Saturday, July 22, 2017

Grand jury wants more done to address Napa County congestion

Napa County’s master plan to deal with the ever-increasing number of cars idling in congestion needs an octane boost in the view of the county grand jury.
The 2016-17 grand jury studied the Napa Valley Transportation Agency’s Vision 2040 plan. It deemed the strategies and list of $1.9 billion in proposed highway improvements, new buses and new bike lanes “inadequate” to truly solve the county’s traffic problems.
“This 400-plus page document should be the guide for planning and funding of Napa County transportation needs for the next 25 years, but it does neither,” a new grand jury report said.
The NVTA is a joint effort by Napa County and its cities to tackle regional transportation projects. Board President and St. Helena Vice Mayor Peter White said he didn’t view the grand jury report as being negative, but rather as saying the NVTA could do better.
“I think anytime there is a grand jury report, I like to take the tact we look at it positively first and not just look at it negatively,” White said.
NVTA Executive Director Kate Miller said the agency Board of Directors will consider responses to the grand jury comments at its July 19 meeting.
Vision 2040, completed in September 2015, includes projects ranging from Soscol Junction improvements and a Highway 29/Trower Avenue overpass to increased bus service. About $600 million would go to maintaining existing infrastructure.
But the plan lacks measurable goals so the public can monitor progress, the grand jury said. In contrast, the Sonoma County plan calls for reducing the hours people are delayed by traffic by 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2040.
The grand jury submitted a list of recommendations to both the NVTA and Napa County Board of Supervisors.
County Supervisor and NVTA board member Alfredo Pedroza said Vision 2040 needs an update more than a rewrite, but he shared the grand jury’s sense of urgency. Napa County has experienced much success in a short period of time and transportation plans haven’t kept pace, he said.
“I do see the Board of Supervisors and NVTA being compelled to address transportation issues with real solutions,” said Pedroza, who is also the county’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission representative.
The grand jury sees high stakes for Napa Valley and its wine-centric, tourist-driven economy.
“Extreme traffic congestion has the potential to threaten the livelihood of Napa’s tourism business, along with diminishing the quality of life for all county residents,” the grand jury report stated.
The Napa County Board of Supervisors should form a task force by December that includes traffic, economic, employment and housing experts. This task force would develop a transportation plan with innovative funding sources and measurable goals, the grand jury recommended.
“I think looking at it from a regional perspective and being inclusive is only going to mean positive outcomes,” Pedroza responded.
But White and Miller were uncertain why such a recommendation would go to the Board of Supervisors, instead of to the NVTA.
“We’re not a body of the Board of Supervisors,” Miller said. “It’s not like the Board of Supervisors would have jurisdiction over any other jurisdiction.”
The NVTA should set clear expectations and timelines and establish measurable traffic congestion performance targets, the grand jury report said. It should begin making annual progress reports to the public in January.
The grand jury viewed traffic woes in a larger context.
Napa County workers in 2014 had a median annual income of $38,168. A household would need to earn $95,000 annually to buy a median-priced Napa County home of $606,000. This mismatch will continue fueling commutes into the county and traffic congestion, the grand jury report stated.
If projections are accurate, the number of workers commuting into Napa County daily by 2040 could increase 45 percent to 30,000, it said.
Meanwhile, federal and state transportation dollars are shrinking. Vision 2040’s project list calls for $1.9 billion in local transportation spending over 25 years, with only $1.1 billion thought to be available.
“The net result is that the NVTA needs to find other ways for Napa to self-fund transportation solutions,” the report recommended, without elaborating what these ways might be.
In March 2015, the Napa County Board of Supervisors voiced its intention to revise the circulation element of the county general plan, including looking at a traffic mitigation fee to be paid by new rural development. Work on that idea is continuing.
But county Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison doesn’t expect such a fee, if enacted, to bring in huge amounts of money for congestion-relieving projects. The county approves only about 16 winery projects and 35 homes annually.
“It’s not a panacea,” Morrison said.
NVTA officials at an April 2015 retreat mentioned the idea of seeking a transportation sales tax from voters to help fund Vision 2040 projects. Officials said they thought the agency first needed to bolster what they feared was a nondescript public image.
Pedroza said this week he’s not yet ready to support new transportation taxes. First, he wants to look at using existing transportation dollars as an enticement to land more regional money.
Local sources include traffic reduces fees in cities and the Measure T half-cent sales tax for road maintenance that begins next year, replacing the expiring flood control tax.
“I want to be careful and very sensitive to overtaxing our local constituents,” Pedroza said.
The grand jury also looked at the NVTA’s identity in the community.
The NVTA runs the VINE bus system and recently helped build the Oak Knoll section of the Napa Valley Vine Trail. Its other accomplishments include helping to bring about the 2014 Highway 12 widening in Jameson Canyon. It is a congestion management agency tasked with developing a regional transportation vision.
Yet the grand jury said it thought the agency does a poor job communicating the full scope of its responsibilities.
“The NVTA has not educated the community (nor even convinced some of its own Board members) that it serves functions other than managing buses and building bike trails,” the grand jury said.
White disagreed with this assessment. He views the NVTA as a “full-service” transportation agency, one tackling such projects as proposed Highway 29/Soscol Junction intersection improvements, and said it has tried to reach out to the public.
“Dealing with congestion management will always be a challenge,” White said. “Just trying to get people out of their cars is a challenge.”
The grand jury issued two commendations. It praised the way the NVTA works with the private sector on developing the Vine Trail. It also praised the agency for being helpful and responsive to all grand jury requests.
July 6, 2017
Napa Valley Register
By Barry Eberling

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