Traffic: Ready-Fire-Aim, or, Better Late Than Never? 1/2/2018

Posted on January 2, 2019

At the end of last year, in my post on the Town’s plan to rewrite the entire building code,  I noted that the Town of Vienna was finally going to do a study of economic conditions on Maple Avenue (.pdf).  In effect, it was going to do a study to see whether or not MAC zoning was needed, and what impact it might have.

Separately, in my discussion of Town’s most recent capital budget, I saw that they finally decided to do some basic estimate of the cost of putting the Maple Avenue utility lines underground.  That is, a study to see what it will cost to do what the Town has already decided must be done.

I characterized these actions as the Town’s Ready-Fire-Aim approach to MAC zoning.  Half a decade (and counting) after writing the law, they were actually going to try to look at some facts, and some economic and cost analysis.

As the third installment of the Ready-Fire-Aim approach, the Town is now going to do a study of what MAC will likely do to Maple Avenue traffic over the next decade or so.  The proposal to award what appears to be a sole-source contract to a nationally-known firm (Kimley-Horn) was announced in the agenda (.pdf) for the Town Council’s January 7 2019 meeting.  It appears from the documents that Town staff decided to do all this back in November.

At this point, I need to eat my words regarding the Town and a traffic study.  After the Town reneged on a promise to study traffic on Maple (at the time MAC was passed, 2014), I figured the Town was never going to do a serious traffic study.  And I have a page on this website explaining why.   Briefly, if you take the traffic increase projected for the proposed 444 Maple West (Tequila Grande) project, and scale that up to 70% of the developable property on Maple, then under any reasonable assumptions you will add materially to traffic congestion.

It’s not rocket science to reach that conclusion.  These new high-density-housing MAC projects average roughly 100 new Town residents per acre.  When MAC was passed,  Town Council members expected about 70 acres along Maple to be redeveloped eventually.   So, if you add 7000 new residents to Vienna (population, roughly 16,500), all on Maple — well, of course it will add to traffic on Maple.

So now I need to speculate on a few things.

First, it’s dangerous to have a consultant do a study after you’ve already decided what actions you are going to take.  The danger is that the consultant will “somehow” get the message that the main goal of the study is to justify what has already been decided upon.

So, studying

  1. the need for and economic potential of MAC (economic analysis),
  2. the cost MAC will impose directly on the town (the utility line burial analysis), and
  3. the cost MAC will impose in terms of traffic (this latest study),

those are all excellent pieces of information to have before you pass the law.

But doing those half-a-decade after the fact leaves me feeling a little ambiguous.   In my Ready-Fire-Aim model, you can end up with the consulting equivalent of a Looney Tunes cartoon:  The consultant draws bullseye around wherever the Town’s bullet hit.

Worse, the Town can then use that type of study to silence criticism.  “Look,” they can say, “our consultant has just shown that, even though we studied none of this before we passed the law, we got everything exactly right.”

And the Town has, in my opinion, dealt in such bad faith over MAC zoning that my first guess is, that’s why they are doing this study.  As with the change in the rules for protest petitions, this could be just another way to tell the citizens of Vienna to shut up.

On the other hand, this may be a  straight-up study without prior bias from the Town.  The consultant (Kimley-Horn) is a large (3500 employees, $0.75B annual revenues) engineering consulting firm.  As a former consultant myself, to put it plainly, the Town doesn’t have enough money or the promise of enough future business to get a consulting firm of that size to give the Town the answer it wants.

On yet a third hand, with a little time to think this through, what I’d do in the Town’s shoes is make sure this study reflected only a tiny amount of the potential development.  And under NO circumstances would I allow the redevelopment of the Giant Food parcel to be factored into this study.   So I would set a ten-year time horizon, I would assume long lags in getting these MAC developments built, and I would tell Kimley-Horn to do their traffic projections accordingly.  That way, under those assumptions, with that time frame, you can show that MAC redevelopment will have little impact on traffic.  And then do your best to bury the fact that you reached this conclusion  because you assumed very little MAC redevelopment within the timeframe of the study.

So, for now, I guess I’ll go with better-late-than-never.  But given that it’s an “intermodal” study, I can’t rule out using this to quash concerns about traffic in the manner I just described, and using the rest of the study to blather about the potential for travel on foot, by bike, and via public transit.

Per the description, the Town will be looking for citizen input on this study.  I cannot even imagine why, but there it is.

Analysis of the other two MAC-relevant items on the 1/7/2019 Town Council agenda is given on a separate page.