- Glaring omissions in the Town Center plan regarding traffic forewarned 10 years ago – and ignored.
By Miki Mullor
During the recent moratorium deliberations by City Council, the Town Center neighborhood plan was brought into the conversation. The issues with traffic planning in the city, exposed during the concurrency debacle, were feared to also impact the Town Center plan. Calls to review the plan were answered with a response that the plan was done 10 years ago therefore it’s too late to review. This implies a “statute of limitation” argument that if indeed there were issues with the plan, those should have been raised at that time and cannot be argued now.
However, recently surfaced documents from the time of Town Center planning in 2007 reveal just that – that serious problems do exist in the plan and those problems were raised timely – yet ignored by the city.
Since as far back as 2008, the Town Center neighborhood has been promoted by the city as a commercial center that will attract car trips that normally leave Sammamish to Redmond or Issaquah – therefore reducing traffic that is going off the plateau. This argument was made many times in response to concerns on the impact of the new 2,000 residences in the Town Center neighborhood (for a reference – Issaquah Highlands is about 4,000 residences). The Town Center EIS (Environmental Impact Statement – the planning tool used to measure the adverse impact of new development on the city) raises no concerns regarding the morning commute. In fact, the Town Center plan includes no improvement to the commute arterials. (See the proposed improvements in blue – limited to 4th St and 8th St – and oddly enough – to Duthie Hill Road)
Even as recently as during the November 21, 2017 council meeting, former Councilmember Kathy Huckabay said this of the Town Center when she voted to exempt the Town Center from the building moratorium:
“It’s a fact that we’re reducing the traffic leaving the city.”
However, in January 2008, then-Planning Commissioner Scott Hamilton warned that data from city engineers debunks that exact argument, still being used today almost 10 years later:
“Analysis by the city engineers confirm that after taking into account the traffic that is “attracted” to the Town Center’s retail and employment operations, traffic generated by 2,000 new residences results in a net increase of 12,200 ADTs off the plateau.
Whether this is relevant to development of the Town Center is beside the point; it is what it is, but the myth should not be allowed to stand if it is cited (as it has been) as a reason for proceeding with the Plan.”
A third-party traffic engineer, Joseph Savage, who reviewed the city’s traffic forecast in March 2007, made a stark warning that was formally submitted to the Planning Commission:
“it is my conclusion that the model significantly underestimates the likely actual (or “real world”) traffic volumes for each of the 2030 Plan Alternatives, and the subsequent congestion,…. Therefore the DEIS [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] probably significantly understates the adverse traffic impacts of the proposed Sub-Area Plan Alternatives. [Town Center]”
The serious problems in the Town Center traffic model were also noted by then-Council Member Nancy Whitten, in a May 2008 email to the Director of Community Development:
“Since when do we get to disregard a LOS [Level of Service] problem on that basis when that portion of the roadway taking into account the TC [Town Center], the PAA’s [Potential Annexation Areas] and other buildout is already projected to be over capacity by plus or minus five percent and when it only passes muster under our concurrency with the fiction of segment averaging, and where the segment averaging has no reality connection to what is happening on the ground to the over-congested roadway segment magically made not to be so by this figment of our city’s imagination????” (Emphasis added.)
“Segment Averaging” is a controversial method used by the City of Sammamish to average the traffic volume between section of an arterial road as measured. On July 10, 2017, staff admitted that this method was put in place purposely to avoid “concurrency failures” that will force the city to build more roads.
Current Mayor Christie Malchow went on the record many times voicing her own frustration with this method. (The new concurrency program being developed now for council review does away with “segment averaging.”)
The Director of Community Development in 2008, Kamuron Gurol, in his reply to Council Member Whitten, acknowledged that the traffic measuring method doesn’t relate to “driver’s experience:”
“In a broader sense, our ADT-based [traffic volume] LOS doesn’t relate well to our driver’s actual experiences (pinch points in the AM commute time due to school traffic and other issues), but it is our adopted policy and we have to use it as the yardstick.”
AM Peak Hour
AM traffic has been in the local news recently. Sammamish is unique. It’s a bedroom community where 96% of the working residents leave the city in the morning through three intersections at the north city limits and two at its south, known as the “choking points.”
ESA Adolfson, the traffic engineering company who’s behind the Town Center EIS, summarized it well in an official memo to the City in March 2007:
“Although the AM peak hour volumes are lower than the PM peak hour volumes, there are some location where the level of service is worse during the AM peak hour. This occurs most notably along East Lake Sammamish Parkway at SE 56th St, Inglewood Hills Road, and SR 202. This is due to large volume of traffic heading off the Sammamish Plateau funneling towards Redmond.”
Yet, the same engineering firm completely ignores AM traffic and only uses PM in the forecast of Town Center traffic impact:
“Since traffic volumes are typically highest during the PM peak hour, the City’s traffic model and concurrency program have been developed around the PM peak hour”.
