Traffic Task Force Meeting # 1 - City's Traffic Task Force Targets Solutions to Vexing Congestion

Traffic Task Force Meeting #1 on August 31, 2015

Over the past two years the City of Mill Valley has experienced a large increase in traffic congestion. In response to these unacceptable conditions the City of Mill Valley, School District and regional leaders have worked diligently to identify the root causes of this frustrating problem.

Over that time, it’s become clear that there’s no shortage of causes – and no easy fix – for the regular traffic congestion. On August 31, 2015 the City’s new Traffic and Congestion Reduction Advisory Task Force held its first meeting. Officials representing a wide range of local and regional entities turned their attention squarely on identifying a range of possible solutions.

“We don’t have any easy solutions – we’re not going to build ourselves out of this and we don’t have any obvious culprits,” City Manager Jim McCann said at the outset of the meeting at the Mill Valley Community Center. “But there are opportunities to address this problem, and certainly our community expects and demands that we improve the situation. There are some solutions that we can seize to make modest and incremental improvements – specific intersection improvements, changes to signal timing and ramp access at the interchanges with Highway 101 and restoring capacity and efficiency in the Tam Junction corridor and reducing vehicle trips where possible.”

Task Force 
The task force consists of a 14-member panel, appointed by Mayor Ken Wachtel. The panel is supported by McCann, Public Works Director Jill Barnes and City traffic consultant David Parisi. Members of the panel and the jurisdictions they represent are listed below:

Ken Wachtel Mill Valley Mayor
Stephanie Moulton-Peters         Mill Valley Councilmember
Mike McGuire State Senator
Marc Levine State Assembly Member
Kate Sears Marin County Board of Supervisors
Paul Johnson Mill Valley School District Superintendent       
Leslie Wachtel Mill Valley School District Board President
Robin Moses Mill Valley School District Board Member
Julie Synyard Tamalpais High School Principal
Wajahat Nyaz California Department of Transportation
Alan Abrams Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce
Jeff Brown     President, Tamalpais Community Services District 
Jim Parrinello Mill Valley Resident
Stephen Burke Mill Valley Resident

“The health and safety of our residents, and preserving the high quality of life in Mill Valley is a Core Value of the Council, and traffic congestion is impacting our community at every level,” Mayor Wachtel said. “We look forward to engaging and collaborating with the School District, the County of Marin, Caltrans and the community at large to address and find solutions to this issue.” 

Wachtel and McCann introduced the task force and described its purpose, which is to develop and present a set of recommendations for traffic congestion relief strategies to the City Council. It was established that the task force will expedite the process by meeting approximately every two weeks for the next few months. Further information regarding the purpose and progress of the task force can be found here.

To help the task force develop a deeper understanding of both historical and present day traffic conditions in Mill Valley and its periphery, Parisi gave the panel a detailed presentation (view it here).

 Limited Capacity

Limited Capacity 
Parisi described the roadway system in Mill Valley in simple terms: a fragile system of local and regional roads with limited capacity that can be pushed beyond their means with just a moderate increase in the number of cars on those roads. 

Although the population of the City of Mill Valley has increased by only 10 percent since 1970 to 14,311 – and though there was only a 3.9 percent rise in the number of total housing units between 2000 and 2010 – the number of households with children under 17 has grown, resulting in a spike in school enrollment. As a result of these and a wide variety of other reasons, Mill Valley roads are regularly pushed well beyond their capacity, particularly during morning and afternoon school commuting times.

The school enrollment spike, coupled with a booming economy that has seen a significant rise in home renovations, landscaping improvements and delivery vehicles, has resulted in increased congestion. “Cross-freeway” trips – for example, parents living in the City of Mill Valley driving their children across the Hwy. 101 overpass to Strawberry Point Elementary School, and Strawberry area families driving to Mill Valley Middle School and Tam High are also obvious elements of the regular morning and afternoon traffic scene. Parisi’s firm is currently gathering and analyzing data on the number of cross-freeway trips occurring during peak periods of traffic congestion. Additionally, the firm will evaluate “vehicle trip purpose” i.e., the types of vehicles – work and school commuters, contractors, delivery trucks, etc. – that are coming into and out of Mill Valley throughout the day. This current data is critical to inform the range of practical approaches to reduce congestion.

