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HOWARD HART, San Juan Capistrano Mayor Pro Tem

One of my favorite quotes is from Herbert Spencer. It reads, “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance. This principle is contempt prior to investigation.” 

For the duration of my successful 30-year career as a Navy Intelligence Officer, I have learned to allow information to drive my decision-making, and I have brought those practices into office, especially with respect to the recent In-N-Out decision.

During my campaign to be a City Councilmember for District 5, I pledged to closely look at the staff report and its accompanying  traffic study, and to critically consider the study’s underlying assumptions prior to deciding on how I cast my vote on the proposal. Quite frankly, at the time I made that promise, I was skeptical of the proposal. 

As I prepared to cast my vote:

  • I closely studied the 500 page-long staff report and its accompanying 600-plus page-long traffic study;
  • I leveraged my analytical experience to probe for any weaknesses in the traffic study’s conclusions, underlying assumptions, and methodology;
  • I grilled our City Manager on the fidelity of traffic studies in general, and this one specifically;
  • I personally stood in front of the Rancho Mission Viejo In-N-Out to count cars in the queue and to time drive-thru throughput (among other things, my observations confirmed that, on average, one car exits the drive-thru window every 35-40 seconds);
  • And, I studied a recent University of Wisconsin report concerning the accuracy of traffic studies (95% of them – and improving – are within 15% of traffic accuracy, and, on average, they overestimate traffic by 6%.) (https://ssti.us/2019/12/16/how-reliable-are-traffic-forecasts/#:~:text=The%20study%20found%20that%2095,28%20percent%20in%20the%201990s).

So, what did the traffic report find? It found that traffic on Del Obispo is bad during certain times of the day, and it will continue to be bad during these hours, regardless of whether or not an In-N-Out restaurant is built there. It concluded that the In-N-Out would have no significant traffic impact on any of the studied intersections and roadway segments, and it found that more than ample room exists for queueing of cars. Finally, it found that the traffic mitigation measures prescribed by the city are appropriate.

As described above, I looked very closely and critically at the report’s underlying assumptions. This report was as rigorously conducted as any I have seen. Far from being a cookie-cutter approach or compromised by COVID, it consisted of measurements taken from locations in Rancho Mission Viejo and Laguna Niguel (on La Paz Road) during midday and evening peaks in April and July of 2021. To ensure that COVID restrictions did not impact the study, a growth factor was applied to both historical and current traffic data, and the worst-case numbers were then selected from each one to arrive at the conclusion. Finally, staff asked the traffic engineers to collect additional counts, taken in September 2021, and analyze traffic patterns during the hours of 1:30–4:00 p.m., in order to take into account San Juan Capistrano’s peculiar school-related traffic patterns.

My opinion was swayed by the evidence.

James Madison and our Founding Fathers established a republican form of government in large part because they feared a repeat of the Athenian experiment, where mob democracy repeatedly trampled on individual rights, and popular passions eventually propelled that city-state into a ruinous war with Sparta. In the American form of government, leaders at the local level are entrusted to balance the interests of the community with the rights of the individual. 

Even though I am a liberty-oriented person, I well understand that property rights are not absolute. However, I believe it is improper to deny someone the opportunity to leverage their property for their best interests unless tangible information exists that doing so will undermine the public interest. Such data was absent in this case. Moreover, all prior and subsequent criticism has thus far failed to bring forth any serious discussion of how and/or why the report is deficient.

Even knowing that the decision would be unpopular among some, when all was said and done, it was not a difficult vote to make in support of the project. I promised to look at the report and its underlying assumptions. I did so, and to then squelch on that promise for political reasons would strike me as unethical. I stand by my vote, I am proud of it, and I vow to continue to cast votes based on available information rather than political calculations.

Thank you for your continued trust.

