Almanac

News - April 20, 2011

Menlo Park: Willows traffic plan gets thumbs down from Transportation Commission on 3-2 vote

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had incorrect information regarding the results of an online survey. The story said that of 554 residents who answered the traffic survey, 80 percent said they had no concerns, although 92 percent were worried about speeding. Those figures actually referred to the number of respondents, not the percent. By Sandy Brundage, Almanac Staff Writer Does the Willows neighborhood need traffic calming? No. Yes. Maybe, but not like this. The answer, as Menlo Park has discovered through 20 years of studying the issue, depends on whom you ask.

The Transportation Commission met on April 13 to discuss the latest study by consultants TJKM, which analyzed the traffic situation within an area bounded by U.S. 101, Willow Road, Middlefield Road, Woodland Avenue, and Manhattan Avenue, and that includes a swath of East Palo Alto.

Of the 554 residents who answered an online traffic survey, 80 said they had no concerns, and 92 were worried about speeding. The survey had a 27 percent response rate.

Based on that meager feedback, the city forged ahead with the study, which identified three main areas of concern: speed, volume, and safety, particularly at intersections such as Gilbert Avenue and Willow Road.

Some residents thought the situation called for intense traffic calming; others for limited measures; and some didn't think anything needed to be done at all, according to the report.

One way, or another

The suggested traffic calming measures include speed feedback signs, speed bumps, and one-way traffic controls. Based on comments during the April 13 meeting, the proposal to convert a section of Woodland Avenue into a one-way street near its intersection with Euclid Avenue roused the most ire. One Oak Court resident estimated having to spend an extra one-and-a-half hours commuting every month as a result of having to detour around that section.

Vice Mayor Kirsten Keith, speaking as a private citizen, asked the commission to forget the one-way idea. "It just diverts us all the way around through Willows and it just doesn't make any sense," she said, and added that it would also force friends and services such as UPS to take the long way around. "I know you are common sense people, and that you will use your common sense when you evaluate this plan," Ms. Keith concluded.

Another Oak Court resident, Philippe Davis, questioned how such a change would impact East Palo Alto residents commuting along Woodland Avenue. "This isn't the first time there has been talk from residents about stopping Hispanics from coming into 'our' neighborhood either to commute, go to school or to use the local Mexican market on Menalto," he wrote in an email to the council and commission.

Mr. Davis told the Almanac that the "creepy, quiet undercurrent of racism" surfaced when residents criticized a local Mexican grocery store on Menalto for being targeted by robbers, instead of supporting the store's efforts to offer new items to the neighborhood. "Sadly, blocking cut-through traffic, as neutral as that label sounds, is motivated by some of that racism."

Deja vu

Twenty years ago, the city conducted its first traffic study of the Willows neighborhood. Fifteen years later, in 2007, it formed the Willows traffic task force. Now a proposal is once again making the rounds of the Transportation Commission and council. The April 13 vote suggested that, like its predecessors, the latest plan is off to an inauspicious start.

Before voting, Commissioner Katherine Strehl said she wondered why no one asked the Willows residents whether traffic-calming measures were needed before spending $120,000 on the study.

"So many people have come forward who live on Woodland, live on Oak, who don't want this one-way, and we'd be imposing it on them," said colleague Ray Mueller. "The problem is if we take it out, I don't know what the plan is, because it's an amalgam, and I don't think it's responsible to recommend a plan for the council to go forward with when I don't know what it's going to be."

By a 3-2 vote, the commission opposed a proposal to recommend the plan to the City Council, with Commissioners Charlie Bourne and Robert Cronin dissenting. Chair Penelope Huang recused herself since she lives in the Willows, and Maurice Shiu was absent.

The City Council could still vote to take the next step by approving another survey. Fifty-one percent of Willows residents would have to vote in favor of the modifications for the plan to be implemented, according to city staff, who told the transportation commission they weren't sure yet how much the survey would cost.

Mr. Mueller said he thinks compromise is still possible. He, along with Willows residents, will meet with the Menlo Park police department to discuss signage and speed enforcement, and said another group is working on creating a community awareness program to encourage safe driving.

"So while the outcome is unclear, one thing is for certain, the process is working and neighbors are working together towards a solution," he said.

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