Depending on who is talking, Palo Alto's lane-reduction experiment at Arastradero Road is either making the busy segment safer for students, pedestrians and bicyclists or saddling morning drivers with hair-raising traffic jams.
The community debate over the Arastradero re-striping project, which has been in effect for about a year, bubbled up at the Wednesday night meeting of the Planning and Transportation Commission, at which time the commission agreed to extend the experiment for another year. The commission voted 6-0, with Susan Fineberg absent, to support a staff recommendation to keep the project going until summer 2012 and to re-examine its traffic impacts next June.
The project has been in the works since 2003, when the City Council directed staff to prepare a new plan for the Charleston-Arastradero Road Corridor -- a busy stretch that stretches between Highway 101 and Interstate 280. The first segment, which extends along Charleston Road from Fabian Way to Alma Street, saw major lane modifications in 2006. The council decided to make the lane reductions permanent in 2008.
The second phase, which involves a stretch of Arastradero between El Camino Real and Gunn High School, took effect last August. It involved reducing the lane configuration along Arastradero from four lanes to three, with dedicated left-turn lanes in each direction and an expanded crosswalk at Clemo Avenue. Another modification, a new traffic signal at the intersection of Arastradero and Coulombe Drive, is scheduled to take effect Thursday morning, said Jaime Rodriguez, the city's chief transportation official.
Planning Director Curtis Williams said city officials focused on this particular corridor because of a wave of dense new developments that popped up in south Palo Alto over the past decade. These include the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life on Charleston Road, Arbor Real on El Camino Real, and several large multi-family developments on East Meadow Drive, including Echelon and Vantage.
Williams said the proximity of these projects to the corridor has prompted city officials to consider new ways to accommodate the extra traffic. At the same time, city officials hope to make conditions safer for students at Gunn and other schools along and around the corridor, including Terman Middle School and Juana Briones Elementary School.
"As we know, there's continued development potential along that corridor that makes it even more critical that we look for ways to resolve the existing and potential conflicts at the corridor," Williams said.
The project has received a mixed response from the public, with some area residents claiming that the new configuration is creating confusion and road rage, while others saying it is providing needed safety improvements. Representatives from both camps addressed the commission Wednesday and urged members to halt the experiment immediately, to extend it or to make it permanent.
Barron Park resident Doug Moran criticized the project for not paying sufficient attention to the "road rage" caused by the new lane configuration and told the commission that "driver problems are worse than before." John Elman, who lives on Hubbartt Drive next to Arastradero, said the new lane configuration has slowed traffic and forced drivers to rely more on residential side streets.
"The darn thing is a mess and I hope you listen to people who object to this," Elman said.
But the majority of the speakers said they support the new setup and urged the commission to extend the trial. Philip Malese, who lives on Arastradero and whose children attended Gunn and Terman, said the road previously resembled a highway, with drivers regularly exceeding the speed limit. The new configuration is making things safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, he said.
"I found the current configuration has done what it promised -- it made Arastradero seem less like a freeway where people from one end or another go as fast as they can and made it more conducive to walking and biking," Melese said.
Don Anderson, who has lived near Arastradero for 25 years, agreed and said the road changes have eliminated the "freeway psychology" along the busy stretch.
"The pedestrian now looks like he or she wants to cross Arastradero," Anderson said. "People tend to notice them, slow down and stop."
The commission agreed that it is too soon to determine the impact of the project, particularly given its evolving nature. Gunn High is scheduled to delay its start time from 7:55 a.m. to 8:25 a.m. in the fall, a shift expected to improve traffic conditions by creating staggered starting times at the various schools along the corridor. Rodriguez said he expects Gunn's new bell schedule to have a "significant" impact on traffic conditions. The new traffic signal at Coulombe, which will include a dedicated left-turn arrow, is also expected to make things better for drivers.
Given the ongoing uncertainties and impending changes, the commission agreed that the project should be extended.
"There are some things that still need to be accomplished or finished before we can adequately evaluate this," Vice Chair Lee Lippert said.
Commissioner Daniel Garber also said the project deserves further study. The new changes, he said, reflect the values of the Palo Alto community, which he said is increasingly tilting toward walking and biking.
"This isn't a project that's being foisted on our community," Garber said. "It is a trial and it has errors and as a result it's structured in a way that we can address these errors, study them further and work to correct them every time."