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Santa Rosa panel floats redesign for dangerous stretch of road

Santa Rosa is looking to revamp a stretch of Stony Point Road bisected by Highway 12 in a bid to provide more protection for cyclists, a move that would follow a string of deaths that underscored the area’s status as one of the most treacherous in the city for cyclists and pedestrians.

A package of new bike paths, pedestrian crossings, curb expansions and lane adjustments is in the cards for Stony Point Road from Occidental Road to the Joe Rodota Trail — the heart of a half-mile highly trafficked stretch between West Third Street and Sebastopol Road that includes two highway on-ramps and two exits.

The area has been highly dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians. In one seven-week span of 2018, three people on foot or bike were fatally struck along Stony Point Road near Highway 12.

They included Sidney Falbo, a 20-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student on her way to class. On Thursday, cyclist Wayne Morris trained his camera on a memorial to Falbo that sits close to where she was struck and killed by a truck, at the point were the Joe Rodota Trail crosses six lanes of Stony Point Road.

Morris, 82, said that cycling at his age is a great way to keep his legs in shape. But while taking the trail from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa five weeks ago, he was badly shaken up when he was struck in the Stony Point crosswalk.

“I was waiting to cross on the light. It changed, I got up on the pedal to go across and bang, this lady hit me,” Morris said. “I hit the ground and cracked some ribs and my clavicle.”

The dangers of that stretch of road are called out in Santa Rosa’s latest bicycle and pedestrian safety master plan, adopted in early 2019. It’s one of only three traffic corridors in the city labeled as a “high-injury network” for both those on foot and bike.

The Press Democrat highlighted the 2018 deaths and dangers in the area in a June 2019 story that noted it accounted for 10% of all fatal bike and pedestrian crashes in the city between 2009 and 2018, according to collision data compiled by UC Berkeley researchers. Only two other corridors — the blocks where Mendocino and College avenues meet and a roughly 1,500-foot stretch of Santa Rosa Avenue near Court Road and Powderhorn Avenue — had as many deaths reported over the same period.

The loved ones of crash victims and local advocates said two years ago that the city was not moving fast enough in the wake of the tragedies to address the area’s known hazards, including the warren of highway ramps that intersect with Stony Point Road, which is at least four lanes wide throughout the corridor.

The most perilous half-mile stretch is bracketed by the Oliver's Market grocery store on the north end and the Stony Point Plaza shopping center and Joe Rodota Trail on the south, with Highway 12 running through the middle below an overpass.

Tony Falbo, the father of Sidney Falbo, said he was glad to hear about the proposed changes to the corridor, including a straighter crosswalk and a bigger curb at the intersection where his daughter was hit and killed.

But it’s not enough, he said. He called for the city to create an an exclusive crossing phase for pedestrians and cyclists at the intersection of the trail and Stony Point Road.

"It’s got to be made safer,“ said Falbo, a mortgage banker who lives in Windsor. ”If cars have a green light, they’re going to go. At dangerous intersections like that one, they have to do crosswalks-only.“

Santa Rosa would consider an exclusive pedestrian crossing phase for Joe Rodota Trail users, Rob Sprinkle, the city’s deputy director for traffic engineering, said at a Thursday advisory board meeting. That move is not yet confirmed to be a part of the plan for Stony Point Road; a similar crossing exists further to the east along the trail at Dutton Avenue.

In mid-2019, then-Mayor Tom Schwedhelm insisted the city was not ignoring the issue.

“I'm sorry that people are thinking that we aren't moving fast enough,” he said at the time, adding, “When does government move fast enough?”

Falbo’s death, as well as safety issues with the corridor previously flagged in a city plan, helped galvanize the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board to make improvements along Stony Point Road its highest priority, said Elizabeth Ridlington, the board’s vice chair. The board did so in fall 2019, according to city staff.

“The current proposed plan does some great things,” Ridlington said. Installing barriers to protect bike lanes and expanding the size of curbs to slow down turning vehicles will make a big difference, she said.

Still, she noted, it would take state action to lower the 35 mph speed limit in the area, and more work will be needed to improve safety at all of the corridor’s intersections and to remind drivers exiting the highway that they’re now on city streets.

“A single set of road renovations isn’t going to fully solve the problem,” she said.

Mayor Chris Rogers reiterated that Santa Rosa’s goal is zero automobile-caused bicycle fatalities and that the Stony Point Road segment is a top priority. Work to improve dangerous corridors, including the addition of protected bike lanes, would not only increase safety but assist the city’s efforts to fight climate change, he said.

“People aren’t going to ride their bike if they don’t feel safe, plain and simple,” Rogers said.

Rogers acknowledged that the project’s progress would depend on financing, but he thought its ties to public safety, transportation and climate action could make it a contender for various funding sources. He also noted that voters in November passed a countywide transportation sales tax extension, which is set to generate $3.1 million annually for bikeway projects.

“I would think this would be a very competitive project for this funding,” Rogers said.

The city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board met online Thursday to discuss details of a preliminary redesign.

The initial plan, assembled by Santa Rosa-based consultant W-Trans, aims to increase the number of people walking and riding bikes along Stony Point Road while simultaneously curbing injuries and fatal crashes in the area.

It would do so by making driving lanes narrower and expanding the size of curbs to slow vehicles while adding clearer striping and physical dividers between vehicles and cyclists.

“The intention is to create a condition that is sort of less open pavement than there is now to create slower speed conditions in that corridor,” said Steve Weinberger, a W-Trans founder and principal.

Traffic survey data indicate that most drivers travel just above the speed limit in the the area, at around 37 mph, with about 15% of drivers clocked as speeders, officials said.

The redesign contemplates the creation of a new, two-way bike lane on the east side of Stony Point Road that would be elevated and separated from the street. Another alternative would be keeping the two existing one-way bike lanes on each side of the road while adding physical dividers to keep cars out of bike lanes and vice versa.

In addition to eliminating one of the two right turn lanes for westbound drivers exiting Highway 12, the plan would create a second left-turn lane for southbound traffic on Stony Point heading east onto Highway 12. Doing so, in theory, would allow the road to “hold" more vehicles before traffic backs up, allowing more time for people on foot or on bike to cross where the Joe Rodota Trail meets the street.

That trail intersection is particularly problematic for cyclists using the trail, said Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. It’s “the most challenging place where I’ve almost gotten creamed and watched other people almost gotten creamed.”

The initial redesign would fundamentally reshape that intersection. The “porkchop” island on the east side of Stony Point at the entrance to eastbound Highway 12 would be eliminated, making for a straighter, shorter and hopefully safer crossing, and bigger curbs on both sides of the road would slow down vehicles entering or exiting the highway.

Board members gave generally favorable feedback about the proposal and raised questions about the plan that Weinberger said he and his team would factor into the plan. It is set to come back before the board in May.

The city has not developed a solid cost estimate for the full scope of the project but has budgeted $100,000 for low-cost items such as potential striping changes, according to city staff. That work could began as soon as the upcoming summer.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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