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Traffic Light Plan Ignites Controversy By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday June 17, 2005

Although they live at what city officials believe to be one of Berkeley’s most harrowing intersections—at least for pedestrians and cyclists—residents around Hillegass and Ashby avenues are fighting a proposed traffic light at the spot. 

More than 40 neighbors have signed a petition urging Caltrans to reject a grant request by the city that would pay for nearly the entire project, said Jonathan Jaffe, who lives on Hillegass. 

“I feel pretty confident it would increase traffic on the street,” he said. He said he feared that a standard traffic signal at the intersection would invite more motorists on Hillegass who could cross Ashby on a green light, rather than waiting for traffic to clear. 

Peter Hillier, the assistant city manager for transportation, said that if the city received the grant, it would likely install a specialty signal that would discourage car traffic on Hillegass. 

The city has sought to install a signal at the intersection since it approved its bicycle boulevard plan in 2000. Hillegass is one of the city’s bicycle boulevards, but cyclists and pedestrians on the street have no signal or stop sign to help them cross the busy Ashby thoroughfare. 

“It’s one of the most dangerous crossings we have,” said David Campbell, a city transportation commissioner and the president of Bicycle Friendly Berkeley. 

Besides concern that a traffic light would draw more motorists to use Hillegass, George Beier, president of the Willard Neighborhood Association, claims city officials approved the grant application without informing residents. 

“The city is piecemealing changes that have big implications for our neighborhood,” Beier said. 

The neighborhood has called for a moratorium on new traffic lights and other transit changes until the city comes up with an area plan approved by the neighborhood group. 

The City Council will vote on a proposal next week from Councilmember Kriss Worthington requiring the city to involve residents on transit changes to the neighborhood. A neighborhood meeting on the signal has been scheduled for June 30. Caltrans is expected to rule on the application after the state passes its budget, scheduled for the end of the month. 

Heath Maddox, a Berkeley Transportation Planner, said the city would plan for the light installation if the grant is passed. “We’re not going to spend scarce time and effort until we know we really have the money for it,” he said. 

The city has not yet performed detailed traffic studies documenting traffic flow or accidents at the intersection, he added. 

The South Campus neighborhood has battled with city officials over traffic lights previously. In 2002, neighborhood leaders and city officials feuded over where to install two new signals. Although neighbors requested signals at Stuart Street and Telegraph Avenue and at Russell Street and Shattuck Avenue, the city put both new lights on Telegraph, one at Stuart and the other at Russell, leaving many residents furious. 

Brier said he feared the proposed signal could escalate into another fight. 

Willard residents say they get the brunt of traffic turning off of Ashby, because the neighborhoods directly to the east and west have barriers to through traffic. If Hillegass has a standard traffic signal, Jaffe feared, more drivers would choose the street as an alternative to College Avenue. 

In February the council applied to Caltrans for a $189,000 grant. The city would pay $21,000 towards the project. Caltrans rejected the application last year, but city officials are hoping for a different decision this time. 

Although tensions over the signal are running high, all sides appear ready to compromise. Bicycle advocates and neighbors said they were open to a pedestrian-operated signal that would turn green for cyclists and walkers crossing Ashby, but force drivers to turn right onto Ashby. 

“We don’t want more traffic on Hillegass either,” Campbell said. 

Maddox said the city and residents would review the options for signals and other modifications that would discourage motorists from using Hillegass. 

“This is a bicycle boulevard. The intent of the signal is to foster through movement of cyclists, not drivers,” he said.