Tensions rise as City Council eyes changes to The Esplanade
Throughout the school year, traffic on The Esplanade is jammed for about 15 minutes every morning while students get dropped off at Chico High School. That’s a major consideration for the city as it studies improvements to Chico’s iconic, tree-lined boulevard.
It’s also a point of contention for City Councilman Andrew Coolidge. During the council’s discussion of the Esplanade Corridor Improvement Study on Tuesday Jan. 19, he asserted that Chico Unified School District, which in recent years completed major construction on Chico High’s campus, hasn’t done its part to alleviate the traffic congestion.
“This situation has been completely exacerbated over the last 30 years by the fact that [CUSD], when they go through the building process in the city of Chico, doesn’t do any plans through the city,” Coolidge said. “They go through the state of California. They’ve completely ignored a lot of the safety conditions.”
Coolidge then urged CUSD to “take responsibility and put in ample drop-off and loading zones on their own property.”
Several representatives from CUSD were in attendance. Kathy Kaiser, vice president of the CUSD board of trustees, explained that the district is required by law to run building plans through the state, not the city. Julie Kistle, director of facilities and construction for CUSD, then refuted that the district hasn’t kept the city abreast of its construction projects.
“I agree with you 100 percent, Mr. Coolidge, about the school’s responsibility for designing pick-up and drop-off areas,” she said. “In fact, we’ve been doing that.” The district worked with the city’s Public Works Department to construct a drop-off easement for Chico High on West Sacramento Avenue, Kistle said, and recently completed a bus drop-off where the staff parking lot used to be. “I respectfully disagree with your assumption that that kind of work isn’t going on behind the scenes.”
Coolidge persisted: “If the facilities were appropriate enough, the cars would go in and out of campus,” he said. “They wouldn’t be sitting on the roads and dropping off students in the middle of the street.”
Eventually, he was abruptly cut off by Mayor Mark Sorensen, so that the meeting could move along.
It’s unusual for a capital project to come before the council this early in the planning process, said Brendan Ottoboni, the city’s director of engineering. Given the community’s love for The Esplanade, however, city staff brought the fledgling proposal forward for vetting. The council was not expected to take action.
Steve Weinberger of W-Trans, an engineering consulting firm hired by the city to improve The Esplanade corridor, has conducted two public workshops and gathered input via two online surveys; W-Trans has received more than 1,000 public comments. On Tuesday, Weinberger made a lengthy presentation, covering survey results as well as favored solutions to the roadway’s woes.
Proposed improvements include widening and adding mini-roundabouts at Lincoln Street and West Sacramento Avenue to alleviate school-related traffic; a separated bike lane; pedestrian signals and ADA-compliant ramps at all crosswalks; a traffic light at West Sacramento Avenue; broader medians; sensors to detect vehicles and change traffic signals accordingly; and two roundabouts where The Esplanade intersects Memorial Way and First Avenue and another at the intersection of Memorial and Oleander.
Based on the surveys, Weinberger says, citizens want to preserve the historic character of the boulevard and its heritage trees.
Another major takeaway: About 80 percent of respondents favored improving bike facilities along The Esplanade.
Currently, the intersections at Memorial Way and First Avenue are among the most dangerous in the city, especially on a bike. The rate of collisions for cyclists at First Avenue is 1 in 800,000, the study shows, compared with 1 in 4.2 million motorists.
Oleander Avenue parallels The Esplanade and is a city-designated bike route. Even given that alternative, cyclists generally ride on The Esplanade, said Janine Rood, executive director of Chico Velo Cycling Club.
“I personally ride The Esplanade on my bike three to six round trips per week,” she said. “I liken it to the Wild West. … It’s difficult for a cyclist to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing out there. It’s very chaotic.”
According to video surveys of the area, 75 percent of cyclists don’t heed stop signs on the frontage roads, and just as many aren’t wearing helmets. That’s why W-Trans is proposing the construction of a separated, two-lane bike path running along the east side of The Esplanade. Such a facility, complete with traffic signals, would make clear what’s expected of cyclists, Weinberger said. Rood added that separated bike paths make cyclists feel safer, encourage more biking and relieve vehicle congestion.
However, members of the council, particularly Sorensen and Councilwoman Tami Ritter, were skeptical of how the protected bike lane would affect motorists.
Dave Chesterman, a retired civil engineer from Livermore, provided a moving argument for improved bike infrastructure. His daughter Kristina was fatally struck by a drunken driver while riding her bike on Nord Avenue in September 2013.
“I believe a wider and better-marked bike lane with reflectors in the street at the Nord location likely would have saved her life,” he said.
Chesterman said safety improvements along The Esplanade and elsewhere around town are needed.
“I know Kristina would want me to do whatever possible to help make it safer for bicyclists in Chico.”