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Lights Out

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet Staff
Saturday September 14, 2002

Two years ago, Berkeley received a $450,000 state grant to install two sets of traffic lights along Telegraph Avenue and make several other street improvements. Today, those lights sit dark, covered with yellow caution tape. 

Delays in awarding the installation contract and routing power to the lights, located at the Russell and Stuart street corners, have played a role.  

But the real stumbling block has been a complicated, shifting debate over traffic, bike lanes, student safety and neighborhood politics. 

The city applied for the state’s “Safe Routes to School” grant in 2000, hoping that the traffic lights would protect children crossing Telegraph Avenue on their way to Willard Middle School on Stuart Street and LeConte Elementary School on Russell Street. 

But early this year, neighbors got wind of the plans, raised a series of objections and condemned the city for failing to include them in the plan to install lights.  

“The neighborhood was almost entirely left out of the loop,” said Wim-Kees van Hout, a Derby Street resident who has been active on the issue. 

In April, City Council directed the transportation department to finish installing the lights, but prohibited staff from switching them on until the completion of a thorough public process. 

In a pair of public meetings in August, run by the city’s dispute resolution service, neighbors aired a series of competing concerns.  

Some Russell and Stuart Street residents worried that traffic lights, replacing the existing stop signs, would turn their streets into major thoroughfares, with cars racing to catch green lights. 

A plan to install “right turn only” signs, advocates argued, would divert cars off Russell and Stuart Streets and eliminate the thoroughfare concern.  

But another set of residents worried that “right turn only signs” would simply push traffic onto other neighborhood streets. 

Throw in concerns about bicyclists’ safety, raised by the Bicycle-Friendly Berkeley Coalition, and the thicket of interests and clashing personalities became almost unmanageable. 

But in recent weeks, van Hout said, the neighbors, school safety advocates and bicyclists, after much hard work, reached consensus on a signaling plan for the traffic lights. 

The plan includes, among other things, flashing yellow lights that convert to double yellow and then red, and a separate signaling system for bicyclists and pedestrians. 

Van Hout said the agreement marks a major milestone in the process. 

“It is almost unheard of in Berkeley city politics that you have a coalition like we have now of groups that were at such loggerheads,” he said. 

But Assistant City Manager for Transportation Peter Hillier questioned the depth of neighborhood support for the “consensus” plan and argued that it poses significant public safety risks. 

“It’s confusing and it’s complicated,” Hillier said. “Because it’s complicated and confusing, people will do unpredictable things. If people do things that are unpredictable, that creates potential safety problems.” 

But van Hout argues that the double yellow system has had success at several San Francisco intersections and that a public information campaign, combined with the continued presence of a crossing guard at Stuart Street, could work to acclimate residents to the proposed signaling system. 

Hillier said van Hout’s proposed public education campaign is “unrealistic” and warned that accidents could happen while residents acclimate to the proposed system. 

Hillier raises his concerns about the neighborhood plan and details the latest city proposal, which includes a more conventional signaling plan, in a Sept. 11 letter to area residents that should hit mailboxes in the coming days.  

City officials and neighbors will discuss the competing plans in a Sept. 25 meeting at Willard Middle School, and staff plans to make a final recommendation to City Council in October. 

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes the traffic lights, said there is “a lot of room for compromise” between the city and neighborhood plans, and urged a quick resolution. 

“I’m opposed to spending another year or two debating the specifics,” said Worthington. “I think we have a responsibility to the safety of the kids and the whole community (to turn the lights on).” 

But George Rose, a sixth-grade teacher at Willard who has long been an advocate for the lights, worries that any neighbors who do not get their way will go City Council and seek to further delay the process. 

“May main concern is how politicized this process has become,” he said. “It’s kind of sad when kids are at stake.”