CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE? For Browning Allen, City Hall’s head honcho when it comes to transportation planning, maybe it qualified as a nice-try-but-no-cigar moment. In an effort to bring down the heat at a standing-room-only public hearing last Thursday, Allen cautioned the crowd crammed into City Hall’s Public Works building to debate the traffic dangers looming on Milpas Street, “We deal with scientific engineering analysis. We don’t deal with emotion.” I guess someone forgot to tell that to all the people there wearing white T-shirts bearing the photographic likeness of Sergio Romero, the 15-year-old kid killed last October while trying to cross Milpas Street. Clearly, Guadalupe Romero — Sergio’s bereaved mom — did not get the memo. “I ask you, please; I have two more children,” she said to members of the Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) and the Transportation and Circulation Committee, who’d convened a special joint meeting to hash out competing plans to make Milpas Street a safer place to cross, drive, and bike. “It terrorizes me to think I could lose another child.”
Santa Barbarans, it seems, can argue endlessly over traffic-planning technicalities. That’s because things like curb-extensions are not merely curb extensions; they’re microcosmic battlefields on which critics of the automobile wage holy war with champions of the internal-combustion engine. But every now and then, a cigar is just a cigar, and young Romero’s death seems to offer such a case in point. Sergio’s mom wants a new traffic light installed at Milpas and Ortega streets — where her son was killed. She also wants them installed at Milpas and Yanonali streets. So, too, do members of the Milpas Community Association (MCA), whose members happen to be especially well represented on the NAC board, which — in its previous incarnation — had long been clamoring for action. On the surface, their argument seems pretty compelling. There are 10 major intersections on Milpas above the roundabout. All but two have stoplights. And where those two streets — Ortega and Yanonali — intersect Milpas just happens to be where two pedestrians have been struck and killed by cars in the past 10 years. At least that’s how MCA jefe Sharon Byrne laid it out during a merciful break in last Thursday’s four-hour talk-fest. More flowery was Byrne’s co-conspirator Alan Bleecker, who argued, “The street speaks a dominant language of stoplights.”
Naturally, when traffic engineers get involved, simple things get complicated in a hurry, and whatever you want to do, you discover, can’t be done. In this case, the traffic engineers seem to have a really compelling argument why new traffic signals would actually make the problem worse, not better. Looking over the past 10 years, they point out that pedestrians crossing Milpas have been hit just as frequently at intersections with stoplights as without. There’s no reason to believe the addition of two new stoplights, they argue, will make pedestrians any safer. But they also warn that adding stoplights would actually increase the level of car-on-car violence now occurring at the two intersections, and by a dramatic level. Making this case is traffic engineer Derrick Bailey, a straight-talking pro still new enough to City Hall that none of the feuding factions have been able to uncover any hidden agendas he may secretly harbor. If I heard Bailey correctly, there have been 113 car-on-car crashes at the Milpas intersections served by stoplights over the last 10 years. Seventy-four people were injured. By contrast, there have been just two at the intersections without stoplights. Put another way, you have a far greater chance of getting T-boned driving through a Milpas intersection with a stoplight than one without. Lastly, Bailey suggested that if new stoplights were installed, it would create sufficient congestion to chase cars into the adjoining residential neighborhoods.
Bailey’s boss, Pat Kelly, unveiled what he colorfully called a “cascade of options.” Rather than streetlights, Kelly and Bailey argued, City Hall should install rapidly blinking rectangular yellow light beacons — located on both sides of the street and in the middle, too — that can be activated by pedestrians. There should be refuge “islands” in the middle of the street where pedestrians can wait safely for their moment to cross. And they have also suggested reducing one lane from each side of Milpas between Canon Perdido and Ortega streets. This would create space for wider sidewalks, a wider lane for cars, and even a bike lane. (Milpas lanes, it turns out, are now the skinniest the law allows, which explains why so many cyclists — even hardcore riders — prefer the sidewalks along Milpas to the actual street itself.) This restriping — known in the lingo as a “road diet” — could actually slow down traffic as it careens down the upper slopes of Milpas by the S.B. Bowl. And anything that did that would go a long way to making Milpas safer.
As it stands now, the controversy over red lights or yellow lights remains far from resolved. Both sides have their champions and their arguments. The red-light crowd simply doesn’t believe yellow lights can be as effective. They worry about the loss of on-street parking the yellow-light options entail. And it really bugs them when city officials insist that new stoplights are not technically “warranted” by state and federal traffic-safety-engineering guidelines — and hence less legally defensible should it ever come to that. By the same token, none of the three stoplights City Hall had installed along Cabrillo Boulevard were remotely “warranted,” but they were installed because someone in City Hall wanted them.
Nothing really got resolved last Thursday. It’ll be up to the City Council to decide. And when the councilmembers hash it out sometime this May, there will be no shortage of scientific debates about traffic engineering. But it will also be intensely emotional. Santa Barbaran’s love to argue about traffic. And a really great kid got killed. The good news here is that something just might get done.