On Thursday, May 16, the Technical Advisory Committee for the San Mateo County City and County Association of Governments (C/CAG) said they were not ready to consider taking El Camino, currently State Route 82, back from Caltrans.
A proposal to study what it would take for Caltrans to relinquish control over El Camino was triggered by the Grand Boulevard Initiative, as one possible option to address the challenge of redesigning a state highway to become an “urban arterial” that safely serves pedestrians, cyclists, and transit, in addition to drivers.
The Grand Boulevard Initiative is a multi-jurisdiction initiative with a large-scale vision to transform El Camino from a vehicle-centric thoroughfare with low-density, auto-centric businesses to a more populated boulevard, with more residential and mixed use developments.
Caltrans needs to modify its rules in order for the street to safely serve purposes in addition to moving cars. Currently, the Grand Boulevard Initiative has a grant to work with Caltrans to develop alternative “Complete Street” designs that work better for populated downtowns and residential areas, using four cities: Daly City, South San Francisco, San Bruno, and San Carlos as pilot cases.
The grant project team is working on a number of proposed design changes to features such as lane width (narrower), curb radius (tighter), and medians (more trees and shrubs closer to the intersection). . These changes allow more room for pedestrians and cyclists, and slow traffic down, improving safety. El Camino had over 3000 collisions between 2007 and 2010, including 10 fatalities, with many intersections showing above average collision rates (see the Grand Boulevard Initiative Existing Conditions Report, pages 67-69).
Rather than going through the painstaking process of working with Caltrans, and implementing exceptions on a case by case basis, another option would be to have the local cities take back the street. The City of San Jose recently took this approach with The Alameda, a continuation of El Camino which has pedestrian-oriented retail supporting the the Shasta/Hanchett neighborhoods. The Shasta/Hanchett community has been leading a “complete streets” transformation of the Alameda, and found that local control made this easier.
But San Mateo County’s engineers were not ready to take this step.
Some engineers at the TAC meeting expressed fundamental doubt about the goals to transform EL Camino “I am not sure all jurisdictions agree with the Grand Boulevard Vision” – said Afshin Oskoui from the City of Belmont.
Larry Patterson, the experienced public works director in San Mateo also expressed skepticism about transforming El Camino. “Are we committed to this vision? Complete Streets will reduce vehicle capacity.”
The impact of complete streets on capacity is counter-intuitive to engineers trained to widen roads and increase speeds. Some studies show that reducing vehicle speeds can increase capacity, and complete streets can ease congestion by reducing short-distance vehicle trips.
Some engineers strongly supported the current efforts to make El Camino safer, and see the ability to get state funding with Caltrans as an advantage. “We have real public health, safety, liability, and ADA (disability access) issues. We can use state money as a tool to get these issues fixed” said Robert Ovadia of Daly City Engineering.
Others were concerned about problems with coordination. Syed Murtuza, Burlingame Engineering, said “Relinquishment is not the answer – fragmentation would create even more problems.
Some suggested a different approach for working with Caltrans. The Grand Boulevard Complete Streets grant project team is considering refinements for the Highway Design Manual that would include alternative options for populated areas. The standard designs used by Caltrans for state highways are focused on moving large volumes of vehicles, and do not consider the roles that roads play in populated areas.
If the changes go in the manual, maybe there is another way to handle this than relinquishment, said Gerry Beaudin, a planner from South San Francisco.
The Technical Advisory Committee’s response was crafted by Larry Patterson, of the City of San Mateo. The Transportation Authority should not yet consider relinquishment until after the city has an adopted plan about the goals for changes on the corridor. The group also agreed to receive a presentation on the Complete Streets pilot program to learn more about what changes are actually being envisioned and planned.
The discussion and debate at the C/CAG Technical Advisory Committee shows that the proposals of the Grand Boulevard Initiative are not yet fully known by the city staff that would be responsible for local implementation, and the goals are not yet fully shared. Tatum Mothershead, Daly City Planning, speculated that a source of skepticism was a divide between planners and engineers. The GBI was developed and fleshed out with planners; engineers may not have all the information, and do not yet have consensus in support of the initiative’s goals.