After more than two years of working to make Belmont’s main thoroughfare safer for bicyclists, pedestrians and vehicles to share, the City Council reviewed the Ralston Avenue Corridor Study for the first time Tuesday and requested more public outreach before approving nearly $8.5 million in recommended repairs and improvements.
For pedestrians, the conceptual study recommends repairing and widening sidewalks, installing new traffic signals and crosswalks and increasing crossing times. Vehicle improvements would include adding traffic calming measures and extending turn lanes. With bicyclists in mind, suggestions include creating bike lanes within portions of the corridor and signs for alternate bike routes.
“This is a very difficult issue for many people because it serves up to 38,000 cars a day,” said Councilman Eric Reed. “But I think this is about as good as a balanced plan you’re going to get.”
Over the course of three community workshops, a Parks and Recreation meeting and a citizen-initiated online petition, concerns have primarily revolved around wanting a continuous bike lane and slower speed limits.
Ralston Avenue’s bike path is segmented and some were initially adamant about seeing it continuous, but the study concluded that would entail losing a lane of traffic, said consultant Mark Spencer, principal planner with W-Trans. The study provides for a continuous path, however not entirely on Ralston Avenue; instead using a detour by enhancing the current path through Twin Pines Park, Spencer said.
The goal of the study is “to create better access and mobility for each user that is safer from one end of Ralston to the other,” Spencer said. “But it is a balance and there are trade-offs with each element of the plan.”
Ralston Avenue is diverse and well traversed as it’s the only street in the small town that goes from east to west connecting Highway 101 to State Route 92 and Interstate 280. The thoroughfare frequently backs up during peak traffic hours as it provides access to downtown, multiple schools, a few churches, senior housing complexes and parks.
Add irregular speeds, a steep incline, sectioned bike lanes and narrow sidewalks and many commuters say traversing Ralston Avenue is dangerous.
Bicycles, and speed
Kevin Sullivan, an avid biker and a former Parks and Recreation commissioner, said he is thrilled people are passionate about riding, but added cooperation is what makes bicycling safe.
“We all know Ralston is a very challenging problem for many of us throughout the day. It creates a lot of emotions and challenges,” Sullivan said. “Because of [the study’s] overall plan, it helps all users, even if not everybody gets everything they want.”
But Mike Swire, a Belmont commuter who started an online petition with 720 signatures, said the community wants slower speed limits and more attention on bicyclists and pedestrians. Bike lanes throughout Ralston Avenue are possible but instead the current recommendations force bikers on detours through narrow back roads, Swire said.
“I disagree that bike lanes will be difficult. One, they could narrow lanes to slow traffic and create space for bike lanes and two, they could also use the grass buffers that they’ve designed for a bike lane or shoulder instead. So options exist, but the political willpower doesn’t,” Swire said.
But some members who signed the petition did so to express safety concerns, not to support a continuous bike path at the expense of a lane of traffic, said Huan Phan, a Belmont resident and bicyclist.
The study touches on bike, pedestrian and vehicle lanes; but commuter and resident Valerie Dohrenwend thinks the study overlooked a prime solution to enhancing safety.
“Changing the speed limit to 35 mph on Ralston Avenue between Alameda and Highway 92 would be a simple and most importantly, cost-effective way to encourage safety for both pedestrians and bicyclists on Ralston Avenue,” Dohrenwend said.
From 2010 to 2013, there was an average of six collisions a month on Ralston Avenue but, in 2013, that number jumped to about 10 a month and 37 percent of those are speed related, Spencer said.
These statistics clearly justify lowering speed limits, Swire said.
“I think there’s a couple of key gaps [in the study]. First and foremost, the study does nothing to address the primary problem, which is excessive speed. The study showed that the accident rate is two times the state average for similar roads. On Ralston, and that speed is the number one cause of those accidents and yet the study did nothing to address the 45 plus mph speeds we currently see on Ralston,” Swire said.
With increasing community interest and the hefty price tag associated with repairs, councilmen David Braunstein and Charles Stone want to see further community outreach prior to taking action.
“Ralston impacts everyone in Belmont, so what I would like to see is to take the show on the road a little bit and take it so some people that haven’t provided feedback [can],” Braunstein said.
Stone said he’s frustrated with accusations that the council doesn’t care about bicyclists and wants to give others opportunities to weigh in.
“I’d like to see a little more outreach if we can, maybe one more community meeting. There’s folks who are just becoming aware of this and that’s unfortunate,” Stone said.
The study breaks Ralston Avenue into four segments. The first is from Highway 101 to El Camino Real, the second from El Camino Real to South Road, the third from South Road to Alameda de las Pulgas and the fourth spanning from Alameda de las Pulgas to State Route 92. The costs for each section differs with the South Road to Alameda de las Pulgas portion estimated at around $4.6 million to implement all recommendations, according to a city staff report.
With up to $8.5 million in repairs, Mayor Warren Lieberman requested the consultants to break down what improvements the city could expect based on various costs.
City staff continues to work on the study and will hold another community meeting in the next month or so, said Public Works Director Afshin Oskoui. It will also prioritize and price improvements before returning to the council. As it is a conceptual study and will eventually function like a master plan, actual construction would go through a design process involving more community outreach, Oskoui said. The city will also need to procure financing and grants before breaking ground.
There are no future meetings or hearings currently scheduled. For more information or to provide feedback online, visit ralstonavenuecorridorstudy.org.