News

Council nixes left turns at Castro train crossing

Difficult intersection leaves pedestrians in harm's way

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.

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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.

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"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.

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Council nixes left turns at Castro train crossing

Difficult intersection leaves pedestrians in harm's way

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Thu, May 17, 2018, 10:47 am

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.

Comments

Emre
The Crossings
on May 17, 2018 at 1:07 pm
Emre, The Crossings
on May 17, 2018 at 1:07 pm

1.7 million to repaint the lanes!


A Talking Cat
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on May 17, 2018 at 1:09 pm
A Talking Cat, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on May 17, 2018 at 1:09 pm

A good plan. Safety is paramount for our increasingly pedestrian-friendly town, and safer bike lanes will be huge. "Don't *drive* down Castro St" should be the motto.


Emre
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on May 17, 2018 at 1:21 pm
Emre, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on May 17, 2018 at 1:21 pm

I imagine there will be signal work needed, as well as skilled electrical.Cranes, cherry pickers, etc. The painting is likely the least of the many tasks involved. What a relief, eh?


biking parent
Registered user
Rex Manor
on May 17, 2018 at 2:33 pm
biking parent, Rex Manor
Registered user
on May 17, 2018 at 2:33 pm

Its nice that the city is fixing an intersection *before* someone loses their life or gets severely injured. I use this intersection as both a driver, biker, and pedestrian. As a driver, I have multiple acceptable alternatives as a ped/biker I have few so I don't have any problem with this change.


SRB
Registered user
St. Francis Acres
on May 17, 2018 at 2:59 pm
SRB, St. Francis Acres
Registered user
on May 17, 2018 at 2:59 pm

It's a sensible decision given it'll take years to close Castro by the tracks. However, why is it funded by community benefits collected in the San Antonio area (Merlone Geier)?


Confused
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on May 17, 2018 at 4:10 pm
Confused, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on May 17, 2018 at 4:10 pm

Perhaps I'm exposing my ignorance here, but why was removing the crosswalk on the northern side of the intersection not an option?

There's a crosswalk on the southern side, as well as north/south crosswalks on both sides of Central. Seems like this would have resolved the safety issue without removing the left turns lanes, minimal downside to pedestrians, and minimal cost to the city...


Rossta
Registered user
Waverly Park
on May 17, 2018 at 5:07 pm
Rossta, Waverly Park
Registered user
on May 17, 2018 at 5:07 pm

I thought this whole crossing was going to be closed? Why are we spending money to reconfigure it when its days area numbered? Closing it obviates the whole problem.

I recently visited Boulder, CO and their Pearl Street is closed to vehicle traffic for about 5 block and it is really nice. Its a very similar setup to our downtown.


frisbee
Registered user
Sylvan Park
on May 17, 2018 at 6:32 pm
frisbee, Sylvan Park
Registered user
on May 17, 2018 at 6:32 pm

Rossta, the article explains that it will take many years to finally close this intersection. I agree closing it is a great solution; all of Castro should be closed but the businesses object because they think they'll lose business. They are wrong -- more people would come to downtown if Castro was a pedestrian walkway with pleasant outside eating areas and no cars and trucks.


Juan
Registered user
Rengstorff Park
on May 17, 2018 at 7:03 pm
Juan, Rengstorff Park
Registered user
on May 17, 2018 at 7:03 pm

There should be a pedestrian underpass at that intersection and one on Rengstorff & Central as well. I have personally witnessed many close calls where pedestrians recklessly race across the street in order to not miss their train.


CA Native
Registered user
Sylvan Park
on May 17, 2018 at 8:43 pm
CA Native, Sylvan Park
Registered user
on May 17, 2018 at 8:43 pm

Hey Confused!
A simple plan like the one you suggested would be too simple. That and it wouldn’t cost as much as the plan they agreed on. Further the bike folks wouldn’t get their new bike lane!
If this was REALLY about pedestrian safety, they would shut down the Right turn lane as well, because the EXACT SAME SCENARIO exists there. But that would never fly... shaking my head.


