By Sandy Brundage | Almanac Staff Writer
After Menlo Park installed barriers to limit turns at the Ravenswood Avenue and Alma Street intersection, some drivers apparently lost it.
Kicking off a six-month trial, the city during the week of June 2 installed a temporary median from the Ravenswood Avenue railroad crossing to the Alma Street crosswalk, along with a curb extension to block left turns from northbound Alma Street onto Ravenswood Avenue. Right turns from Ravenswood to head south on Alma Street are also blocked.
Some drivers appeared to regard the barriers blocking right turns on to southbound Alma Street as a personal challenge, calling for dodging cones, barricades and pedestrians trying to cross the street and driving the wrong way into the northbound lane.
Others treated the at-grade railroad tracks at the intersection as a great spot to pause or change direction.
"A gray minivan heading south on Alma came to a stop at Ravenswood," one witness told the Almanac. "While the driver's intentions could not be known, it was pretty clear that the intent was to turn east (left) on to Ravenswood and that the new structures made that impossible. The minivan sat there for maybe 60 seconds, perhaps waiting for traffic, then quietly turned right onto Ravenswood, started across the Caltrain tracks, turned south and followed the tracks for a bit in between the crossing gates, then turned left again at Ravenswood to head east."
In case this isn't clear:
"Those are really not safe maneuvers to do," said Nikki Nagaya, the city's transportation manager. "It puts everyone at risk, whether you're walking or biking or driving. There's a lot of kids and families using the crosswalks. We just ask for everybody's patience and to keep everybody's safety in mind."
The Menlo Park Police Department was busy during the first week after the barriers went up. Between June 2 and June 10, officers handed out:
• Seven tickets for failing to obey traffic signs.
• Five tickets for failing to yield to pedestrians.
• Four tickets for driving on the wrong side of the road.
• Two tickets for failing to stop at the railroad crossing and/or stopping on the tracks.
• Two tickets for crossing the double yellow lines on the road.
• As well as a few tickets for driving while talking on a cellphone, expired registration and missing license plates.
The extra enforcement attention at the intersection is expected to continue. "It's an expensive ticket and includes points on your license," Ms. Nagaya said. "It's not something we want to see a lot of people getting."
The city is tweaking the barriers to discourage the stunt driving. The work crew extended the barrier blocking off southbound Alma to make right turns from Ravenswood harder, and lengthened the median running along the center of Ravenswood down past Alma Lane to eliminate drivers using that side street as a bypass to the turn restrictions.
The trial changes came about after a 35-year-old woman died on Feb. 23 when a bullet train struck her westbound SUV at the Ravenswood Avenue railroad crossing.
The Ravenswood crossing has seen trains clip cars on the tracks twice before, but the Feb. 23, 2015, crash was the first fatality, according to Caltrain's data. A train clipped the rear of a car in April 2012; both passengers survived. In November 2014 a train knocked the bumper off a car, with no one injured.
Disgruntled drivers are asking why the city decided to block right turns onto southbound Alma Street when that's the most direct route to the public library and gym. The crosswalks are the real problem, some said, as pedestrians can unexpectedly cause traffic to back up on to the railroad tracks, and anyway, the fatal accident in February had nothing to do with that right turn. So why not move the crosswalks, they asked.
Echoing the frustrations of many, former councilman John Boyle in an email to the city wrote: "So to get to the gym parking lot (or library parking or baseball/soccer parking, etc.) I now have to drive all the way around on Laurel to Burgess to Alma and back up toward Ravenswood?"
He said the changes add driving time, frustration and traffic, not to mention confusion for anyone unfamiliar with alternate routes, and that the real issue is the crosswalk on Ravenswood Avenue, "i.e. traffic that is going STRAIGHT, not the traffic turning right. The death on the tracks was truly tragic, but I ask you to reconsider this over-reaction and, in my opinion, ill-conceived 'solution.'"
Ms. Nagaya explained the rationale behind the changes. "We've had five incidents at the Ravenswood crossing in the last 10 years," she said. "Luckily most haven't been fatal. But we have also had 15 vehicle-pedestrian collisions at the Alma and Ravenswood intersection. It's more than just the rail crossing, although that's the primary concern."
When the city evaluated video data from Caltrain as well as its own recordings of the intersection, the staff found that traffic heading eastbound on Ravenswood Avenue led to a lot of near misses as vehicles "fouled the tracks" i.e. got stuck sitting on the railroad tracks.
"That happens much more frequently in the eastbound direction due to three causes vehicles turning right on to Alma, the pedestrian crossing at Ravenswood and the pedestrian crossing at Alma," Ms. Nagaya said.
The city opted to test a couple quick solutions, in the form of turn restrictions, while continuing to evaluate whether the crosswalks should be relocated, she said. Moving the crosswalks involves pulling up all the lights that indicate when the crossing is in use, which costs a lot more than the $12,000 spent to date on restricting the intersection, and also entails a lot more public education.
"If we move the crosswalk to Noel, for example, and we don't make provisions to guide pedestrians there as opposed to where they cross today, we'd see people continuing to cross at the current location anyway," the transportation manager said.
Community outreach remains an ongoing effort. Caltrain has been promoting its rail safety campaign during the month of June. The city of Menlo Park is evaluating whether to create web-based surveys to collect community feedback about the trial changes, according to Ms. Nagaya. People can currently pass along comments by contacting the transportation division at (650) 330-6770 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More permanent changes are on the horizon. The city is also studying options for designing a separation between the road and the railroad tracks; the $750,000 study is expected to take at least 18 months.