Wednesday, Jan 15 2014 06:00 AM

Guest Commentary: Mayor addresses Walmart traffic concerns

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Mayor Phil Smith

In her Jan. 8 column, "About Traffic and Walmart", Tehachapi News Editor Claudia Elliott takes the city to task as it relates to traffic issues associated with the building of the proposed Walmart store on Tucker Road. I share her concerns and I will try to shed some light on how our city plans for future traffic needs and how it develops solutions to mitigate traffic related challenges.

The editor reported that the Planning Commission adopted a statement of overriding considerations for traffic mitigation in the revised EIR for the Walmart project and that the city can't mitigate the traffic issues on roadways that belong to the state and county.

The editor wrote that "A statement of overriding considerations and reliance on case law to push something through might be legal, but it falls short of addressing the matter." I absolutely agree! The city would be remiss if in fact it used that scenario as an excuse to avoid addressing the issue.

The seven (7) intersections declared in the revised EIR as having impacts that are significant and unavoidable can and will be mitigated. Since the inception of the proposed Walmart project our City Planning and Community Development Department staff and our City Engineer have worked continuously with planners and engineers from Kern County and Cal Trans. In fact we collaborate with county and state officials regardless of size on all projects because even small developments add incrementally to traffic, noise and water issues.

The county Planning Department assisted the city in identifying intersections outside the city limits that will be impacted by the Walmart project and Walmart will be paying fees to share in the mitigation of those as well. Cal Trans engineers assisted the city in developing the traffic mitigation plan that addresses issues related to traffic at their controlled intersections on Tehachapi Boulevard and Valley Boulevard as well as improvements that will be needed all the way out to the onramps to Highway 58. Walmart will be required to provide a traffic mitigation plan approved by Cal Trans which will include traffic signals, raised medians, striping and other measures designed to Cal Trans standards before the city will issue their building permit.

However, due to a relatively recent court case (Friends of Tracy vs. City of Tracy) if the Lead Agency does not control the mitigation strategy then the impact cannot be declared as mitigated in the EIR.

The converse is also true, that even though the city does not control the mitigation strategy and is not allowed to "declare" in the EIR that the impact can be mitigated the city can still "require" that the impacts be mitigated as a condition of approval prior to issuing a permit. The bottom line is that the impacts to traffic resulting from the Walmart project can and will be mitigated.

In 2006 the city and county adopted the Tehachapi Regional Transportation Impact Fee Program (TRTIFP). Since its adoption, whenever a building permit is issued in the unincorporated areas of the county or in the city a fee must be paid into this transportation fund. There is a list of transportation related projects and improvements (Program Facilities List) that can be funded through this program wherein a "facility" could be a two-lane or four-lane highway, traffic signal, intersection, etc.

For example, one of the projects on the list was the traffic signal at the intersection of Mountain View and Valley Boulevard that was installed using funds from this program.

In total, Walmart will contribute to the improvement of 11 intersections in the region some of which are not even in the city limits. The EIR clearly describes the mitigation strategies for these intersections such as adding new traffic signals, adding turn lanes at existing intersections, and installing medians and new turn lanes on Tucker Road and Tehachapi Boulevard.

In regards to long term planning the city not only has a plan to address traffic issues within its boundaries but we also work with the county and the state to plan for future traffic capacity where they impact us.

In 2011, the City of Tehachapi developed a Traffic Modeling Program with the assistance of AECOM Engineering. The traffic model provides a base line (existing conditions) and makes projections based an anticipated area growth and development of where traffic impacts may occur over time. The traffic model allows the city to predict when improvements need to be made to the circulation system such as adding turn lanes or installation of traffic signals.

The model not only helps the city predict for example which intersections may need to be signalized in the future, it also helps us predict the timing of the signal so it can be anticipated, planned for, and budgeted. This also allows us to plug potential projects into the mix to evaluate what impact the project could have on our circulation network.

In addition to the city-initiated model, the city also works very closely with the Kern Council of Governments (KCOG) on their transportation modeling efforts for the Tehachapi region so we can compare and contrast with their projections. KCOG is the regional organization that oversees transportation planning for all of Kern County including state, county and local highways, street and roads.

As the longest serving member on that board (since 1995), I can state that the City of Tehachapi is highly regarded in our region and in the state as it relates to transportation and land use planning. I am very proud of the work accomplished by our small group of professionals at City Hall which have won several state and national awards for planning.

I hope this article has provided some level of comfort that our city officials are engaged and very proactive in meeting the challenges of growth in our community and region.

I, too, recall when Tucker Road was a country lane and Valley Boulevard was a narrow country road. At that time Golden Hills and the Old Towne Shopping Center did not exist. In my teens I worked after school at the Spencer of California garment factory on C Street and worked on Spencer Lees' 5L Ranch feeding his horses and tending to the barn and corrals. The ten acre ranch was located just south of Valley Boulevard just east of the Debbie Reynolds Plaza near Golden Hills Boulevard.

Traffic was not an issue back then and I recall heading out to feed the horses on a snowy winter day late in the afternoon and as I started up that incline just beyond Sage Lane, I slid off the road. I was actually concerned that someone might not come by before dark to help me out of my predicament!

Today, we have more than 20,000 vehicles per day along that section of road. The region is growing and the city is working with the county and the state to plan and keep pace. I appreciate the opportunity to address the editor's concerns because they are the same concerns we all have who call Tehachapi home.


PHIL SMITH is Mayor of the City of Tehachapi.


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