Common sense
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on May 18, 2018 at 9:04 am
Common sense, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on May 18, 2018 at 9:04 am

frisbee of Sylvan Park wrote: "all of Castro should be closed but the businesses object because they think they'll lose business. They are wrong -- more people would come to downtown if Castro was a pedestrian walkway with pleasant outside eating areas and no cars and trucks."

But you don't know that, though you believe it. The comment above is a very typical sentiment from people who envision Castro like now, just without traffic. I live near the downtown and would hugely benefit if those visions bore out. The problem is, good intentions aren't enough for good outcomes. Closures to make pedestrian zones sometimes work, but sometimes they kill off the business activity for subtle reasons. That's well established and has been pointed out repeatedly in these discussions, with examples, for years.

Businesses are concerned because they have far more at stake than casual online-forum commenters across town, and because it has happened before within living memory. "Castro Street appears quite desolate and bleak in this 1982 photograph of the 200 block. The only people on its narrow brick sidewalks are two souls waiting for a bus. By the 1980s, most shoppers had abandoned downtown for the malls" (Nick Perry's book). "This isn't what I had in mind" will sound pretty lame, if that recurs for reasons you didn't personally forsee.

I'm for good outcomes, not just good intentions. Anyway, Council's current plan, still controversial for the reasons above, doesn't close "all Castro" or even much of it. Just the train-tracks and Central-Expressway crossings.


Greg David
Registered user
Old Mountain View
on May 19, 2018 at 2:49 pm
Greg David, Old Mountain View
Registered user
on May 19, 2018 at 2:49 pm

What doesn't make sense about this so-called safety problem is the fact that even though North Bound Castro gets a green light when a train comes, it is ONLY the light for vehicles that are between the tracks and Central. During the last re-work of this intersection, they changed the flashing red lights that allowed cars to cross the tracks to the area between the tracks and Central to solid red lights. This means, any car that is actually able to take advantage of the green when a train comes had already violated the law by running a red light to get into that position. When they go forward with this new plan we can only hope that common sense will prevail and they will return to the flashing red signals at the tracks. This will allow six vehicles to take advantage of the greens when a train comes AND will allow for "right turn on red" for cars entering East bound Central. This will go along way in alleviating the backup of cars into downtown at peak hours. Now, if we can only get MVPD to more actively enforce the illegal blocking of traffic lanes by Uber/Lyft drivers, especially when they stop at the 100 block crosswalk, we might alleviate a more serious danger of having cars backed up over the tracks when a train comes. I'm amazed we have seen a car vs train collision from this yet. This is all just dreaming though, since every traffic change I have seen in recent history has been indicative of the utter incompetence of our city traffic engineers.


Omar Y.
Registered user
another community
on May 23, 2018 at 6:52 pm
Omar Y., another community
Registered user
on May 23, 2018 at 6:52 pm

Seems odd to me to act before any injuries have happened—a solution in search of a problem. Why couldn't a left green arrow work?


robstar
Registered user
Willowgate
on Jun 8, 2018 at 4:27 pm
robstar, Willowgate
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2018 at 4:27 pm

I'm all for the plan of closing Castro at the tracks altogether and I hope that this near-term expenditure doesn't further delay it or reduce available funding for doing _that_ project as nicely as we can (with good ped/bike access). Specifically, if the rationale for this project is pedestrian safety, couldn't we _start_ with the ped/bike part of the long-term plan? That part doesn't need to wait on a ramp that might never happen, right?


robstar
Registered user
Willowgate
on Jun 8, 2018 at 4:29 pm
robstar, Willowgate
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2018 at 4:29 pm

Incidentally, I'm really not sure that the businesses actually have all that much more "at stake" than nearby homeowners, whose property values could change as much as it would cost some of those businesses to relocate.


robstar
Registered user
Willowgate
on Jun 8, 2018 at 4:45 pm
robstar, Willowgate
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2018 at 4:45 pm

Unfortunately, the two downtown-side access points for the ped/bike underpass appear to be located in the middle of the current street and inside Savvy Cellar, so we would have to close the intersection _before_ opening the underpass:

Web Link


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