Atherton: Struggle for safer crosswalks on El Camino | December 12, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - December 12, 2012

Atherton: Struggle for safer crosswalks on El Camino

by Renee Batti

You can't always get what you want. But if the town of Atherton accepts what's on offer by the California Department of Transportation, will it ever get what town officials believe it really needs: safer El Camino Real crosswalks to avoid the kinds of accidents that have killed and seriously injured numerous pedestrians and bicyclists over the last few years?

Caltrans officials late last month told the City Council that the El Camino-Selby Lane intersection meets the criteria for installation of a traffic signal, and asked if it wanted to pursue a signalization project. The intersection marks the northern boundary of Atherton's stretch of the El Camino corridor — a section bounded on the south by Valparaiso Avenue.

Although Caltrans was given the go-ahead to begin the process at the Nov. 28 meeting, council enthusiasm was limited, largely because members had hoped the state agency would present more information and options for the handful of crosswalks at non-signalized intersections that have been the scenes of recent serious accidents. With limited funds, would the town and Caltrans be able to finance crosswalk improvements in addition to the traffic signal?

Roland Au-Yeung, Caltrans' District 4 traffic operations division chief, told the council that his agency is poised to begin the long process to signalize El Camino and Selby, but is also meeting with town staff to come up with a plan to address the crosswalk dangers. But, he said, even if a crosswalk were to be improved with flashing lights, the soonest the project would be completed would be 2017-18.

Mike Kashiwagi, the town's community services director, later told the Almanac that staff "will work with Caltrans to see how that time could be reduced."

Because pedestrians have been injured in several non-signalized crosswalks in the 1.6-mile stretch of roadway, which has only three signalized intersections, the staff is also working with the state agency to determine the best location for what is likely to be a pedestrian-activated overhead system with a flashing beacon at only one intersection, Mr. Kashiwagi said.

The town has been studying the pedestrian- and bicycle-safety problem on El Camino for years, but the effort was ramped up earlier this fall when two women were struck and seriously injured in the crosswalk at El Camino and Isabella Avenue. The Sept. 30 accident occurred two years to the day that a bicyclist was struck and killed in the same crosswalk.

After the recent accident, Mayor Bill Widmer sent a strongly worded email to Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty "to insist that improved safety measures are taken" for Atherton's section of the El Camino corridor. Caltrans and town staff have met several times since then, and council members were told that in addition to the flashing-beacon system being considered for a single crosswalk, studies are being done on options such as narrowing the roadway from six lanes to four.

While town officials are stressing the urgency of the situation, the issue has been complicated by the fact that a tally of the total number of vehicle collisions with pedestrians and bikes is either unavailable or has not been compiled. That's because accident reports are spread out among a number of agencies, depending on which jurisdiction responded to individual incidents. Reporting agencies have included the Atherton, Menlo Park, and Redwood City police departments; the Sheriff's Office; and the California Highway Patrol.

Last summer, a lawsuit was filed against the town, Menlo Park, a motorist, and several other public agencies over a 2011 accident in which teenager Courtney Schrier was struck and seriously injured in the crosswalk at the El Camino and Alejandra Avenue intersection. The accident report for that incident was taken by an agency other than the Atherton Police Department.

Town officials said that Caltrans has committed to providing a compilation of all accidents along the town's section of the corridor involving pedestrians and bicyclists.

Meanwhile, council members were not willing to endorse a project to install a traffic signal at El Camino and Selby Lane, but after being told that allowing Caltrans to request funding from the county wouldn't commit the town, they agreed to allow the state agency to begin the process.

Mr. Kashiwagi said that Caltrans estimates the cost of the traffic signal to be $450,000 to $600,000. Caltrans would pay half the cost, while Atherton and the county would each pay 25 percent.