By next spring, bicyclists, pedestrians and fire trucks should all find it easier to negotiate at least one of Atherton's deadly crossings of El Camino Real, if Atherton's plans to install a pedestrian-activated stoplight at Almendral Avenue go as planned.
Atherton's City Council on Sept. 16 approved putting plans out to bid for a pedestrian-activated stoplight that can also be used by fire vehicles and bicycles to get across El Camino Real at Almendral Avenue. The board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District had earlier in the week agreed to pay half the approximately $330,000 cost.
The stoplight will remain dark unless activated by a pedestrian or bicyclist, or remotely by a fire vehicle. Once activated it will go through a yellow and red cycle just as conventional signals do.
The town will put the project out to bid as soon a Caltrans signs off on the encroachment permit needed for the town do work in the state highway's right-of-way.
Atherton has been pressing Caltrans, which has responsibility for El Camino Real, to make safety improvements for years after a number of serious and fatal pedestrian and bicyclist accidents on the state highway. Caltrans agreed to install two pedestrian-activated stoplights on El Camino at Isabella and Alejandra avenues. However, despite political pressure from the town, Caltrans does not plan to install the stoplights until 2017.
When 32-year-old Atherton resident Shahriar Rahimzadeh was fatally injured in July 2014 crossing El Camino at Almendral Avenue, the city decided to try something else: paying for the pedestrian-activated stoplight itself. This time the process is proceeding more quickly.
The town had anticipated the light would cost $330,000; but with the fire district contribution each will pay approximately $165,000. The district has a station on Almendral Avenue and has said it would like to use the signal to allow emergency vehicles to more easily get through the intersection.
Community Services Director Michael Kashiwagi said that if the town receives an encroachment permit from Caltrans within the next month, construction could start in late January or early February and be done by early spring.
At the meeting some council members asked if the design of the light could be slightly modified; but City Attorney William Connors said that changing an industry standard could leave the town with liability.
Mayor Rick DeGolia said he welcomed the chance to actually see safety improved on El Camino, both for bicyclists and pedestrians and fire vehicles. "I think it provides increased safety for our residents," he said. "I don't want to judge what's right and what's wrong. I want to get the thing in there."
Once the light is in place, the town can see if the design should be refined for the other installations, he said.
Council member Mike Lempres agreed. "We should get it done," he said.
Fire Chief Schapelhouman said he had recommended the fire board approve the cost-sharing arrangement because the light "will improve the ability and safety of first responders from Fire Station 3" as well as "improve response times to the community."
Chief Schapelhouman said the district had been exploring safety improvements for the intersection of Almendral and El Camino for more than a decade. Driving fire vehicles from the station across as many as six lanes of traffic on El Camino could be "challenging on certain days and times of the week," he said.
Station 3 is at 32 Almendral Ave., several blocks west of El Camino near Park Avenue.