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 hosted a series of community meetings to see how to improve safety at the complicated stretch near the Alma Street intersection and crosswalks and the Caltrain tracks.
One of the city's main goals 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.
A solution that emerged from those meetings was to install trial median barriers to enforce of the existing turn restrictions during peak traffic hours that were posted but regularly disregarded, explained Menlo Park Transportation Manager Nikki Nagaya. Thus was born a six-month pilot program, which the city approved in June 2015. The pilot installed flexible bollards, or short vertical posts that can be crossed by emergency vehicles, along the median of Ravenswood Avenue between Alma Street and Noel Drive.
With a few minor adjustments, the Menlo Park City Council voted 4-0 (with Councilwoman Carlton absent) on Feb. 23 in favor of keeping the barriers in place until a "grade separation" (which would run Ravenswood Avenue either under or over the Caltrain tracks) is built. The bollards will remain as they currently are installed. The striping near the Alma Street intersection with Ravenswood will be redone to add yield lines. "No U-turn" signs near Noel Drive and at the rail tracks will be made permanent.
Over the course of the trial, the city made changes that it says made the crossing and intersection safer. Data showed that the number of "fouling" incidents on the tracks spiked in July 2015. In September, the city removed barriers that prevented eastbound Ravenswood Avenue traffic from turning right on Alma Street.
After that change, the number of "fouling" incidents for eastbound traffic on Ravenswood dropped to a level lower than before the trial started. It didn't affect fouling by westbound traffic, though, which was the direction Jahyun Jennifer Koo was driving when her car was struck by a train, the incident that initially launched the project. However, only one westbound fouling incident was recorded when the trial's impact was measured.
During the trial, 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.
Chief Harold Schapelhouman of Menlo Park Fire Protection District said the district accepts retaining the median barriers along Ravenswood Avenue if the city acknowledges that they will slow emergency fire vehicles traveling westbound on Ravenswood Avenue such vehicles can be obstructed by cars with nowhere to yield or be passed. The option of crossing over the median 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."
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 barriers make 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 said more accidents have occurred on Ravenswood Avenue at Alma since the median was installed which is true. During the trial, there were seven accidents, compared to three over the same months at the same location in 2014.
However, city staff say, accidents like sideswipes, which increased from zero to four incidents during the trial, are less likely to cause injury than accidents like head-on collisions, which decreased from one incident to zero during the trial. Both years, two minor injuries were reported from accidents on the studied stretch of Ravenswood Avenue.
The council directed city staff to work with Mr. Norton to make sure people can access his building when construction begins at 1020 Alma St. for a three-story office building. Mr. Norton said the construction will likely make access to his business even worse.
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.