By Scott Hamilton
The Sammamish City Council continues to wrestle with the controversial and highly complex topic of traffic concurrency.
The council has been backed into a corner by staff, consultants and, as the responsible executive, the city manager. There are no good choices left to the council to deal with the city’s growing traffic problems and balancing these against development.
The process to date has been so thoroughly mucked up that, in reality, there are few choices the council has if it is going to lift the building moratorium in July, its self-imposed target.
Deputy Mayor Karen Moran and Council Member Chris Ross are the key votes that will determine the direction.
The first choice is to adopt the new model that has been proposed by the city staff and consultants.
The second is to go back to the old model, adjusting it to eliminate “credits” for theoretical added capacity that, for the most part, are pencil-pushing solutions.
I favor the second choice. Here’s why. But it may be too late to go there.
A reminder about concurrency
It’s necessary to once again recap what concurrency is under state law. It’s the principal that roads must be able to accommodate growth when development occurs, or the must be a funded plan to do so within six years.
Alternatively, if neither is feasible, the Growth Management Act allows a government (in this case, Sammamish) to deny approval of a development and, in the extreme, completely revisit its land use policies and down-zone.
Sammamish adopted a concurrency model the has two parts to it: volume/capacity (V/C) analysis and intersection Level of Service (LOS) calculations. V/C is, as its name suggests, a calculation of how much volume of traffic is going through a road, per lane, which is the capacity. If the volume exceeds the lane’s capacity, concurrency fails. This is, in essence, one way to measure congestion, assuming there is a peak hour measurement.
LOS at intersections measures the time it takes to get through an intersection. The shorter the time, the higher the grade, on a scale of A through F. The longer, the lower the grade. Thus, A is top, F is failing.
Without getting into the weeds, this is all about how much traffic is on the roads, congestion and how much time it takes to get around the city. It’s about whether the roads can handle growth and development.
The term “concurrency” is a state legal and engineering term. For the layman, it’s all about getting around in a timely manner.
Why the new plan is fatally flawed
The city council adopted a building moratorium last year to analyze the in-place concurrency model. A new plan was presented this year and instantly it was clear to be flawed—fatally flawed in my mind.
The new model concluded that traffic in Sammamish improved between 2014 and 2016, despite new growth in the city and outside the city that produced traffic affecting Sammamish. A traffic consultant, said this isn’t so, but this contradicts statements at one point made by the staff.
(I still lived in Sammamish until August 2016, so I can testify first-hand, along with thousands of others, that traffic did not improve during this period.)
The modelers, consultants and city staff also admitted, after prodding by the city council, that the proposed model had not been validated.
How this model could have been presented to the city council with the preposterous conclusion traffic improved and without validation is mind-blowing. It is the equivalent of malpractice on the part of the staff and consultants.
City manager Lyman Howard presumably should have been aware of these important factors. If he was, letting this plan go forward was a huge management blunder rooted in incompetence. (The alternative theory, of course, was that this was intentional.)
If he wasn’t aware, this was management malpractice on his part. Either way, as city manager—the CEO of the city—the buck stops with him.
The assertion of improved traffic and lack of validation was enough that the city council should have rejected this new model on the spot. The modelers should have been fired (a function only the city manager can do this, but the council certainly could have cut off funding.)
The council also should have demanded a refund of the nearly $400,000 in taxpayer money spent on this piece of trash work.
But they didn’t do so. Led by Council member Ramiro Valderrama and backed up by member Pam Stuart, who for unfathomable reasons support this piece of work, it wasn’t killed.
The council also learned a few weeks later that, despite assurances going into the project, the new model would not/could not measure congestion, queues and travel time. This is another example of a broken promise by the consultants and staff.
But the council not only didn’t reject the model, on May 15 it voted 5-2 to move it forward. Doing so without validation, the “improved traffic” results and no congestion/queue/time-travel abilities is mind-boggling. The decision is a major disservice to the thousands of drivers caught in traffic.
Fix the old model
This leaves the city with the choice of fixing the old model, doing nothing or extending the moratorium to continue reworking the model.
Council made a goal of lifting the moratorium by July. It’s a self-imposed goal, to be sure, and it’s not a legal commitment. The moratorium was legally extended to October. But it’s a moral commitment.
At a time when government across the country is under suspicion and distrusted, I personally place a lot of weight on this commitment.
That the concurrency rework to date is screwed up places the council in a difficult position. (The city manager as CEO must answer for this sooner or later.)
The only practical solution is to rework the current concurrency model, correctly the flaws identified as this process unrolled: giving “credits” for new lane capacity that amounts to pencil-whipping; measuring traffic in the AM or PM peak hours, whichever is worse; and other deep-dive issues.
But it’s now the end of June. I don’t think this can be done by the July 17 deadline.
Will this solve the traffic testing process?
Not entirely, but it will be more honest than it has been.
Developers that file applications after the moratorium is lifted will be vested to any model revision. (Developers include the Town Center, major projects and the moms-and-pops.) Tightening the parameters of the old model may well mean some projects will fail concurrency testing—failures that were never going to happen under the old model—nor would they under the new one as presented.
Failures would require developer contributions over and above impact fees for certain project-specific improvements (typically turn lanes, intersection improvements, etc., at locations not specific to the project’s own roads and frontage).
These mitigations are routinely required by King County, but in the 20 years I lived in Sammamish and 10+ years was directly involved in land use issues, I could count on one hand the number of “Mitigated Determinations of Non-Significance” issued by Sammamish.
If Sammamish fixes the old concurrency model, it should then take its time and work on a real-world-based, time-travel model. This can’t be done by July and it almost certainly can’t be done in one year. The analysis, subsequent public process and Comprehensive Plan amendments will probably require two years.
This is why I advocate fixing the current model (remembering that I believe the proposed one is fatally flawed).
People complaining about currently proposed development will say this fix won’t stop them.
Frankly, these horses have already left the barn.
It’s the future, long-term development that is at stake.
When the first Comp Plan was created, land use analysis of the then-in-lace zoning concluded the population at build-out would be 72,000. This pre-dates the up-zoning of the Town Center and annexation of the greater Klahanie area.
The Town Center incrementally adds perhaps 3,000-5,000 to the population. Sammamish’s population pre-Klahanie was 50,000. This leaves 22,000 more population from the original Comp Plan to develop based on in-place zoning.
Some of this is already vested and under construction, or soon will be. Some of the incremental Town Center population is vested and under construction. The rest hasn’t been applied for yet.
There is also talk of redevelopment planning that, if approved, would up-zone certain areas. This is a concept only and nobody is talking numbers at this stage. But the discussion will come sooner than you think.