On Monday, the lights will go on.
For months, two sets of brand new, never-used traffic lights on Telegraph Avenue sat dark, mired in a debate over cars, pedestrian safety and neighborhood politics. But City Council voted Tuesday night to turn on the lights at the corners of Stuart and Russell streets in southeast Berkeley.
The decision came two years after Berkeley won a $450,000 state grant to put the lights and other “traffic calming” measures in place, and two months after a set of lengthy meetings with neighbors over the impact of the lights on local traffic patterns.
Neighbors were generally pleased with the vote to turn on the lights. But now, they’ve raised questions about the plan City Council approved Tuesday to install the other traffic calming measures, like traffic circles, covered by the grant.
City Council decided that if transportation staff wants to put traffic calming measures in place, they must poll neighbors on the affected street and an unspecified number on surrounding streets, and win 65 percent approval before moving forward.
Neighbors are worried that the process could lead to a hodgepodge approach. They predict that only a few streets will approve traffic calming measures, pushing vehicles to other streets where residents have not signed off on a traffic circle or alternative measure.
“We’re stuck with a very piecemeal plan,” said Rolf Bell, a Ward Street resident. “It’s not a good comprehensive approach for the neighborhood.”
Concerns about a hodgepodge approach motivated an alternative plan, though unsuccessful, pushed by Mayor Shirley Dean and City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, requiring transportation staff to canvass all the relevant streets in the neighborhood and then come back to City Council to present a comprehensive plan for approval.
Councilmember Betty Olds, who voted against the alternative, said it would have unnecessarily delayed the process and argued that neighbors who have concerns will come to the council anyhow.
“The neighbors will all know before something goes up and if they have complaints, they can come before council,” she said.
But Worthington argued that the “piecemeal” plan is “pretty certain to engender future conflict” among neighbors.
“The failure to do it as a (comprehensive) plan, I think, will come back to haunt us,” he said.
Funding for the traffic calming measures and the street lights comes from a “Safe Routes to School” grant from the state. Berkeley won the funding two years ago in a push to improve safety for students walking to Willard Middle School on Stuart Street and LeConte Elementary School on Russell Street.
But neighbors got wind of city plans for the traffic lights early this year, raised a series of objections and attacked the city for failing to include residents in the planning process.
In April, City Council directed the transportation department to finish construction on the lights, but prohibited staff from turning them on until completion of a thorough public process.
Three public meetings, mediated by the non-profit Berkeley Dispute Resolution Service, followed in August and September.
In the midst of the process, a group of neighbors came up with an alternative signaling pattern for the Telegraph Avenue lights. But Assistant City Manager for Transportation Peter Hillier rejected the plan, saying it was too unconventional and could lead to accidents.
Derby Street resident Wim-Kees van Hout, who took a lead role in developing the alternative signaling pattern, said he could accept a professional’s judgment about the safety of the neighborhood plan.
But van Hout said he hopes the city, in the wake of the Telegraph Avenue process, learns to include the neighborhood from the start in future traffic projects.
“I really hope that, in the future, the process will be more inclusive,” he said.
George Rose, a sixth-grade teacher at Willard who has long pushed for the traffic lights on Telegraph, welcomed City Council’s decision to turn them on.
“I think that’s a good thing,” he said.