North Berkeley’s major east-west thoroughfare is one step closer to shrinking in half for motorists.
On Wednesday the city’s Transportation Commission unanimously backed a proposal to re-engineer the lower portion of Marin Avenue to slow traffic and improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.
Under the plan, backed by traffic engineers in both Albany and Berkeley, Marin from Stannage Avenue east to The Alameda would be scaled back from four lanes of traffic to two lanes, with a center turning lane and bicycle lanes on both sides of the street.
If the city councils in both Berkeley and Albany approve the plan, Marin Avenue could be redrawn by the end of the summer for a one-year trial period, said Berkeley Transportation Planner Heath Maddox. Berkeley’s share of the project cost would be about $41,000. The source of the funding has not yet been identified.
The proposal is the culmination of a seven-year drive by Marin Avenue neighbors, primarily those in Albany, to calm traffic on the avenue.
Originally designed as a grand approach to a proposed Capitol building, back when Berkeley had designs on being the seat of state government, Marin Avenue now serves as the main artery for commuters from the Berkeley hills to Interstate-80.
With lanes of traffic just 10 feet wide—the minimum width permitted in California—and few bicycle and pedestrian amenities, proponents of the plan say Marin is one of Berkeley’s most dangerous streets and is especially risky for children who attend two elementary schools within blocks of the avenue.
“When you see a child or an elderly person try to cross it just makes you shake,” said Gary Amado, a neighbor whose two sons were both struck by cars on the street. Neither sustained serious injuries
Last June, Berkeley resident Thomas Bowen was killed crossing the street outside his home at Marin and Modoc Avenue.
From 2001 through 2003, there were 114 collisions on the section of the avenue encompassed by the plan. The figures are comparable to the statewide average of collisions on similar thoroughfares, according to a report commissioned by Berkeley and Albany from the environmental firm of Design Community & Environment (DCE) and the transit engineering firm Fehr & Pierce.
Albany Police Chief Greg Bone, who is backing the plan, has reported that a six-month police operation to ticket speeders resulted in only a 0.4 mph reduction in speeds on the avenue with a 25 mph speed limit. The average speed on the avenue is 31 mph.
About 16 North Berkeley and Albany residents were evenly divided on the plan at a public hearing before the Transportation Commission.
Zelda Bronstein, the president of the nearby Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association, blamed the low turnout at the meeting on the city’s failure to send notices to residents beyond the 750 who live on or within one block from the avenue. She said she did not know enough about the plan to comment on it.
“Nobody knew about it,” said Bronstein, who wasn’t able to attend the meeting because of a District 5 city council candidates’ forum scheduled for the same time. She said she was further angered to learn that letters she and others had written on the proposal never made it to transportation commissioners or to those attending the meeting.
Rather than give commissioners all the letters on the subject, the Transportation Department opted to provide them with a summary instead, said Maddox.
At the public hearing, opponents of the plan argued that the avenue posed no unique threats to pedestrians and cyclists and that reducing the number of traffic lanes could exacerbate dangers by redirecting motorists to winding side-streets and bringing traffic on Marin to a standstill during rush hour.
But the traffic report forecast no such hardships.
The average rush-hour trip down Marin would increase by about 80 seconds, and reduce average speeds from the 31 mph to 26 mph, which is not enough of a disincentive to push motorists onto side-streets, said Sam Tabibnia, a traffic engineer with Fehr & Pierce. The firm concluded that the projected impacts were not significant enough to require a more extensive environmental review.
Neighbors opposed to the plan challenged the study’s findings. “There is no way you can say that people won’t take the side-streets,” said Raymond Chamberlin at the hearing.
Opponents predicted stop and go traffic on Marin that would result in more air pollution and dangerous intersection crossings. They also faulted the study for failing to adequately consider the impact of a new Target store and the expansion of Albany Village on traffic, as well as failing to identify measurable standards to judge the success of the plan after a one-year trial period.
Creating those standards could require a new round of consultants, said Cherry Chaicharn, an Albany transportation planner.
The study did take into account the new Target planned to rise just north of the Berkeley border beside I-80 and expansion of Albany Village, UC Berkeley’s family housing community on San Pablo Avenue close to the Marin intersection, but concluded neither project would have a major impact on Marin.
The study found that residents of Albany Village would likely use public transportation or commute by car against the flow of rush hour traffic and that the Target would not add many trips on Marin because residents already use the avenue to get to shops.
Albany and Berkeley began working in tandem on the proposal two years ago. Maddox, who oversees the city’s bicycle boulevard program, said the proposal adheres to the city’s General Plan, which calls for calming traffic and promoting cycling as a means of transportation.
Several years ago the city reduced the number of traffic lanes on Marin, to one in each direction, from the traffic circle at Sutter Street to The Alameda. If Berkeley chooses not approve the current plan and Albany decides to move ahead, motorists traveling westbound on Marin would have to merge from two lanes to one at the Albany border at Tulare Avenue.
Marin is not the only major thoroughfare in Berkeley that could be reduced to two lanes of automobile traffic. AC Transit has a plan to put an express bus route on Telegraph Avenue, limiting access for cars.
One successful example of reducing traffic lanes, mentioned by Tabibnia at the public hearing, is Valencia Street in San Francisco. Seven years ago the street was converted from four lanes of car traffic to two lanes, a center turning lane and two lanes for cyclists. Traffic moves reasonably well on the street, he said, but unlike Marin, Valencia is part of a traffic grid with straight streets to the east and west that absorb much of the neighborhood’s automobile traffic.›