News

Tonight: Menlo Park council reviews traffic measures near Ravenswood rail crossing

Also: The plan for bike lanes and pedestrian paths on Chilco Street

After a 35-year-old woman died when a bullet train struck her SUV at the Ravenswood Avenue railroad crossing in Menlo Park in February 2015, the city tried a number of measures to see if it could improve safety at the complicated location where the Alma Street intersection and crosswalks are near the tracks.

On Tuesday, Feb. 23, the Menlo Park City Council may act on a staff recommendation to maintain the measures – including a temporary median along Ravenswood Avenue from the tracks to Noel Drive – until a more permanent solution is considered, such as "grade separation" that would run Ravenswood either under or above the tracks.

Here is a link to the staff report for the meeting.

The measures were installed in June 2015 with the intent to try them for six months.

A key objective was to reduce the incidence of vehicles being stopped or stuck on the tracks due to traffic backups, which rail agencies call "fouling" the tracks.

After the trial started, data showed that the number of "fouling" incidents spiked in July 2015. In September, when the city removed a barrier that prevented eastbound Ravenswood Avenue traffic from turning right on Alma Street, the number of fouling incidents for eastbound traffic on Ravenswood dropped sharply to a level lower than before the trial started.

Over the course of the trial, several modifications were made: the median barricade along Ravenswood Avenue was lengthened to reduce cut-through traffic on Noel Drive, and signals were modified and "No U-Turn" signs installed at the Ravenswood Avenue and Laurel Street intersection.

The city also installed green shared-lane markings for bikes and vehicles on Ravenswood Avenue between El Camino Real and Noel Drive and wayfinding signs around the Civic Center/Burgess Park campus.

Emergency response

Chief Harold Schapelhouman of Menlo Park Fire Protection District said the district accepts the proposed modifications if the city acknowledges that they will slow emergency fire vehicles traveling westbound on Ravenswood Avenue because the vehicles can be obstructed by cars with nowhere to yield or be passed. The option of crossing over and traveling against the eastbound flow of traffic can be dangerous, he said.

Chief Schapelhouman stressed that Ravenswood Avenue is a "Primary Emergency Response Route" and noted that the fire district was the primary emergency responder to the February 2015 train-SUV collision that killed the 35-year-old woman driver at the Ravenswood crossing.

He said he appreciated the city manager reaching out to him early in the process of deciding what to do at this location. But he said he was "disappointed" that the fire district was not mentioned in the final report or analysis. "This trend," he said, "continues to concern me."

In response, Nikki Nagaya, the city's transportation manager, said, "the median installation is designed to be completely mountable by emergency vehicles (police and fire), so as to limit any impacts on response times.

Criticisms

The trial measures have faced criticism, including from Scott Norton and Allison Allen, who own and manage AXIS Personal Trainers, located at 550 Ravenswood Ave. near Alma Street. The median barrier makes it more difficult for customers and staff to access the building.

Mr. Norton expressed skepticism about the validity of the data in the report, noting it was gathered on just two days during the trial period. He pointed out that more accidents have occurred on Ravenswood Avenue at Alma since the median was installed.

"We saw one little boy get hit by a car a few months ago. Luckily he did not suffer life-threatening injuries," he wrote in an email to the council. "But are we OK with taking the risk that the next kid will not be so lucky?"

Linda Alvares, who calls herself a "frequent motorist" on Ravenswood Avenue, emailed the council: "The median strip was installed to make travel safer for both motorists and pedestrians, but it has done just the opposite."

Grade separation

Ultimately, the report says, the safest option is to build a grade separation, with Ravenswood Avenue running either above or under the tracks. City staff expects to return to the council March 1 with a proposal to award a contract to a consulting firm to study the project. The study is expected to take a year to complete.

Until then, the city's transportation staff recommends leaving the barriers up, with a few modifications, including redoing the striping at Alma Street/Ravenswood Avenue intersection to add yield lines and making permanent a no U-turn sign near Noel Drive and the rail crossing.

Other business: Chilco Street

The council also plans to consider Tuesday a set of pedestrian and bicycle improvements on Chilco Street.

In October 2013, two Menlo Park residents were struck and killed by a drunken driver while walking in the bike lane of Chilco Street.

Safety concerns on the Chilco Street corridor were recently raised in an email Menlo Park resident Sheryl Bims wrote to the Menlo Park City Council. "The area in which they (the couple who was killed) were walking does not have a sidewalk and residents regularly walk or jog in that bike lane," she said. "Many cyclists agree that the lane is narrow, dangerous and has a blind curve. Why is it the case that our city has done nothing to improve safety along that route?"

The council will look at plans to install sidewalks, expand bike lanes and add street lighting to Chilco Street, in a three-phase project, with most of the costs paid by Facebook.

The first phase would address the straight section of Chilco Street between the bay-facing side of the Dumbarton tracks to the start of the street's curve (see photo). That step would install concrete curb separators for bike lanes, maintain the southbound bike lanes, add a pedestrian path, and install temporary street lighting. That segment could be scheduled for completion in May.

The second phase, slated for completion in the summer 2016, would add a separated bike path in both directions on Chilco Street starting on the curve of the street to the Chilco-Constitution Drive intersection. The project would add a 5-foot pedestrian path with landscaping on the eastbound side of Chilco Street and install new permanent street lighting.

The remaining stretch of Chilco Street, between Constitution Drive and Bayfront Expressway, is scheduled for pedestrian and bike upgrades when the Menlo Gateway hotel project is built. That is expected to be completed by the end of the year, the report said.

In the third phase, pedestrian and bike improvements on Chilco Street would address the stretch between the Chilco Street-Terminal Avenue and where it crosses the railroad right-of-way. Segments of that area are controlled by Samtrans and the California Public Utilities Commission, so it would take longer to coordinate construction, but the plan would be to install a sidewalk on the west side of the railroad tracks, on land outside of those agencies' control, and then work with the two agencies to complete the rest within six to eight months, the report said.

A report by the city arborist identified 79 heritage trees and 34 non-heritage trees that would need to be removed for the project. Trees would be replaced at a 2:1 ratio for heritage trees in good health and 1:1 for trees in fair or poor health.

The council meeting will be held Tuesday, Feb. 23, starting at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at 701 Laurel St. in the Menlo Park Civic Center.

View the agenda or watch the meeting online.

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