Aaron West, The Triplicate

Commerce may be stifled, they say, by divided highway

A Caltrans highway safety construction project that caught County Board members and local business owners off guard has supervisors calling a timeout until they can get more details.

The supervisors at their meeting on Tuesday voted to send Caltrans a cease and desist letter regarding a planned island, crosswalk and traffic signal - referred to by Caltrans as a Pedestrian Hybrid Beacon - for Highway 101 after a local business owner brought up economic and drainage concerns surrounding the project during the meeting's public comment period. The board also requested that Caltrans present its plan and possible alternatives to it at a future meeting.

"What really bothers me is there was no public comment period," Board Chair David Finigan said after the issue was brought up as an emergency item during the meeting. "(The project) lacks logic, planning and it flies in the face of economic development in this community."

The project was given high priority as a state safety project in response to recent vehicle collisions as well as pedestrian injuries and fatalities on the highway. It would see an 80-foot-long median built in the turn lane between Burtschell Road and Washington Boulevard on Highway 101. Also a traffic signal that will remain dark until a pedestrian presses a button to cross the street is set to be installed, as well as bulb-outs, or curb extensions, thatextend the sidewalks on both sides of the highway 5 feet in order to make pedestrians more visible to traffic. A second, similar project is also planned for south of town because of safety concerns. Construction for that project has not yet begun.

According to a Caltrans collision analysis report that studied accident history on the 1.58-mile stretch of highway over a 5-year time period between 2006 and 2010, there have been 36 collisions, which resulted in one fatality, 15 injuries and 20 instances of property damage. Four of those collisions, including the one that resulted in a fatality, involved vehicles hitting pedestrians.

"Before it was considered a traffic calming project, but when you reach a threshold of so many injuries and fatalities like this it moves into a safety project realm," Del Norte Transportation Commission Director Tamera Leighton said. "What (Caltrans) is doing is taking care of a very high incidence of injury at a specific location."

Before the project became a safety project, it was overseen by the Del Norte Transportation Commission, Leighton said.

However, Chris and Sabina Renner, who own Renner Petroleum and the Patriot Service Station on Highway 101, said during the meeting's public comment period that the project in its current form, which essentially eliminates the turning lane in front of their gas station, will make it difficult for vehicles to turn into businesses on both sides of the highway, as well as create a drainage problem in the area. The curb extensions will also take away two of the semi-truck parking spaces at the Patriot Service Station and parking at Alisa's Custom Coffee across the highway. Alisa Short, who owns the coffee shop, wasn't immediately available for comment.

"I appreciate their effort to put in a crosswalk, but I don't really appreciate their effort to stop traffic, inhibit traffic into our facility, and mess up the drainage - we already have a rain problem anyway," Chris said.

"It will literally cut business in half," Sabina Renner said at the meeting. "It's hard enough to stay in business as it is."

The Renners, who emphasized that they don't have a problem with a safety project in the area and acknowledged that one is needed, said that beyond the economic and drainage problems, they were also bothered by how project was sprung on them without any warning.

"Nobody knocked on the door, nobody called me, nobody did anything," Chris Renner said. "Monday morning this contract crew shows up and paints some lines there and starts parking all the equipment on our property. Come to find out there's a major project."

Also, the Renners pointed out that a project like this might be a better fit a little farther down the highway where people staying at Shangri-La RV Park tend to cross the road.

"Where people are crossing at Shangri-La - they're not going to walk up and cross over," Sabina said. "They didn't really do their background. We could have told them that (Shangri-La) is where you need to do this."

For their part, Caltrans emphasizes the safety aspects of the project, pointing to the number of collisions and injuries since 2006. Additionally, David Morgan, chief of traffic safety for Caltrans District 1, said that this project had been in the works for four years and all businesses in the area, as well as the city and county, had been notified.

"The fact of the matter is that this project has been approved in Del Norte County for four years," Morgan said. "It's been approved under the local transportation commission and been through multiple public hearings. It's not too much of a surprise when the county itself has been talking about it for the last four years."

Leighton confirmed that statement, pointing to various public meetings and presentations, beginning in 2009, in which the project had been discussed, including one on Jan. 9 where it had been affirmed as a top priority. Leighton also said that a couple years ago, when the plan was in the development stage, she spent a day going to businesses that would be affected to let them know.

While the Renners and the county supervisors acknowledged that they were aware a project had been in the works, they said that the project in this form and specific location was what caught them by surprise.

"Caltrans made a presentation a couple years ago and said they said it would have no impact," Finigan said before the supervisors voted to send the cease and desist letter. "This board has never seen this project."

As of Friday afternoon, Morgan said Caltrans had yet to receive the letter, and until it did, construction would continue as planned. He said that if Caltrans did receive a letter then management would consider what to do next.

"We have not received a cease and desist letter," Morgan said. "At this point the status of the project is ongoing and it is not on hold. You will see construction there next week."

Reach Aaron West at awest@triplicate.com.