Parisi presented the results of recent traffic counts in the Scott Valley and Country Club neighborhoods to determine an “average trips per day” for Mill Valley residents. The data (adjusted to account for the Scott Valley Swim Club and the Mill Valley Golf Course traffic) found that households in these neighborhoods make an average of 10.8 car trips per day, a figure that is 15 percent higher than the national average for similar suburban communities. Mill Valley’s streets were designed to handle a volume of about 6 trips per household per day.

Parisi emphasized the importance of having a narrow and focused scope for the Task Force’s work. The Task Force will focus on key segments of Mill Valley’s two gateway corridors: 1) East Blithedale Avenue from Camino Alto through the Highway 101 interchange, and 2) Miller Avenue/Almonte Boulevard from east of Tamalpais High School through the Tam Junction. Through solicitation of input and engagement with the community and participation in Task Force meetings the group will identify the:

Various trip purposes affecting increased travel demands.
Existing operational and capacity constraints.
Potential short-term travel demand reduction, (i.e. reducing the number of vehicle trips), operational improvement (e.g., signal timing, turning restrictions), and capacity increasing remedies (e.g., adding intersection turning lanes).
Possible longer-term remedies to decrease travel demand and increase throughput.
These roadways carry majority of the City’s traffic during the peak periods of the day. For example, approximately 80,000 cars go through East Blithedale Avenue-Hwy. 101-Tiburon Boulevard interchange complex each weekday (excluding through traffic on Hwy. 101), with another – 70,000 on each weekend day. Given the high volume of vehicles accessing those interchanges each day, the Committee should focus specifically on these corridors.

“This Committee is about what we can do on these key corridors to reduce demand, increase capacity – or both,” Parisi suggested. “The upside of the limited capacity of our roads is that only a marginal reduction in car volume on those roads at peak periods of traffic would have an impact”, Parisi added.

“If we can decrease auto use by a few small percentage points, we will see a difference,” he said.

Parisi highlighted the Safe Routes to School program for the strides it has made in the reduction of traffic volumes in recent years. The program encourages students to walk or ride their bicycles to school, resulting in a shift from automobile dependent school trips to bicycle- and pedestrian-based school trips. Mill Valley’s public schools are ranked highest in Marin County with respect to the percentage of students that walk or ride to school, with more than 50 percent of Mill Valley Middle School in students riding or walking to school.

Councilmember Moulton-Peters suggested that while there are a number of physical improvements that can be made to our roads, the Task Force consider recommending a social marketing campaign aimed at changing behavior much like the City and County’s recent “Share the Path” effort on the Mill Valley-Sausalito Multi-Use Path and the Town of Fairfax’s “Reduce By Two” campaign to get residents to reduce their car trips by two per week.

“That’s a huge part of what we need to ask the community,” Moulton-Peters said.

The City has also participated in the Coordinated Countywide School Transportation Study organized by Marin Transit in partnership with the Transportation Authority of Marin and the Marin County Office of Education. The purpose of the study is to evaluate how students in Marin County currently get to school and identifies opportunities for increasing walking, biking, busing, or carpool trips.

While we consider the findings of the school transportation study and its potential to reduce cross-freeway trips, we have successful strategies with both the Mill Valley School District and the Tamalpais Union High School District to reduce school commute-related traffic, and those districts will work to further increase their respective students’ carpooling, bicycling and walking.

“The Mill Valley School District appreciates the importance of community involvement and is strongly supportive of coordinated approaches to student wellness and safety,” Superintendent Paul Johnson said. “We look forward to working collaboratively with the City and the school community to find ways to address the traffic congestion issue.”

