembered the meeting.
Excessive foot traffic near and through her school, says Dawes, is what makes an on-ramp nearby so dangerous. Students from Wangenheim Middle School, Mira Mesa High School, and Miramar College also walk along Hillery and cut through the Walker campus. “Plus,” says Dawes, “most of my students arrive on foot. Of those who are dropped off by car, their parents are always driving in the exit and out the entrance. The traffic problems are already a nightmare.” Dawes tells me that she stands out front of Walker in the mornings to direct traffic safely.
The environmental document admits that Hillery’s traffic problems are already severe but says they can be mitigated by various traffic-calming measures. Dawes isn’t impressed by such statements. She’d like more specific solutions. Gustavo Dallarda, when he and I spoke, cited speed bumps along the portion of Hillery Drive west of Black Mountain Road as an effective way to discourage drivers from using that section of the street. He envisages the vast majority of cars approaching the Hillery on-ramp from both directions on Black Mountain and turning onto it east toward the freeway and away from Walker Elementary.
Ted Brengel, who is the president of the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group, tells me that he favors the southern alternative. The on-ramp, though an extension of Hillery, would be over a quarter mile away from the school, on the other side of Black Mountain Road. But he bristled at a suggestion that his planning group take sides at its November 17 meeting, five days after the public hearing. The suggestion had come to him by email even before the hearing — from Jim Sullivan.
Sullivan opened the email by mentioning “some of the steps I’ve been involved with [regarding] my opposition to a northern direct-access ramp at Galvin Avenue.” He then urged Brengel to place an “action item” on the planning group’s agenda in favor of the southern alternative because otherwise “we will miss the December 8 deadline for public comment.”
“I feel your pain,” Brengel responded, “but I would like to ask you to change your approach.” He criticized Sullivan for only helping alert the Hage Elementary principal and parents to the danger of a ramp close to their school. “Perhaps you could do the same for Walker Elementary School and Wangenheim Middle School.”
Sullivan feels the criticism was unwarranted. Walker Elementary people should have known what they faced after the meeting at their school a year and a half earlier.
“Two representatives from Walker Elementary came to the public notification meeting, the principal and another lady. The second lady came up to me afterward and said, ‘Our kids are in danger too.’ She was pretty aggressive. So I pointed out to her the chance her school has to get traffic mitigation. That can’t happen at Hage on Galvin Avenue. ‘So if I were you,’ I said, ‘I’d get in there and lobby Caltrans very hard for good traffic mitigation and make them pay for it. If the on-ramp goes in down by your school, you could end up having better traffic control than you even have now.’ By the time we finished talking, the lady seemed fired up,” Sullivan tells me.
Why did Caltrans put the Galvin Avenue alternative in the draft environmental document? “Their officials will tell you they have to provide some alternative for the public to consider,” says Sullivan, “but I think it was a red herring. Gustavo Dallarda alerted me early because he knew I’d jump in there and mobilize people to come out to the public meeting. And it was very well attended. The Hillery Drive alternative was his choice all along.”