Saturday, November 23, 2013

Do planning and public participation count? Maybe not in Amador County

When is a plan not a plan? Does public investment in project planning matter when one elected official doesn’t like the result? Does more than a decade of citizen participation in a local planning process count for anything? What should a public official do when he votes with all of his fellow board members on an issue and later has a change of heart? These questions and more came to mind this week as I learned about certain events related to the Pine Grove Corridor Improvement Project.

It takes a little time to explain, so bear with me …

For more than a decade, the Pine Grove Corridor Improvement Project has been a local transportation improvement priority. Pine Grove has serious issues with traffic congestion, safety and smooth traffic operations (left turns, stops, etc). As someone who often drives this section of Highway 88, I can vouch for this myself. We once had to wait for 100 cars returning from Kirkwood to pass before we could turn left. A friend walking across the highway at night was killed by a car. For many of us, this is a personal issue that affects our daily lives, not simply a matter of moving money around on a spreadsheet.  

The Pine Grove project was a priority in the 1996-97 Amador County Regional Transportation Improvement Plan. It’s the top priority project in the current plan, which was adopted in 2004. It’s also the top priority project in the draft update of the regional plan developed by a committee that included city and county officials as well as local citizens, including me. 

Work on the Pine Grove project itself began in 2002. Since then, the Amador County Transportation Commission has spent or obligated $1.8 million to develop a proposal the Pine Grove community could accept that would address well-documented safety, congestion and operations issues. Citizens have spent countless hours in public meetings discussing and analyzing project alternatives, with a great deal of ACTC staff support. Now there’s an agreed-upon design for the improvements and the project is $700,000 under budget and ahead of schedule (how rare is that?). It’s ready for the next step.

The ACTC voted to take that step on October 24. That morning, the commission voted unanimously to submit a funding request to the state to provide funds for the two steps needed to create a shovel-ready (“shelf ready” in ACTC jargon) Pine Grove project: construction-level design (plans, specifications and estimates) and purchasing needed right-of-way.

The funds would come from Amador County’s share of the Regional Improvement Program funds, part of a chunk of money available under the State Transportation Improvement Program. There’s money there for us, but only if the ACTC requests it every two years, and only for projects that are a priority in the approved regional transportation improvement plan.

ACTC must make the request by December 15. If they don’t request  the funds, that money will not be available to the county for any project for five years. Five years.  

The ACTC staff made persuasive points in its October 24 staff report:  If the next two steps are not completed soon, the Pine Grove project likely would never be built. They also pointed out that moving quickly to a shovel-ready state could reduce overall costs and make the project more competitive for various state and federal funds.  They showed two construction funding options to the commissioners, but the ACTC has not yet committed to fund construction of the project, or decided how to pay for it. According to ACTC staff, there are many options available and the project is highly competitive for a number of different pots of money.

The ACTC voted unanimously to request the funds and put them to the Pine Grove project, with the goal of having it shovel ready by fiscal year 2019-20 or later in 2020. Moving forward seemed like a done deed.

But that was last month, before Jackson-area Supervisor John Plasse began a campaign to change the ACTC vote (unanimous, as you’ll recall). He mentioned it in the Upcountry Community Council meeting (and those people are none too happy about it). He lobbied members of the Jackson Revitalization Committee. Soon after, the Amador County Business Council voted to urge the ACTC to reconsider its decision and wrote
a letter to that effect.

Now the reconsideration question is on the agenda for the next ACTC meeting, which will be held on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, starting at 9 a.m. It’s a wonderful time to get the public to a meeting, don’t you think?

If the ACTC votes to reconsider its earlier decision and fails to act by the December 15 deadline, Amador County will lose those funds for five years. They would not be available for any other projects in the county.

Alternatively, ACTC could send its draft 2014 transportation plan update to the state, showing five years of project funding. Since Pine Grove is still the number one priority in the plan, it would still be the funding priority. So that makes no sense. At least not to me. And the draft plan is just that – a draft. It hasn’t been through a single public hearing, environmental review, or adoption by the ACTC.

If the ACTC submits the full transportation plan for funding, it could later change the priorities and effectively kill the Pine Grove project.  Perhaps that’s Supervisor Plasse’s goal. After all, he has been heard making disparaging comments about the project and calling it the “Pine Grove Beautification Project.” Never mind the pedestrian, school, and driver safety issues, folks – it’s all to gussy up the town.

I hope the ACTC commissioners will reject Supervisor’s Plasse’s rear-guard action. But if his motion succeeds and there’s a new discussion, they should ask him to present hard data, including traffic counts and accident data, to show why the Pine Grove project should not be the county’s funding priority. They should ask him to explain why he is willing to disregard the millions of dollars and years of time invested in the Pine Grove Corridor Project as well as the results. They should ask him how they can again ask any member of the public to participate in a planning process when their time and effort is apparently meaningless. They should point out that Pine Grove is the top project in the draft transportation plan update. And they should note that getting the Pine Grove project in ready-to-build state is not the same as funding its construction, that many construction-financing options exist, and that other projects can and will move forward at the same time.

But truly, they should simply reject the pressure to reconsider their unanimous vote and move on. No single elected official should be able to throw an entire planning process out the window, even if he can bring the “powers that be” along to lobby with him.  And the fact is, he can’t – unless he gets other commissioners to vote with him.

Let’s hope they stand strong, support their plan and project investment to date, keep faith with the public, and move the Pine Grove project along the road to construction.  

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