Almanac

News - August 6, 2014

Atherton works on El Camino safety

by Barbara Wood

Long before the July 23 fatal accident on El Camino that took the life of 32-year-old Atherton resident Shahriar Rahimzadeh , the town of Atherton had been looking at ways to improve its 1.6-mile section of El Camino Real.

In fact, Atherton has been meeting with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which has ultimate control over the roadway because it is a state highway, for more than 18 months.

Talks began after an accident on El Camino in September 2012, when two women in a crosswalk at Isabella Avenue were struck and badly injured. That accident was two years to the day after a 62-year-old bicyclist was struck and killed in the same crosswalk.

Town officials say that since 2007 there have have been six serious incidents, three of them fatal, involving bicycles or pedestrians on El Camino Real. Four of the victims were in crosswalks.

The meetings with Caltrans have had some results. Caltrans has agreed to put two pedestrian-activated stoplights, called pedestrian hybrid beacons, at the El Camino intersections of Isabella Avenue and Alejandra Avenue. However, the work is not scheduled to be started until August 2016, according to Caltrans spokeswoman Gidget Navarro.

City officials seem even more pessimistic, with Community Services Director Michael Kashiwagi stating in a recent report that "construction is scheduled to begin in late 2016. Therefore, it is anticipated that the pedestrian hybrid signals within Atherton will be under construction in 2017."

Town officials are working to move up the installation date.

"They need to be installed now," said Councilman Rick DeGolia. "In my opinion it simply isn't safe for any pedestrian, cyclist or vehicle to cross six lanes of state highway without a traffic light."

Councilman Bill Widmer, who said that he started the talks with Caltrans and other state officials when he was mayor in 2012, said he has been trying to get the state to agree to let Atherton advance the money to pay for the signals so they could go in sooner. The state would then pay Atherton back when it had the money budgeted, he said.

Mr. Widmer said he has spoken with state Senator Jerry Hill and has a meeting scheduled with Assemblyman Rich Gordon as well as county officials. "My goal is to get everybody coordinated," he said. "I'm trying to get things organized to get it going."

Caltrans has done some work to increase safety at five intersections within Atherton, adding signs and pavement markings at: Selby Lane, Stockbridge Avenue, Almendral Avenue, Isabella Avenue and Alejandra Avenue. The town has also cut and removed vegetation along El Camino to improve visibility

Atherton is also considering major changes along El Camino Real, including cutting the roadway to two lanes in each direction through the town and adding dedicated bike and pedestrian lanes and paths.

The town's budget for 2014-2015 includes funding for the preliminary studies that would be needed to move ahead with those changes. The town has promised to meet with all the other jurisdictions that would be affected by a slimmed-down El Camino Real, including Menlo Park, Redwood City, San Mateo County and the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

The town's Bicycle Pedestrian Master Plan, now in the final stages of approval, shows how El Camino Real could be completely transformed with fewer motorized vehicle lanes, additional crosswalks and separated bicycle and pedestrian lanes.

There is strong support on the Atherton Council for the changes on El Camino.

"I disagree that we should make ECR faster for cars," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis. "I want to make it safer for bikes and pedestrian travel, to take cars off of ECR."

Councilman Rick DeGolia agreed. "In my opinion, there needs to be one bike lane on at least one side of ECR and there should be at least a pedestrian lane on the other side," he said.

Councilman Bill Widmer said working with Caltrans has been frustrating. "Two years have passed and we're back almost exactly where we were before," he said. "Even if we get something tomorrow, it's a hollow victory." However, he said, "I don't think we're being ignored."

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