What is remarkable is that at that time, 2007, the city’s concurrency policy was to model traffic against AM or PM peak hour traffic – whichever is worse – not just PM peak hour.
Ten years later, on July 10, 2017, the city’s traffic engineer consultant, Victor Salemann, who was also the traffic engineer consultant in 2007, admitted to City Council that indeed staff ignored AM traffic for years against city policy (https://vimeo.com/234135214).
The city had two policies in 2007 to measure traffic impacts: traffic volume (ADT) and Intersection delay in AM or PM (whichever is worse).
The city ignored its own AM policy, but stuck to the poor driver experience ADT policy and moved the Town Center project forward. Remarkably, the reason used when doing so was “it is our adopted policy and we have to use it as the yardstick” – but so was AM traffic modeling – yet that was ignored.
Even with ignoring AM traffic, doing segment averaging and using questionable trip generation assumptions, the Town Center traffic model shows failures along 228th Ave – yet the 2008 City Council approved the plan with complete disregard to the warnings.
“Transit Oriented Development” – TOD
Another myth being put forward by the former City Council is that the type of dense multi-family development proposed in the Town Center neighborhood will reduce commute traffic. The rational is that such development attracts transit commuters.
In general, the assumption is true because multi-family units (such as apartments or townhomes) are located in urban areas where effective transit already exists and people already use it. Suburban examples are the projects in Redmond that are planned near the future light rail stations in Downtown Redmond and Marymoor park or Issaquah Highlands that has its own Park and Ride and a direct bus line to Downtown Seattle.
But Sammamish Town Center plan DOES NOT include any plans for transit and even casts doubt if such transit may ever be available:
“King County Metro provides all of the transit service to the City of Sammamish….While the plan will likely provide enough development to justify increased transit access, frequency, and service, the challenge will be getting transit off 228th Avenue to the designated mixed-use areas. Again, with compact and coordinated mixed-use development, the areas can be designed conducive to transit use if and when it becomes available.” – (emphasis added)
Town Center Plan, page 35
In January 2008, Planning Commissioner Scott Hamilton warned of this exact scenario:
“The Preferred Alternative [for the Town Center] relies only on existing transit service and fails to promote, create policies or provide for “excellent transit service” as promulgated in this Vision. Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is needed to encourage “excellent transit service.” …. The absence of planning specifics for a TOD or transit services omits major opportunities to (1) address TOD, (2) to attract Sound and Metro Transit, (3) to encourage joint funding partnerships between the City and Metro or Sound Transit or (4) to engage in a public/private partnership for development of TOD. … This omission is a major flaw in the Preferred Alternative.” (Emphasis added.)
In the almost 10 years since, the city has not made any progress in developing transit to the Town Center neighborhood – makes it doubtful transit will ever reach the Town Center – making another critical assumption in the traffic plan questionable.
Still, as recently as November 21, 2017, former Mayor Bob Keller touted the Town Center as a “Transit Oriented Development” even though transit specifics are not in the plan and were never developed in the 10 years since the plan was adopted. The Town Center neighborhood, much hyped as a transit oriented solution, is no different than any other Sammamish neighborhood when it gets to transit – yet the city expects its future residents to be “transit oriented” somehow.
Planning Commission ignored
The Planning Commission is an official government body of volunteer citizens who makes planning policy recommendations to the City Council and offers advice on development regulations. Newly elected Council Member Karen Moran served on the Planning Commission when the Town Center neighborhood was planned.
Former Council members went on the record several times in defense of the Town Center plan being a product of a long process that involved the public, staff and the council.
However, a January 2007 letter from Commissioner Scott Hamilton to the Planning Commission reveals a chain of events that excluded the Planning Commission from reviewing the Town Center plan as it would normally be doing for city planning projects:
“In November, Staff reveals a schedule that makes it clear the Commission will not have the opportunity to review and make recommendations to the council concerning the preferred alternative….On December 7, the Commission makes it clear to Staff that the absence of such review and the opportunity to make recommendations doesn’t work for the Commission….On Jan. 15, 2007, Staff returns with a schedule that allows Commission review but still does not provide for the opportunity to make recommendations. The Commission states that this still does not work for it.”
(Scott Hamilton, 1/24/2007 letter to Planning Commission)
During 2017 we learned that the city’s traffic planning process was flawed and riddled with bias towards development. Today we all live with the consequences. The Town Center neighborhood plan was conceived and developed at the same time frame band by the same staff that developed the flawed traffic plan. Unlike the traffic plans, Town Center flaws were exposed during the planning process ten years ago – but ignored.
Once the new concurrency rules are in place (that will hopefully will measure the driver’s experience by travel speed), the city must revisit the Town Center traffic impact to account for the new rules – and such revisit must be done by an outside expert with no connection to the city or the Town Center project.
Moving forward in any other way will put the quality of life of Sammamish residents at jeopardy.
The views and opinions of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of Sammamish Comment. This column was edited for spelling, style and grammar content but otherwise appears as it was submitted. The content and conclusions are solely the product of the author of this column.