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.