Political leaders call for Caltrans to act on El Camino hazards

Jerry Hill: Caltrans' bureaucracy is 'shameful'

After hearing of the verdict assigning the California Department of Transportation most of the blame for a 2010 death in a crosswalk on El Camino Real in Atherton, local political leaders have vowed to work to make sure Caltrans gives priority to improving El Camino's safety.

Here's what three of them have to say:

Jerry Hill

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) said he finds the history of Caltrans' lack of action on safety problems on El Camino "very troubling." The state transportation agency is a massive bureaucracy when it needs to be more like a "nimble Silicon Valley enterprise," he said. "This bureaucracy is just shameful in this day and age."

"To me, it gets down to prioritization and making safety a significant issue," he said. "We haven't seen that."

Budget and procedures manuals shouldn't take precedence, he said. "Safety needs to pre-empt those things," Sen. Hill said.

He vowed to work for a change.

"I think it's important for me as a legislator to ask the questions and get actively involved in trying to change the culture" in Caltrans, he said.

Multi-million-dollar jury verdicts are "not money well spent," he said. "You can excuse it once, but you can't excuse it twice, multiple times."

Sen. Hill said that he will work with state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), the chair of the Transportation and Housing Committee, to hold hearings or take other actions to change the Caltrans culture. "I'm hoping that we can see quicker action," he said.

The problem, Sen. Hill said, goes far beyond Atherton. "If you look statewide, how many other locations around the state are of a similar nature?" he said.

Caltrans, he says, seems to be acting as if deaths and serious injuries on its roads are "the cost of doing business." "They're acting like we see in some corporations," Sen. Hill said.

"If this is the cost of doing business, that is unacceptable," he said.

Bill Widmer

"Caltrans has been very slow to react up and down the Peninsula," Atherton Councilman Bill Widmer said. "There have been problems in almost every city."

"The state needs to find a way to make El Camino safer and they need to be able to react a little faster when their own studies show" the need for safety improvements, Mr. Widmer said.

"The state and their processes put people at risk," he said. "It's our residents' lives that are at risk."

"A way for them to react faster or give more options is really what is needed."

Mr. Widmer crossed Atherton's stretch of El Camino multiple times on foot while campaigning for re-election in 2012, when a major part of his platform was improving safety on El Camino.

"I'd look and there's no cars, you'd think 'Hey, I can make it,'" he said. "You'd just barely make it. It's scary."

"I can imagine if someone has mobility issues, or isn't paying attention," it's even more dangerous, he said.

Dealing with Caltrans, he said, is "very frustrating, especially when we're talking about the number of years that it's been going on."

Mike Lempres

Like Mr. Widmer, Atherton Cityman Mike Lempres also campaigned on the issue of improving the safety of the state highway. It is still a priority for him, and for the town, he said.

"People have been hurt and people have been killed," he said. "It may be that it takes something like this (jury verdict) to get the full attention of Caltrans and others."

"Hopefully we can get it to where El Camino is a safer street for pedestrians and bicyclists," he said. "Right now it is dominated by automobiles."

Mr. Lempres said he used to walk in some of Atherton's unprotected El Camino crosswalks while walking his dog, but "I stopped doing it because it doesn't feel safe." Now, he said, he goes out of his way to go to the nearest stoplight "because it's just not worth it."

He, too, expressed frustration, calling El Camino "the biggest safety issue in our town and we essentially have no control over it."

Related stories:

Jury: Caltrans 90% responsible for Atherton crosswalk fatality

Atherton repeatedly asked Caltrans to make crossings safer

Jan Chandler: The verdict doesn't bring Chris back

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Like this comment
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 2, 2016 at 12:01 pm

The Chandler verdict was $9.5 million plus legal expenses. The cost of the Almendral beacon was $350K. If Caltrans had any forethought, they would have realized one tragic accident's verdict against them would have paid for all the needed beacons up and down El Camino. That's not even mentioning the lives and injuries saved. Caltrans decision to do nothing makes no sense from a safety nor financial standpoint.

22 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 2, 2016 at 1:03 pm

Unfortunately, Caltrans thinks its entire job is making cars move faster. Pedestrian safety doesn't get addressed unless there are lawsuits. Atherton (and other cities) needs to sue Caltrans to get action on safer streets.

I have my doubts that a single pedestrian crossing light is going to stop pedestrians from getting hit. Cars go way too fast on El Camino and some percentage of them are going to say they didn't see the red light when they run it. Street safety has to start by lowering the speed limit and reconfiguring the road to support a lower speed limit. Why is El Camino 6 lanes wide in Atherton but only 4 lanes wide in Menlo Park, and Menlo Park also has more frequent stop lights? I would like to see El Camino reduced to 4 lanes in Atherton. Make the center median wider and install bike lanes and sidewalks on the sides of the road. That will get drivers to slow down to a safe speed.

2 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 2, 2016 at 4:57 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

"Make the center median wider and install bike lanes and sidewalks on the sides of the road. That will get drivers to slow down to a safe speed."

Yes, to traffic jam speeds a la ECR through Menlo Park.

Studies have repeatedly shown most auto vs ped accidents are the pedestrians' fault. Slowing traffic MAY fix that, but at what cost to the majority of us traveling ECR?

4 people like this
Posted by David Roise
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Aug 2, 2016 at 5:59 pm

(Copy of post made in related story but also relevant here.)

El Camino Real is unfortunately a fine example of a "stroad", a term the Strong Towns organization (see Web Link) has coined to describe a hybrid between a "street" (think Santa Cruz Avenue in downtown Menlo Park) and a "road" (think Foothill Expressway in Los Altos or Central Expressway in Mountain View). See Web Link for a description of stroads and why they should be eliminated, not the least because they are demonstrably dangerous, expensive, and financially unproductive.

I personally would prefer to see El Camino Real become more of a "street", at least in Menlo Park. If Atherton residents would prefer ECR to become more of a "road", they should consider significantly limiting access (for both pedestrians AND cars) and re-engineering the road for expressway speeds. Adding pedestrian beacons without a complete re-design of the stroad to decrease traffic speeds will make absolutely no difference in pedestrian safety. As Strong Towns points out: if you need a sign to tell people to slow down, you designed the street wrong. #SlowTheCars

4 people like this
Posted by street road stroad
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 3, 2016 at 12:28 pm

Regarding street vs road vs stroad...

Interesting point. However, I'd expand on this a bit and suggest that a street can become a stroad due to the configuration in adjacent towns/cities.

For example, one of the issues with Menlo Park's El Camino configuration is that it is at odds with the usage and configurations on both sides: both Atherton's and Palo Alto's configuration of El Camino is clearly as a "road", using the above definition of a road.

Menlo Park can try to make El Camino a "street" all it wants, but it's going to be for naught since both Atherton and Palo Alto use El Camino as "roads".

Like this comment
Posted by Tina
a resident of another community
on Aug 12, 2016 at 1:34 pm

Why was I-280 recently repaved there are far worse roads in the Bay Area that need attention over that stretch of highway. Take I-580 over Altamont Pass there are HUGE potholes there.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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