Erring on the side of caution for pedestrians seeking safe passage across Central Expressway, Mountain View City Council members voted Tuesday night to get rid of left-turn lanes for traffic heading north out of downtown.
By a narrow 4-3 margin, the council agreed on plans that would reconfigure northbound Castro Street as it approaches Central, add a bike lane and another through lane in lieu of the two left-turn lanes, which city staffers warn have been an intractable safety problem that's bound to get worse.
The idea won the support of Mayor Lenny Siegel and council members Pat Showalter, Chris Clark and Ken Rosenberg. Council members John McAlister, Margaret Abe-Koga and Lisa Matichak voted against the proposal, raising concerns about diverting traffic onto neighborhood streets and questioning the need for the $1.7 million project.
The conflict lies in the way traffic is funneled past the tracks to make way for incoming trains. As a train approaches the intersection, vehicles heading onto westbound Central Expressway are abruptly given the green light to proceed directly toward pedestrians who were given the signal to cross the street just moments before. That leaves about 60 pedestrians "in conflict" with 148 left-turning vehicles during the busiest morning hours, according to a staff report.
But with recent housing development now complete on the corner of Moffett Boulevard and Central, and Caltrain's future electrification project likely to bring more trains through the corridor, the number of pedestrians at risk of being hit is only going to increase.
Getting rid of the left-turn lanes would solve the problem, but wouldn't be without its own consequences. Recent counts by the city show 1,936 vehicles use Castro to get onto westbound Central Expressway each day, and there are few alternative routes to get onto the expressway north toward Palo Alto. Traffic studies show that most of the drivers would opt to take Shoreline Boulevard instead, with 44 percent of the vehicles likely taking Villa Street as an alternate route.
The proposal won the support of the Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the Downtown Committee, but couldn't muster majority support from council members on the Council Transportation Committee (CTC) in June of last year or February this year. Despite the weak support from elected officials prior to the May 15 meeting, traffic engineers were "unable to identify any workable options that provide the same benefit to pedestrians crossing the expressway" without axing the left-turn lanes, according to the staff report.
Rosenberg supported the changes, arguing that preserving the left-turn lanes with full knowledge that they pose a threat to pedestrian safety felt like a huge liability. He preferred the city taking action now, rather than discussing options and doing nothing at the risk of someone being hit.
"I'm going to err on the side of safety and support the staff recommendation," he said.
Showalter backed the idea, pointing out that the electrification project is going to exacerbate the problem by increasing the frequency of trains through the downtown station. She said the project would be a prudent and proactive way of dealing with a conflict between cars and pedestrians at the busy intersection.
"This is a way to sort of get in line, to fix that expected reduction in service that's going to happen when the increase from electrification comes," she said. "We do want more trains, but it is going to make this intersection worse."
In the long term, city officials are planning to close vehicle traffic onto Castro Street at the intersection altogether, rerouting cars onto Evelyn Avenue and providing bicyclists and pedestrians with an underground crossing into downtown Mountain View. The city hired a traffic engineering firm to design the controversial plan, allocating $1.5 million toward it earlier this year.
But Mayor Lenny Siegel, the sole supporter of the plan from the CTC, said the near-term safety improvements will likely have a lengthy lifespan of their own. Closing off Castro at the tracks could take between five and 10 years, according to city staff, and bicyclists and pedestrians are seeking safety upgrades now.
"We don't know how long it's going to take us to build the ramp from Evelyn and the underpass at the tracks," Siegel said. "I'm hoping we can do that quickly, but I've never known us to do anything quickly."
Abe-Koga said she worried that getting rid of the left-turn lanes would make it increasingly challenging for vehicles to get onto Central Expressway, a major thoroughfare, and instead push drivers onto surface streets. She cautioned that the decision isn't happening in a vacuum, and that past decisions like removing the slip lane for right turns from Moffett Boulevard onto Central would have a compounding effect on traffic patterns.
Despite assurances by city traffic engineer Sayed Fakhry that traffic would not noticeably worsen on nearby streets in Old Mountain View, McAlister said his gut feeling is that the data doesn't reflect the "true impact," and that it could worsen backed-up traffic along Villa and Bryant streets.
"You're going to put them through some more neighborhoods," he said.
One of the alternatives in the staff report suggested eliminating just one of the left-turn lanes, as offering a sort of compromising between the two options. But city staffers conceded that the conflict between pedestrians and vehicles would still exist, and there would be no room in the configuration for a bike lane without backing up through traffic at the light.
Clark said he was hoping to take the "happy middle," but in this case a compromise would just make things worse -- the safety problem would persist and traffic would back up into downtown. He said he wasn't too concerned about cut-through traffic onto nearby roads like Dana and Villa streets, and that two through lanes could actually improve congestion in the area.
"On balance, I think that plus the safety makes it worth losing two left turn lanes, as painful as it is," he said.
Less controversial were multiple upgrades for bike and pedestrian access through the intersection, independent of the removal of the left-turn lanes. Those plans include the removal of the free right-turn lanes onto Castro and Moffett from Central Expressway, replacing them with wider sidewalks to improve safety and visibility of pedestrians and reduce traffic speeds, according to the staff report. These modifications were approved by a 7-0 vote from council members.
The city set aside $1.7 million for the intersection project, most of which comes from community benefit funding paid by developer Merlone Geier.