While the governing board of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District agreed on June 20 to pay half the cost of two pedestrian-activated stoplights near its Menlo Park fire station on Middlefield Road, coming up with the money may have been the easy part.
Local residents asked the fire district to help make walking and bicycling safer in Menlo Park by adding two push-button-activated stoplights on Middlefield Road near Linfield Drive and Santa Monica Avenue. They got exactly what they asked for at the Tuesday night fire board meeting.
The board voted unanimously to provide up to $175,000 for the lights, and even authorized paying Menlo Park's half of the cost up front in return for the city's promise to repay the fire district in the next fiscal year.
District officials said they like the plan because it would also allow those operating fire vehicles to control the lights, turning them red to ease the vehicle's way in and out of the 300 Middlefield Road station.
"I'm for anything that's going to keep not only bicyclists but kids safe," said board member Rob Silano, himself a frequent cyclist.
However, major hurdles remain before new lights will stop any traffic. Menlo Park Assistant City Manager Chip Taylor said on June 21 that the city has just heard about the proposal. Before the idea can even be presented to the City Council – which would need to approve further study and analysis – city staff will need to gather preliminary information, including how much the streets are used by bicyclists and pedestrians in that area.
Such data could be hard to obtain in the summer, Mr. Taylor said, but the city might have some similar numbers from previous studies.
In addition to approving more study of the project, the City Council would have to give the project priority over other projects already in the city's work program, he said, to get the research underway.
With more information in hand, including a look at whether it fits in with Menlo Park's bicycle and pedestrian routes, and a review by the Complete Streets Commission, the City Council could give the project the go-ahead.
Preparing engineering drawings would probably take three to four months, Mr. Taylor said, before the project could be put out to bid and built.
In Atherton, where pedestrian-controlled stoplights at El Camino Real and Almendral Avenue were approved by the Atherton council in February 2015, they were not put into operation until August 2016. All the work was not finished until that October.
Atherton officials had asked for the project to be fast-tracked, but did have the additional step of having to pass plans through Caltrans for approval because El Camino is a state highway.
The fire district paid for half of that project, which cost just over $290,000, because it can control the stoplight to help its vehicles get on and off Almendral Avenue to its station there.
Parents for Safe Routes
Residents who are part of the Parents for Safe Routes group want to have two pedestrian-activated stop lights on Middlefield Road at Linfield Drive and at Santa Monica Avenue in Menlo Park. They want the lights, which would be dark until activated, to be connected so that both turn red simultaneously, allowing bicyclists, walkers and fire trucks, time to go from one of the two cross streets to the other.
Jen Wolosin, a Menlo Park parent of two elementary school children, started the group in January after trying to find safer ways for kids to get to school. The group now has more than 300 supporters, she said.
Safe routes for bikes and walkers don't just help students, but the entire community she said. "We really want to take everyone in this community along on our journey," she said, and create something "that outlives just one parent and one generation."
When streets aren't safe to ride or walk on, more people use their cars, which makes the streets even less safe, she said. "We're stressed, our kids are stressed, everybody in the city is stressed," she said.
David Lehmann, who has lived in Menlo Park for 40 years, said he was hit by a car on Middlefield Road making a left turn near where they want one of the lights. "My helmet was broken in five places," he said, and he spent two days in intensive care at Stanford. "It's absolutely not safe to assume cars will stop" at the lighted crosswalk now at the intersection, he said.
Bill Kirsch, the chair of Menlo Park's Complete Streets Commission, said that traffic congestion has become so bad that "I don't see any other way for this city to go forward" except to find ways to get people out of their cars by creating safe places for people to walk and ride.
Chief Harold Schapelhouman warned the residents that they still have a lot of work to do. "We're not in charge of engineering. We're not in charge of the roadway," he said.
Board member Rex Ianson said: "I don't think it will be as easy to work with Menlo Park as it was with Atherton."
The district will also look at the possibility of adding such lights near its other stations. Chief Schapelhouman said that such a light could probably be installed near its station on Chilco Street in Menlo Park, and could possibly be installed near its downtown Menlo Park station on Oak Grove Avenue.