New stoplight is on in Atherton

Bicyclists and pedestrians can activate stoplight on El Camino at Almendral

A long-awaited pedestrian-activated stoplight on El Camino Real at Almendral Avenue in Atherton, where a pedestrian was fatally injured in 2014, was turned on Aug. 17, and was soon being used by both bicyclists and pedestrians.

Early users included a group of local officials and neighbors who had just finished cutting a ceremonial ribbon to inaugurate the long-awaited signal. As the group of about 10 people waited to try out the new crosswalk Aug. 17, three cars ran the red light in front of them.

"People need to be careful" when using the light, while motorists get used to it, said Atherton Councilman Rick DeGolia.

The light is dark until activated, when it then flashes yellow, turns steady yellow, then red. Before going dark again, the signal flashes red, at which point motorists can proceed after stopping if no one is in the crosswalk.

Pedestrians will see a walk/don't walk signal as well as a countdown of seconds remaining for crossing.

Atherton's acting police Chief Joe Wade said the department will pay extra attention to the new signal and will issue tickets to anyone running the red light. On Friday, Aug. 26, the department will conduct extra enforcement at the signal to help increase motorist awareness, he said.

"It takes time for people to figure out what's going on," he said. "We'll be out there." He said the department may have pedestrians activate the light and watch for violations.

A ceremonial ribbon cutting for the project was held Aug. 17 at the nearby Menlo Park Fire Protection District's Station 3 on Almendral Avenue. Speakers included Atherton Mayor Elizabeth Lewis, fire district board chair Rob Silano, district Chief Harold Schapelhouman, and Caltrans Deputy District Director Sean Nozzari.

Mr. Silano said he often rides his bike through the Almendral and El Camino intersection. "Without the signal, if you go into the crosswalk, you're a target," he said. He said he had tried out the new light and was very happy with it.

Atherton requested the light after 32-year-old Atherton resident Shahriar Rahimzadeh was fatally injured crossing El Camino at Almendral Avenue in July 2014.

The $350,000 cost of the Almendral light was split by the town of Atherton and the Menlo Park fire district.

The fire district will be able to turn the light red to allow its vehicles to more easily turn left on El Camino from its Almendral fire station.

"Knowing how difficult it is for us to get across El Camino, this is a game-changer for us," Chief Schapelhouman said.

Caltrans' Mr. Nozzari said the agency is responsible for 15,000 miles of highways in California, many of them running through communities. The agency is working to make many of those roads "complete streets" that serve all users, not just motorists, he said.

"As we transform these highways into complete streets, we have to do more things like this," he said. Mr. Nozzari said Caltrans will soon start installing 13 similar stop lights on El Camino in San Mateo County, starting with two more in Atherton.

Caltrans was recently found 90 percent responsible for the 2010 death of Chris Chandler in the Atherton crosswalk at Isabella Avenue and ordered to pay $8.55 million in damages to his family. In 2010 Caltrans was found 50 percent responsible for a collision in a Millbrae crosswalk that left a teenager in a coma. It paid $8 million to her family in that case.

Both crosswalks, like the crosswalk at Almendral, were marked but not controlled by a stop sign or traffic signal. Studies, including some done by Caltrans, have repeatedly shown that such marked uncontrolled crosswalks are more dangerous than unmarked crosswalks.

The town has been asking Caltrans to do something to make El Camino safer since the 2010 crosswalk fatality, and has repeated those requests as a series of serious injuries and fatalities followed in subsequent years.

Caltrans agreed in 2012 to pay for and install two pedestrian-activated stoplights on El Camino at Isabella and Alejandra avenues, but said they wouldn't be installed until 2017. The town took a series of actions to try to speed up the work and agreed to pay for the third light itself in order to get it done more quickly. The light at Almendral will be owned and maintained by Caltrans.

Caltrans said the contract to allow the installation of the two additional Atherton lights, and the 11 others in San Mateo County, was recently signed. Atherton's two signals still won't be operating until 2017, however, Mr. Nozzari said. He said they will probably be completed in about a year.

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