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Atherton's year in review: El Camino safety, civic center and noise top agenda

It was a busy year in Atherton with pedestrian and bicycle safety on El Camino Real, the Marsh Road drainage channel project, design and funding of a new civic center, and noise from planes and trains being major issues in the town.

El Camino safety

In August, a jury found the California Department of Transportation 90 percent responsible for the 2010 death of a 62-year-old man who was struck by a car in an El Camino Real crosswalk in Atherton. Chris Chandler's family was awarded $9.5 million.

Atherton had been asking Caltrans since Mr. Chandler's death to help make crossing El Camino safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. Since then, at least three more people died and two more suffered serious injuries crossing the street.

In 2014, Caltrans offered to put two pedestrian-activated stoplights at Isabella and Alejandra avenues, but said they wouldn't be completed until 2017.

When another pedestrian died crossing El Camino at Almendral Avenue in late 2014, the town tried another tactic: offering to pay to install a light at that location. That project moved more quickly, and was completed in August of this year.

Soon after, however, complaints began to surface that the light made crossing El Camino even more dangerous because its timing stranded pedestrians in the middle of El Camino amidst oncoming traffic.

This time Caltrans responded more quickly, and within weeks had changed the light's timing to give pedestrians more time to cross.

By the end of the year, Caltrans had begun preliminary work on the two additional pedestrian activated lights it had been promising since 2014. The state agency said it will be installing such lights at 11 more locations along El Camino Real in San Mateo County.

Marsh Road closure

Atherton has long wanted to replace the deteriorating section of the drainage culvert that runs along Marsh Road between Middlefield Road and the Redwood City border near Bay Road.

In January, the town finally received the permits needed to replace the existing culvert with a poured-in-place U-shaped reinforced concrete culvert, designed so it could later be covered over. A steel guard rail deters vehicles from plunging in, something that had happened at least four times in 2015.

In order to complete the job within the timeline allowed by the state, the town decided to close the busy road completely for 12 weeks. A series of meetings with officials and residents from adjacent communities helped the town plan detours to keep drivers off nearby residential streets.

Despite a couple of unplanned glitches, including a last-minute request from the West Bay Sanitary District to add new sewer pipes into the work plan and a flood mid-way through construction when a Menlo Park water main broke, the project was completed on schedule in August.

Civic center plans

Atherton worked to complete the design of a new civic center to house its police and town offices, a council chamber/emergency operations center, and a library — and it worked to raise donations to pay for a substantial portion of the cost.

In March the public got a chance to see drawings of the new complex at an unveiling in Holbrook-Palmer Park. In May the City Council approved schematic plans for the complex, but asked that its size, and cost, be reduced. The buildings were downsized by 3,200 square feet, reducing the cost between $2 million and $2.5 million, the council was told.

By the end of the year, the council was close to giving the go-ahead to the architects to begin the working drawings that would be used to solicit bids from contractors.

One major hurdle remains, however: How to pay for the project. New Mayor Mike Lempres said in December that it appears clear the town is going to have to find a way around a 2012 voter-approved measure that says the civic center must be built primarily with private funds.

By Dec. 1, Atherton Now, the group formed to raise money for the civic center, had donations or pledges of only a little more than $6 million of the $25 million needed. The group's goal was to raise $10 million by the end of the year.

Atherton officials say if voters rescind the earlier measure and allow the town to use public money to help pay for the new complex, the town may have enough money in reserves to cover most of the cost.

Plane, train noise

In 2016 Atherton made some progress toward ameliorating two everyday annoyances: the noise generated by Surf Air planes headed to the San Carlos Airport and the horns sounded by trains passing through town.

After years of complaints from local residents about the noise from Surf Air, a small airline that in June 2013 began offering flights on an all-you-can-fly subscription basis in and out of the San Carlos Airport, San Mateo County in March authorized a study of options for the airport that could help with the problem.

The county hired consultants and held hearings, but by the end of the year had not yet returned its findings to the Board of Supervisors.

Just before the March meeting, Surf Air began working with the Federal Aviation Administration to allow use of a new approach to the airport that would take Surf Air planes over the San Francisco Bay instead of the Peninsula. The airline received permission, starting in July, to use the new approach during clear weather when it wouldn't interfere with traffic to other airports.

Residents living under the flight path said the new approach helped, but that the ubiquitous Bay Area fog meant the Surf Air planes were using their old approach, especially in the mornings.

In August, the matter came up in San Mateo County Superior Court after the county appealed a judgment against it in a small claims court case brought by North Fair Oaks resident Adam Ullman. The judge said the county did not have to pay the $1,000 Mr. Ullman had been awarded when he claimed the county was remiss in not stopping the noise from Surf Air. The judge did order the county to pay its own court costs and suggested the neighbors ask for an injunction against the airline.

The town had similar mixed results in attempts to quiet the noise from train horns in Atherton. In mid-June, the town took advantage of a federal law that allows communities to impose a train horn "quiet zone" if they have safety measures in place. Atherton met the requirements for its Fair Oaks Lane crossing, but not its Watkins Avenue crossing.

After the zone was put in place, however, Caltrain argued that it didn't apply in front of the Atherton train station, which is located just south of the Fair Oaks crossing. Atherton said Caltrain was wrong, and Atherton residents complained that even in the undisputed segment of the quiet zone, north of the crossing, train horns were still being sounded.

A study by an acoustical engineer, presented to the City Council in December, confirmed that Caltrain was regularly violating the quiet zone in the area north of the Fair Oaks crossing. The study documented 22 violations in two days.

Caltrain promised after the report was released to do its own study and if it found "violations as determined by Caltrain, steps will be taken to address them." Soon after, residents say, the quiet zone became much, much quieter.

In the meantime, the town is studying what it would take to add safety features to the Watkins Avenue crossing to extend the quiet zone to most of the rest of the town.

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