Technical Changes 
The Task Force received an overview of recent efforts to make quick physical changes to our roads. Many of those incremental fixes have been in the works since the City Council approved a series of efforts at its May 4 meeting as a part of the Action Plan to improve traffic congestion. 

Provide Camino Alto/Blithedale intersection improvements U-turns at the intersection are now prohibited all day as a way to improve efficiency there, and more improvements are on the way to reduce backups at the intersection. 
Install lane delineators on E. Blithedale at Meadow Drive City staff recently installed delineators to deter drivers from prematurely moving into the left lane on East Blithedale at Meadow Drive.
Revisit and assess the Signal Timing/Synchronization Program and make adjustments as appropriate City officials continue to work with Caltrans to improve synchronization to reduce delay and congestion. However, signal timing changes can only assist minimally when traffic is saturated.
File an application to formally request Caltrans add a dedicated Southbound Hwy 101 entrance ramp at E. Blithedale The City is working with Caltrans to see if this would be possible.
File an application to formally request additional Shoreline Highway improvements While City officials said they are pleased with the recent changes to the Tennessee Valley Road intersection to improve traffic flow, additional modifications will be completed this fall. Also, much work needs to be done in the Tam Junction area, to alleviate congestion affecting area-wide circulation. City officials are continuing to work with the County of Marin and Caltrans on this issue. “We’ve gotten their attention, and are working well on this matter,” McCann said of Caltrans.
Coordinate with School District regarding school transportation options including School Bus service City and School District officials have joined a countywide effort with the Marin Transit District to explore the feasibility of utilizing school buses in the Mill Valley area.
Form an Advisory Task Force to develop recommendations for short and long-term improvements and programs Task Force has been formed and convened.
Collect extensive and specific current traffic data and public input to define problem Parisi’s firm has conducted extensive analysis on current conditions and will collect and analyze additional data.
Survey and seek input from the Community on options and ideas The Mill Valley School District sent out a survey to 5,000 parents about their transportation choices and their openness to supporting school buses in the future. The Task Force will develop and implement a community outreach and engagement strategy to share information and solicit community input, ideas and recommendations. A community meeting to facilitate an exchange of ideas is being considered.
Expand our communication tools to inform the public of "breaking" traffic conditions and recommendations The City has created a dedicated, multi-faceted Traffic and Road Conditions webpage and encourages community members to sign up for communication alters via Twitter, Nextdoor and email.

Task Force members emphasized the need for a collaborative approach to addressing the traffic problem in a way that gets input from all stakeholders, including sports programs that heavily impact afternoon commutes and weekend traffic. They also stressed the importance of engaging with state legislators on areas well outside the City’s direct influence, such State Assemblyman Marc Levine’s proposed legislation to require Caltrans to open a third land on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge as well as to assist with coordination with more local needs from Caltrans.

Finally, Task Force members urged City officials to think innovatively about the problem, possibly drawing on the Bay Area’s ride-sharing boom in terms of technological, GPS-based solutions.

“All of the people who are doing that want to live in our community, so we might as well tap into them now,” said Stephen Burke, a technology entrepreneur, resident of Lovell Ave. and member of the Task Force.

Within its MV 2040 General Plan update, the City of Mill Valley has made a priority of creating and maintaining a multi-faceted, collaborative effort to reduce traffic congestion. It is also one of the Core values and Priority Projects of the Mill Valley City Council as part of the City’s larger protection of the health and safety of its residents, respect for small town character and preservation of the community’s high quality of life.

The next meeting of the Task Force will be Tuesday, September 15, 2015 at 10:15 am at the Mill Valley Community Center. All of the Task Force’s meetings, including a planned meeting to seek specific ideas from members of the community, will be promoted widely in advance – more information can be found here.

Send comments and questions about the Task Force to Public Works Aide V. Tyler at At the conclusion of the Task Force's meetings, the Mill Valley City Council will review its report and recommendations.

Meeting #1 - Meeting Agenda and Meeting Materials:

August 31, 2015 Task Force Meeting Agenda
Mission, Members & Background
PowerPoint presentation
Learn More