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comments (8)

  • Deciding not to take criticism seriously doesn’t mean that you get to decide what is credible or deserves consideration.
    Literally NO ONE has addressed my persistent questions about the completeness of the traffic study.
    The study should have looked at the current traffic flow at similar franchise locations that are “off the 5 fwy” instead of the two unrepresentative locations used, look at OCSD data on traffic accidents on the routes listed in the study and take the Target traffic into account since it wasn’t open when the study was conducted. Also, how will the safety of our children walking across Ortega at El Camino Real during school pickup be ensured? With near misses during the morning without high traffic, how will it be during lunch time with the egress flow using that street to get back to the freeway? Please, describe to me in detail (without yet another unethical personal attack) as to how these questions are insignificant and not worthy of a response?

  • Dr. Hure,
    To address your two persistent assertions, the Traffic Study investigated the traffic at the two In-N-Out franchises most similar in design to the one that has been approved for Del Obispo. Studying the two nearest one to the freeway which you appear to suggest studying would (near Avery Parkway) be profoundly illogical. It is of a far different design, with two drive-thru windows and sparse seating/parking. Therefore, both the flow and throughput patterns are profoundly dissimilar to the approved Del Obispo location and would be of very little value. The next nearest In-N-Out in proximity to the I-5 freeway is the walk-in only restaurant in Laguna Woods. Any restaurant farther away than that could not possibly capture local traffic conditions.

    Your second assertion appears to be that children from San Juan Elementary would be endangered by cars returning to the freeway from the restaurant. This is similarly flawed. San Juan Elementary typically releases its students at 3pm, coinciding with what would be the least amount of freeway-generated restaurant traffic. This is anticipated to result in an insignificant increase in the number of vehicles returning to the freeway via Ortega during that time of the day.

  • Howard, are you serious? With all due respect, I think I know what time my kids get out of school. 12:45 and 2 pm are within the lunchtime traffic. If you are that incorrect about the school dismissal, what else are you incorrect about? Disappointing.

    • …. Now, let’s look at the other post of the equation. Even independent of the Traffic Study, which again suggests insignificant impact on those intersections and stretches measured by the report (including the Ortega/El Camino Real intersection that concerns you), the rate at which traffic departs the restaurant is greatly influenced by the self-metering that occurs at the drive thru window. Cars drive up, the driver pays, the drink is handed to the driver, and then the food is handed to the driver. On average that creates a gap of between anywhere from 35-40 seconds between cars departing the window and returning into traffic. That number is fairly constant, regardless of traffic conditions. Let’s now generously say that 2/3 of those cars seek to return to the freeway. That means that over a 5 minute period, approx. 6 additional cars will added to the traffic flow on that intersection. Even if, in the worst case scenario, all cars return to the freeway through that intersection, we’re looking at 8-9 additional cars over a 5 minute period. I think we can both agree that this hardly constitutes Carmageddon.

  • Please excuse that horrendous second sentence. It should read, “Studying the two nearest ones to the freeway, which you appear to suggest, would (with respect to the one near Avery Parkway) be profoundly illogical…”

  • Dr. Hure,

    First, I assume by your lack of response that my answer to your Avery Parkway assertion was adequate, correct?

    Undoubtedly, you know your child’s bell schedule better than I do.. And, I am sure you will concede your error regarding the 2pm traffic. In fact, the drive thru queuing figures in no way support your assertion that 2pm traffic approaches that of midday lunchtime traffic. In fact, about 50% fewer cars are shown to queue between 2-2:30 pm as do during the 12-12:30pm timeframe.

    Further, I am sure that, with regards to the bigger picture, you must have already considered that if the current proposal is approved to build a monetized parking structure and dual use retail/office space on the southeast corner of El Camino Real and Ortega Highway, then parents will likely choose other drop off/pick up options anyway.

    As always, Thank you for expressing your concerns.

  • Howard, my lack of response is in no way indicative of your adequacy. I just have a busy life and need to take care of my patients, business and family and realize I won’t get an accurate or complete answer. Not sure why you feel the need to be the point person and attempt to justify the decision you made. Also not sure why you feel the need to try and denigrate someone who helped you get elected just because opinions differ. Please just do your job and stop trying to bully people into submission. Be the role model you portray yourself as. I’m done.

  • Dr. Hure,

    I certainly intended no bullying and denigrating. You asked me to respond to your assertions, and I have sought to do so in a respectful manner.

    Thank you.

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