Four Elementary Schools Get $900,000 Traffic-Safety Grant

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 08, 2009 - 12:27:00 PM

A notorious crossing near South Berkeley’s Malcolm X Elementary School will finally get its due. 

A recent $900,000 CalTrans Safe Routes to School grant to the city of Berkeley for traffic improvements at four Berkeley public elementary schools will ensure that two flashing beacons are installed at Ashby Avenue at Ellis Street to alert drivers and pedestrians. The intersection has been the site of numerous accidents and traffic hazards.  

The grant is part of a $37 million statewide funding package that the city applied for earlier this year. 

Four “No U-Turn” signs will also be installed at Ellis Street.  

The Ashby and Ellis corner has been a source of concern for many community members and parents at Malcolm X for years, who wanted to see city officials do something to enhance traffic flow and improve safety on Ellis and Ashby.  

Visitors at the South Berkeley Senior Center have also complained consistently that the intersection is dangerous, especially for seniors and members of the disabled community, 

Disability rights activist Fred Lupke was killed in 2003 when his wheelchair was struck by a car on Ashby Avenue near the Ellis Street crossing. 

The most recent accident at the crossing involved a Malcolm X kindergartner, who was struck by a truck in January when she darted into the crosswalk on her way to school. The 6-year-old, who was walking to school with her brother, suffered a broken skull and clavicle. 

A slew of pedestrian accidents involving Berkeley public school students last spring led to the district launching a traffic safety campaign along with Alameda County’s Safe Routes to School over the summer. 

The most shocking case was the death, in February, of 5-year-old LeConte Elementary School student Zachary Michael Cruz, who was hit by a welder’s truck while crossing the intersection of Derby and Warring streets on his way to an after-school program at the Clark Kerr Campus. 

Although police did not arrest the driver of the truck for the accident, Zachary’s parents, Frank and Jody Cruz, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court in August against the Berkeley Unified School District, the University of California regents; truck driver John William Martin Sr., and his employer, Ferguson Welding Service in Hayward; school-bus driver Zakiya Green and after-school program employee Zayda Arevalo. 

Cruz’s lawyer Andrew Schwartz told the Daily Planet that Berkeley police concluded their investigation without making a recommendation for criminal prosecution. He said that the case had been forwarded to the district attorney’s office. 

“Whether or not the DA’s office files any charges, we are still going ahead with the lawsuit,” Schwartz said. “It’s not an issue of criminal conduct, it’s an issue of negligent conduct. The reason why the family has filed a lawsuit is because, up to this point, no one has been willing to come forward to accept responsibility for the death of Zachary. The truck driver is not willing to accept responsibility, UC Berkeley is not willing to accept responsibility and the Berkeley Unified School District is not willing to accept responsibility. They all seem to think that the responsibility lies elsewhere.” 

Schwartz said the university’s legal response was to deny the allegations and allege that the fault lies with the other defendants. 

Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but added that the incident, along with a few others, paved the way for heightened traffic-safety awareness in the Berkeley public schools. 

Safe Routes to Schools Director Nora Cody said such lawsuits are not common. Cody said that the traffic-safety campaign has led to increased awareness about road safety among students, with more people walking or taking the school bus every day. 

Cody said that 10 percent of students in Rosa Parks and Thousand Oaks Elementary Schools have stopped driving to school and are instead walking and riding school buses. 

Besides Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Thousand Oaks and Berkeley Arts Magnet have also received the CalTrans grant, and improvements at all four sites include installing new signage, bulb-outs and “No U-turn” signs. 

The short-term improvements will occur before December, and the more permanent improvements will take place over the course of the next two years. 

Safe Routes to School Education Coordinator Susan Silber said that, as a result of the safety campaign with Berkeley Unified, all 11 elementary schools will be taking part in International Walk to School Day Thursday for the first time. 

Berkeley’s Walk and Roll to School Day is part of a larger Walk and Roll to School Safety Campaign, a collaboration between Safe Routes to Schools, the city of Berkeley and the Berkeley Unified School District.  

Silber said that accidents had gone down drastically after the new safety campaign had been launched. 

“But we are not attributing all of it to us; it’s probably a coincidence,” she said. “However, Berkeley Unified is taking traffic safety very seriously now.” 

Silber said that, although many parents had wanted more crossing guards at intersections near elementary schools, the Berkeley City Council had not increased the number because of a budget crunch.