New traffic plan would put small business in the fast lane

When you talk about pressures that keep city planners and administrators up at night, traffic concurrency is a lurking nightmare.

When you talk about pressures that keep city planners and administrators up at night, traffic concurrency is a lurking nightmare.

Full of complex and technical equations, traffic concurrency refers to the obligation of a city to build and expand its infrastructure in order to accommodate growth. While cities need to be “in concurrency” to satisfy the demands of the State Growth Management Act, there is also the real and ever-present threat of being sued by building and development companies — if a developer wants to build a neighborhood which will bring 10,000 new residents into the city, but the city’s main arterials and access roads can’t accommodate that additional traffic, the local jurisdiction will be found guilty of hindering the developer’s right to conduct business.

These are lawsuits that cities like Issaquah cannot afford, hence, roads projects are typically given priority in budgets and work plans, even when they are expensive, unpopular, and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

In some ways, the slowdown in the housing market in Sammamish has been a blessing, easing concurrency pressures – without new homes, there is no need to provide infrastructure for expansion.

It was concurrency pressures that forced the City of Sammamish to make costly improvements on the East Lake Sammamish Parkway, which were politically unpopular and thought by many to be a waste of money.

In Issaquah, concurrency failures meant the city had to put a hold on new commercial development for much of the period from 1998 until 2005. This difficult period inspired the city to do a better job of accounting for the impact of new development on roads and traffic, and in 2007 they conducted an important study — “Report on the Evaluation of Transportation Concurrency Policy.” Three years later, the city is preparing to finally implement the recommendations of that study.

The proposed changes to the way Issaquah manages its traffic flow vary from new methods of counting traffic, to reducing the obligation of businesses to mitigate traffic impacts.

One of the most significant frees small businesses of the obligation to conduct traffic modeling if they are likely to add less than 30 afternoon peak hour trips to the area.

The previous threshold for conducting traffic modeling was 10.

City of Issaquah Planning Director Mark Hinthorne told the city’s Land and Shore Committee last week that the overwhelming majority of traffic volume increases came from large retail and commercial projects.

“Eighty percent of trips come from 20 percent of projects,” he said. It was this realization that led his department to recommend increasing the trip threshold from 10 trips to 30. “There is an economic vitality component here. This way, the little guy won’t have to bear the cost of running traffic modeling.”

The policy will be welcome news to small businesses, believed to be the key to kick-starting America’s recovery from recession. It will also please Issaquah Chamber of Commerce CEO Matt Bott, whose comments to the Planning Policy Commission during their consideration of the concurrency issue reflected the close connection between thriving business and convenient movement for shoppers.

“It is important that changes in concurrency standards allow for the type of development envisioned by the Central Issaquah Subarea Taskforce,” he wrote, referring the Central Issaquah Plan’s goal of producing distinct neighborhoods or zones, each of which encouraged the specific land use designated for that area — be it a pedestrian friendly retail, restaurant and arts area, or a light commercial business incubator. “The concurrency policies should encourage density in the core of the city and consider a district-by-district level of service, where Issaquah’s major commerce transpires, in order to discourage future suburban sprawl outside of the Urban Growth Boundary.”

While the planning department has dismissed the idea of working out separate concurrency standards for distinct city districts, it has proposed a number of key changes to how it measures traffic volumes.

The new concurrency system will record volumes and performance at intersections rather than at screen-points along roadways, or corridors, as it is at intersections that delays typically occur.

And while the new lower threshold is good news for business, they may not be so pleased with a proposed mitigation fee to pay for bicycle, pedestrian and transit improvements. The fee would not be an entirely new imposition on development — previously, sufficient nonmotorized avenues needed to be reflected in a proposed development’s traffic modeling. The proposed fee would replace the requirement to examine nonmotorized capacity, while ensuring footpaths and bike lanes were a part of any growth in the city.

Just how the proposed fee would be calculated will be determined by a rate study to confirm who would benefit from, and who should pay for, bike and pedestrian lanes. A decision on whether to prepare such a study, which would cost about $30,000, will likely be part of the council’s 2011 budget deliberations. The “multimodal” mitigation fees could also pay for improvements that encouraged transit usage, such as dedicated lanes, bus shelters, and signage, but they could not pay for more buses or new routes.

Though counting cars might not seem like too complex a task, at least one city councilor is concerned that by counting p.m. peak trips the city is ignoring a crucial element of congestion and capacity failure in Issaquah — schools.

“I have a fundamental problem with traffic counting in the afternoon,” said councilor, and Land and Shore Committee Chair, Tola Marts. “Clustering around certain schools at about 8 a.m. makes it very difficult to get around.”

Marts said he would like to see a.m. traffic counts that reflected this significant traffic event, which gridlocks streets around Issaquah High School, Issaquah Middle School and Clark Elementary School for a 20-minute period each weekday morning during the school year.

But, as Hinthorne said, moving counts to the morning would require adjusting the finely tuned traffic modeling system, at a cost of both time and money.

“Well,” Marts replied. “I would like to get into the December budget process with an idea of what it would cost to implement an a.m. peak hour study.”

Fellow councilor and Land and Shore Committee member Eileen Barber did not agree that congestion around schools should having a big impact on concurrency policies.

“We are talking about additional penalties for new businesses coming in all over the city to make up for the problems at a few schools for just eight months a year,” she said. “I think we can address the problems of crossings and safety around schools without throwing it into the concurrency piece.”

Other cars, other homes

But there is one key piece of the concurrency puzzle the city admits both the new and existing models do not effectively address — regional traffic. Due to Issaquah’s proximity to regional connectors like State Route 900, Interstate 90, and East Lake Sammamish Parkway, local roads often bear the brunt of population growth happening elsewhere. For example, in recent years peak hour traffic volumes along Highlands Drive have increased as Sammamish residents use I-90 exit 18 to get on and off the Plateau.

As a result, a number of developments in Sammamish, such as The Woods at Beaver Lake, have in the past paid traffic mitigation fees to the City of Issaquah. King County and Issaquah once had a reciprocal traffic mitigation fee arrange in place, but this contract expired a few years ago.

City of Sammamish Transportation Engineer Jeff Brauns said the development of the I-90 connector through the Highlands to Sammamish, known as the spur road, took into account projected future growth in Sammamish. There are those who have argued that subsequent alterations to Issaquah’s contract with Highlands developer Port Blakely over density and population allowances have fundamentally changed the equation of how much traffic the spur road would have to handle.

Hinthorne said Issaquah had been in informal discussions with Sammamish about working together on traffic mitigation resulting from growth on the Plateau, but “unfortunately these have not borne fruit yet.”