Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Children cross the busy Ralston Avenue near the Carlmont Shopping Center in Belmont. The City Council has approved a conceptual plan that outlines improvements for pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles.
After more than a year of studying ways to solve congestion on busy Ralston Avenue, the Belmont City Council approved a conceptual plan Tuesday that outlines more than $8.5 million in improvements to ease traffic and create a safer passage for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Approving the plan didn’t lock any particular project in stone but paved the way for the city to proceed with grant applications.
“I look at this as very much an incremental improvement. ... I can look at the report and there are a lot of recommendations I have concerns about, but I also know we will have fairly substantial discussions as they come,” Mayor Warren Lieberman said, according to a video of Tuesday night’s council meeting. “If we were not to adopt the plan, I think we would also be potentially guilty of letting perfection be the enemy of the good.”
Recommendations for the diverse east to west road that directly connects State Route 92 to Highway 101 with nearby schools and a busy shopping center include items for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.
To account for nearly 40,000 vehicles that take Ralston Avenue daily, consultants suggested adding traffic calming measures such as lights and roundabouts and extending turn lanes. For pedestrians, the city will consider repairing and widening sidewalks, increasing crossing time at lights and crosswalk visibility.
Despite citizens who pushed for a continuous bike lane and lower speed limits, engineers and the council emphasized it wasn’t practical given the layout of the city’s main arterial or legal per the state’s vehicle code.
Building a bike path at the steep incline near State Route 92 would require removing a lane of traffic in each direction, which most who were surveyed said wasn’t acceptable, said consultant Mark Spencer, principal engineer with W-Trans, the city’s consultant on the Ralston Avenue plan. On other segments of the road, a path would require removing parking spaces, which ultimately was not preferred by the community, according to the plan.
Instead, the plan suggests a detour onto Masonic Way between the Caltrain station and western segments of Ralston Avenue. Improvements could include creating dedicated bike paths in certain areas, enhanced directive signs and bicycle detectors that would trigger traffic signals, according to the plan.
Councilman Eric Reed said the city had vast interests to balance. Accounting for an increasing population will likely change over time, he added.
“We’re trying as economically as possible to optimize the road for pedestrians, bicyclists and cars and given the configurations and trying to make all three of those happy, as well as residents and businesses nearby,” Reed said. “I anticipate this is something that the city’s going to struggle with for decades, because it’s only going to grow.”
Public comment at the meeting was generally positive with some still adamant about focusing more on bicyclists and lower speed limits and local businesses and school officials concerned with how the improvements would affect them.
Mary Morrissey, a Carlmont Shopping Center business owner and president of the Chamber of Commerce, said on a conceptual level she thinks the plan is fabulous. But Morrissey said some have reservations about the recommendations and would like the city to install short-term, portable devices to gauge the effects of certain improvements.
“Before you build it, please try to put some temporary measures in place,” Morrissey said. “Because I think there are some causes for concern that we all of a sudden build projects that are then impractical.”
Spencer said installing temporary improvements is becoming a common practice and the council agreed with the suggestion.
Outreach played a major role in the plan’s development, Spencer said. The process included three community workshops and an open house, Parks and Recreation Commission and council study sessions, online forums and phone calls, meetings with the school district, talking with Carlmont Shopping Center businesses and asking for input from the police and fire departments, Spencer said.
“I think that made for a very compelling and much more rounded plan,” Spencer said. “So what we have is very much a community-driven plan.”
Some desired lower speed limits, which the council and Spencer said they couldn’t arbitrarily do.
Since 2009, the California Vehicle Code made regulating speed limits more stringent, Spencer said. There are a variety of factors that go into the determination, including studying at how fast 85 percent of people travel, then there’s a 5 mph wiggle room, concessions for schools and other extenuating circumstances, Spencer said.
Since the city will be adding further traffic calming measures, there is a possibility that slowing down traffic could enable the city to lower speed limits later on, Spencer said.
Councilman Charles Stone stressed there are constraints within which the city must work.
“If I were building Belmont from the ground up, as an urban planner, I certainly would lay a lot out differently and have continuous bike lanes,” Stone said. “But we’re kind of stuck with what we have.”
With myriad conceptual recommendations now in place, staff and consultants will begin refining designs. By approving the conceptual plan, the city is able to compete better for grants and funding, Spencer said.
Depending on which projects the council chooses to do first, it may be eligible for funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or grants specific to schools, bikes or traffic signal timing projects, Spencer said.
On Tuesday, the council approved applying for a $7 million grant, of which the city would contribute about $1 million.
Throughout the meeting, the council and staff stressed the plan is a framework and there will be plenty of opportunities for more community discussion.
Councilwoman Cathy Wright, who was recently appointed, urged everyone to stay involved.
“I think [design specifications] are conversations we can have later down the road,” Wright said. “So I would encourage the community to stay involved and stay active. Because it’s not just a project for the council or the city, it’s like many [citizens] said, a lifeline.”
For more information or to review the Ralston Avenue Corridor Plan visit www.belmont.gov.
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