Wed11262014

News

Traffic calming or confusion?: Berry Avenue improvement project draws vocal, mixed reactions


PHOTO BY JOE HU
Berry Avenue neighbors Dick Osgood, Drew Lee and Bob Jacobsen show a corner that has been damaged by motorists. Recently implemented traffic-calming measures have angered residents who argue the narrowed street corners are more dangerous to drivers and pedestrians.

Los Altos motorists will experience the city's first significant street improvements intended to calm traffic in town at the end of next month, when engineers complete the Loyola Safe Routes to School project along Berry Avenue. The completed project will introduce physical elements - including raised crosswalks, 10-foot-wide sidewalks, bulbout curbs and crosswalk medians - to streets in the Loyola School neighborhood, near Rancho Shopping Center.

Supporters of the street redesign have no sympathy for motorists aggravated by features forcing them to maneuver the narrowed roadway at slower speeds. They say that's the point - to drop speeds to the posted 25 mph speed limit. Some residents have complained of motorists going nearly twice that speed before the improvements were made.

Engineers intricately planned the series of physical elements along the street to create what city staff calls "visual friction." The illusion of a narrow street interrupted by slight turns or other features that reduce stretches of straightaway can work wonders on reducing traffic speed, engineers claim.

The project includes: bulbout curbs or extended pathway areas, at intersections and power poles over a 2,000-foot stretch along Berry Avenue; a Class I pathway on the south side of Berry intended to serve both bicyclists and pedestrians; and a raised crosswalk in front of Loyola School. Items still to be completed include the raised crosswalk, sealing Berry between Springer and Miramonte avenues, re-striping the roadway and installing new trees.

"Making the street safer for pedestrians and bicyclists was always the intent. The intent was never to decrease traffic volume," said Public Works Director Jim Porter. The city anticipates a drop in traffic, however, from those who may choose other routes rather than drive more slowly around the barriers, he added.

The city plans to conduct volume and speed surveys in the Loyola neighborhood when the elementary school reopens in the fall after renovations are completed, Porter said.

Beginnings

Neighborhood fear and frustration over the high volume of traffic, increased speeds and the city's lean budget prompted the Loyola PTA to create and find funding for a neighborhood traffic plan.

The group was the first in town to secure a $500,000 Caltrans "Safe Routes to School" grant after they prepared an application seeking funding for more than a dozen street improvements, based on recommendations from a privately funded traffic-planning consultant. The city agreed to contribute $55,000 toward the project. Other groups, including neighbors in the Almond, Springer and Montclaire school areas, have stepped forward and helped the city secure similar grants.

"This process is unique in the sense that the community came forward with (a plan)," said traffic consultant John Ciccarelli while working on conceptual plans for the proposed Almond project. "The city didn't just say, 'Here are the final plans.' The community has been involved with every stage. They know the street. They know the problems."

Controversy

Despite nearly universal concern to keep Los Altos streets safe for children commuting to school on bike or foot and the use of mostly outside funds, the Berry project has been controversial.

The originally approved project included placing a roundabout at the Berry-Springer intersection to provide better flow for the approximately 1,276 to 1,572 cars that use the intersection during peak morning and afternoon commute hours, according to a traffic study by Kimley-Horn and Associates.

Size constraints eventually knocked the controversial roundabout off the project list. The bulbouts replaced the roundabout feature. Neighbors suggested the city build the Class I bike path after discovering that an on-street path would have restricted their parking, Porter said. The path added about $45,000 to the original project costs but enabled the city to keep the grant money.

"The path is intended to keep bicyclists off the roadway and to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety," Porter said at the time of the project change. "Part of the Safe Routes grant is to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety. If we don't make the bike improvements, I think we will have a hard time justifying the grant."

The change also meant 21 homeowners along the south stretch of Berry would lose their landscaping in the public right-of-way.

"The city did not encroach on any private property, but it was necessary to remove some improvements that residents had built into the public right-of-way to construct the bike path," Porter said.

Traffic safety question

Although some residents in the area support the efforts and say anything is an improvement over the straightaway Berry used to be, a good many neighbors are vocal in their opposition.

Most residents opposed to the project are concerned that the array of bulbouts, varying road widths, tightened intersections and combined pedestrian-bike paths will compromise traffic safety.

"It's a horrible, horrible disaster," said Berry resident Elaine Siegal. "I've almost been hit twice by someone making a right-hand turn (from Miraflores Way onto Berry). Why they did this, I have no idea."

Resident Bob Jacobsen, who felt the improvements actually compromised traffic safety, said, "The bulbouts at Springer and Berry serve no purpose." He noted a driver totaled her car and was hospitalized after crashing into bulbouts at Berry and Brentwood Street in mid-January.

Jacobsen, who wrote a letter about the issue to the Town Crier in January, said the bulbouts allow little space for medium-size or large vehicles to negotiate turns without being forced outside the lines. He added that the lack of no-parking signs along particularly narrow stretches of Berry leaves vehicles having to stop to allow one or the other by on the two-lane road with parked cars on either side.

"We still look like we're in a construction zone," said Lee Lynch. The former Los Altos mayor noted that sawhorses with flashers have remained along Berry the past two months. Construction crews have waited for the weather to improve before continuing work, most notably striping the street.

Lynch was among several residents opposed to a 10-foot-wide bike and pedestrian path along Berry. "We felt 8 feet would be efficient," she said. "Kids do not walk to school these days."

Path supporters agreed with Lynch, that many children do not walk to school these days. The reason, they said, is because of dangerous road conditions. "Journey to School" surveys indicate that about 25 percent of the Loyola students walk or bike to school. With the improvements in place, more children may be likely to walk or ride to school, they added.

Porter said under federal guidelines, the path had to be a minimum of 8 feet plus a 2-foot buffer in order to qualify as a Class I bike path that can accommodate both bikes and pedestrians.

If the city had made the area narrower, Caltrans would have denied the project, and Los Altos would have lost funding vital to improve traffic safety in the Loyola neighborhood.

Lynch noted several "near-misses" among motorists negotiating the new improvements, improvements the residents said should have been relegated to speed bumps and stop signs.

Lynch also is worried traffic to and from Loyola School, which will return in the fall when school facilities are renovated, will increase the risk of accidents.

However, some residents, such as Steve Aced, suggested waiting for the completion of the project before voicing such opposition.

"Everything is in a state of transition," he said. "Let's see what happens when they get the street sealed and the lines repositioned."

Aced noted city officials "made a lot of effort to pay attention in the end," such as allowing for on-street parking that the city had initially planned to take away.

David Luskin, a Loyola parent and a resident at Miraflores and Berry, was supportive of the improvements, noting traffic is moving slower and the street is safer.

"What kind of accidents have occurred?" he asked. "People have hit curbs and damaged vehicles. That's different than cars colliding."

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