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Stronger planning urged for wildfire evacuation routes

By Matthew Pera

mpera@marinij.com

With the threat of wildfires coming into sharper focus in recent years, Marin’s elected officials should do more to plan for safe evacuation routes, according to the Marin County Civil Grand Jury.

As it stands, there is no single government agency responsible for evacuation planning, which has resulted in a political stalemate on the issue, the grand jury said in its Dec. 14 report, titled “Roadblocks to Safer Evacuation in Marin.”

“In interviews with the grand jury, public officials often expressed the belief that some other agency had the responsibility for evacuation,” the report says.

While the newly formed Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority promised voters in March that it would work to improve evacuation routes in the county, the authority’s plans for such work do not adequately address the issue, the grand jury said.

The passage of the Measure C parcel tax in March is set to raise about $19.3 million annually for the authority, and part of that funding will go toward studying evacuation routes, creating evacuation maps and clearing vegetation along narrow Marin roads. But the agency does not have the authority or the funding to take on infrastructure projects that could create safer roads for people fleeing wildfires, the grand jury said.

“The grand jury is concerned that Marin’s public may have a false sense of security regarding evacuation routes, thinking that all issues relating to the matter will be handled by the new government agency,” the report says.

While Marin County fire Chief Jason Weber agreed that the wildfire authority doesn’t have the funding to take on road infrastructure projects, he said the agency is taking the initial step in addressing Marin’s evacuation safety problem. The agency is planning an evacuation route study and is aiming to buy a new route-mapping software this year.

“First we have to identify the problem areas, and that’s what the study is going to do,” he said. “If we find a corridor that could benefit from some kind of change, then we can go after grant funds, or work with with cities and towns.”

The grand jury urged the wildfire agency to work together with Marin’s county, city and town governments to coordinate infrastructure planning work. It also suggested that the authority collaborate with the Transportation Authority of Marin, or TAM, the county’s congestion management agency. The report recommends that a representative from TAM serve as a non-voting member of the wildfire agency’s advisory committee to weigh in on evacuation route planning.

TAM is the agency “best positioned to coordinate and support the funding of public works projects for improv-

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ing evacuation routes,” the report says. It is the only agency in Marin with authority over countywide transportation projects.

Throughout the county, fire officials have identified “choke points” where drivers are likely to get caught in congestion when f leeing wildfires. Many of those run through multiple jurisdictions, including the Butterfield Road escape route for residents in Sleepy Hollow, which runs across the jurisdictions of unincorporated Marin County and San Anselmo. Evacuation for Novato residents along Novato Boulevard involves the county and the city of Novato, and the North San Pedro Road escape route for Santa Venetia residents crosses county jurisdiction, San Rafael and the Caltrans interchange at Highway 101.

Because of the crossjurisdictional challenges involved in planning escape routes, TAM should serve as the coordinating agency, the grand jur y said. But the report says that in interviews with the grand jury, TAM officials “continue to deny that the agency has any role or responsibility for considering evacuation needs in its transportation projects.”

The grand jury urged TAM to reconsider that position and keep evacuation routes in mind in the planning process for infrastructure projects. The report asks the county Board of Supervisors and each city and town council in Marin to adopt resolutions calling on TAM to do so.

San Anselmo Councilman Brian Colbert, who serves on the TAM board, said it would make sense for the authority to coordinate projects aimed at improving evacuation choke points. But he said criticizing TAM for not doing so sooner is unwarranted. The agency is mandated to address congestion in the county, he said.

“TAM has a full plate, which is not to say we can’t do more,” Colbert said. “But it’s always a question of priorities.”

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