Seventeen residents came before the San Luis Obispo City Council to voice their support of a proposed change to Johnson Avenue, citing its high collision history as one of the reasons they deemed the road to be dangerous in its existing state. Four community members expressed their dissent, saying that gridlock traffic may result from the proposed plan. The road reconfiguration was approved in a 5-0 vote.
It was the second time this agenda item appeared before the council. A vote was sent to residents living between San Luis Drive and Marsh Street and to the north and south of Johnson Avenue in 2010, which asked if they supported or opposed the proposed road reconfiguration plan. Seventy-two percent of the votes were in favor of the proposal, but after criticism from community members, the council decided to take a second look at the issue. Some residents worried that the new plan, which includes a lane reduction, would cause gridlock traffic. Former mayor Dave Romero was among the dissenters.
Currently, there are two lanes of traffic through the underpass from Johnson toward downtown. The left lane turns into a mandatory left-turn lane at Pismo Street, and is what officials call a “lane trap.”
The alterations will reduce the number of lanes on Johnson, relocate a left-turn lane, add a left-turn lane and improve bike lanes. The new plan will also decrease the number of lanes through the underpass to one lane and will move the mandatory left-turn lane to San Luis Drive. A second left-turn lane will be added from San Luis Drive onto Johnson Avenue.
The project includes construction on bike lanes as well. A bike lane will be added to complete the westbound connection on Johnson Avenue and will improve the eastbound bike lane at Buchon Street said Jake Hudson, traffic operations manager for the City of San Luis Obispo Public Works.
Safety was the primary focus of public comment at the council meeting, bicyclists’ safety in particular.
“I routinely ride my bike to Scolari’s and businesses along Johnson Avenue,” said Jim Woolf, a resident near Johnson Avenue.
“In the three years I’ve been there, I’ve ridden easily away from downtown on Johnson Avenue dozens of times, and the reason is that there are bike lanes. But in this same amount of time, I think I can remember only once having ridden the opposite direction, and the reason is it just makes me nervous in those areas. There’s two big curves. Cars are moving quickly. It’s steep, and it’s hard to be seen.”
The Pismo-Buchon Streets area is the second-ranked collision location in the city with approximately 90 accidents occurring in the area since 1999. The majority of crashes are caused by vehicles turning left from Buchon Street onto Johnson Avenue. Accidents occur frequently when drivers try to merge out of the mandatory left turn lane and into traffic. Seventy-five percent of those collisions could be prevented by the lane reduction and the change of the left-turn lane location in the new road configuration plan, Hudson said.
In addition to solely vehicular accidents, six percent of all collisions involved cyclists, Hudson said. Barry Rands, a resident of the Meadow Park area, said he had concerns regarding the safety of his children who commute via bicycle.
“I have two high school sons who ride their bikes every day to school,” he said. “Some of the stories that they tell me about some of the close calls that they’ve had over in that area on Johnson make me very nervous as a parent.”
Rands was not the only nervous parent present at the city council meeting. Many of the speakers commented on the danger that the traffic posed to families with young children who are living in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“This is a dangerous situation as it stands right now,” said Sarah Ritter, resident and mother. “It’s difficult to cross Pismo with small children. Parents really want to feel that the city is moving towards creating a safer space for parents and children to move around in the city and to get to school, and this is an opportunity to make that happen.”
Fellow resident David Kirkendall agreed.
“If you’re a parent of an active child in the neighborhood, it’s a dangerous situation,” he said. “If you’re one of the six people who have found a car in their front yard or their house, it’s more than a dangerous place to live.”
Amidst the 17 supporters of the plan, four people voiced criticisms about the new configuration. Former mayor Dave Romero was one such resident who stated concerns about the project’s implementation.
He said “the changes proposed by staff are excessive and will create more harm than good” by causing gridlock during peak traffic hours. Romero said Johnson Avenue will become too congested if the two lanes are reduced to one.
His opinions were met with booing and grumbles of “Come on!” and “Time’s up!” from disapproving audience members. The council ultimately voted unanimously to approve the changes. All of the changes will be made only in paint, so that the reconfiguration can be undone if it stalls the flow of traffic, Hudson said.
Johnson Avenue was scheduled to be repaved and repainted prior to the vote. Hudson said the new project will have no fiscal impact, because the cost of repainting and repaving the road will be the same regardless of the road’s configuration. Construction is projected to begin next month.