Divided by speeding cars, Half Moon Bay debates options for making life safer along Highway 1

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Doreen and Frank Garrity can see the rush of traffic on Highway 1 from the sidewalk outside their hilltop home.

They and other residents of eastern Half Moon Bay are reminded every day that the two-lane roadway, California’s major coastal artery, bisects their lives. Without a traffic signal nearby, and with no sidewalks or pedestrian paths on their side of the road, the Garritys and neighbors face a dilemma: how to safely navigate chores on foot.

Walking on the highway is “absolutely not allowed” in their household, Doreen Garrity said. To reach grocery stores, shops and Half Moon Bay’s downtown, residents like her must either drive, cross the highway on foot or walk a stretch of Highway 1 on an unprotected shoulder.

Her neighbor, Pamela Fisher, said many residents prefer to take a detour to a signalized intersection rather than risk the shorter walk. “I have adult neighbors who will get on a bike and ride a mile north to cross because they refuse to take a left onto the highway,” Fisher said. “You are really taking your life in your hands.”

Twenty-five of the 131 injury accidents on Highway 1 in San Mateo County occurred in Half Moon Bay, according to 2011 data collected by the Transportation Injury Mapping System, or TIMS, from UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center. One of these incidents involved a pedestrian and two involved bicyclists. More recent figures were not available.

“We have issues that need to be addressed immediately, on an emergency basis,” said Fisher, who has called on the city to erect a temporary safety barrier for eastside Highway 1 pedestrians.

Half Moon Bay planners have revised the city’s master transportation policy document — known as the Circulation Element — with the goal of creating a “blueprint” for safety efforts and transportation alternatives. They also want to make the city safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The document calls for “complete streets” that emphasize safety features for both drivers and pedestrians. Additionally, it calls for extensions of existing pedestrian trails and the construction of a “multi-use trail” to the east of Highway 1, to connect now-isolated neighborhoods.

Officials said this document will set policy for the city’s transportation planners for at least the next 20 years before the next revision. “Pedestrian safety was of primary importance” to planners, said Ross Guehring, public information officer for Half Moon Bay.

As projects move beyond the planning stage, “the necessary funding must be secured in order to create the crossings,” Guehring said. He noted that past pedestrian improvements have been funded largely through grants to the city.

Yet, no planning seems to come easily along the coast, said several residents, who point to local projects that have ended up in court. In 2012, the city agreed to pay $295,000 to settle a lawsuit with a local resident over improper coastal maintenance. In 2007, a long-running legal fight over Beachwood, development land turned into wetlands by the city, resulted in litigation costs that nearly shut down the city government.

Fisher can speak from experience. She became embroiled in a neighborhood fight — and subsequent lawsuit with the local school district — over the proposed construction of baseball field lights near her home. “To me, there needs to be an alternative method to getting problems resolved, without the back-biting, without the rumor-mongering, without all the drama that goes on,” she said.

Several residents see traffic lights as the latest battleground in the safety debate. Half Moon Bay has traffic lights at six Highway 1 intersections citywide, according to a report commissioned by the city. Planners are proposing an additional two signals with crosswalks, as part of a series of measures to make Highway 1 safer for pedestrians.

One of the two proposed intersections, at Terrace Avenue, has become a neighborhood battle. This would be the traffic light closest to Frank and Doreen Garrity’s home, yet neither they nor their neighbors expect to see it soon. “No one seems to know” when, or if, the traffic light will be built, Doreen Garrity said.

The controversy stems from residents’ objections to the placement of the light; some worry that Terrace Avenue will become a feeder for major traffic into a proposed development in the foothills adjacent to the neighborhood, and lead to rear-end collisions. Ultimately, the city approved Ailanto Properties, the developer, to begin construction and still has plans for a Terrace traffic light.

Guehring, the city’s spokesman, said Half Moon Bay leaders have heard “various viewpoints” on the traffic light, including residents who “strongly support” the project, and Caltrans has agreed the intersection is appropriate for a signal.

He also said the city has reached an agreement with Ailanto. “The developer will pay traffic impact fees when the project moves forward, which will mitigate certain impacts of increased traffic from the development,” Guehring said.

The plan to construct the light, as well as a proposed sidewalk along a portion of the east side of Highway 1, is still “in the initial stages,” according to Guehring.

Debates like these are familiar to Patric Bo Jonsson, one of Half Moon Bay’s volunteer Planning Commission members. They shouldn’t overshadow the main need, which is to update the city’s dated design, he said.

“Half Moon Bay was designed back when walking a city was not a big priority. Using bicycles, walking, and using sidewalks and trails is our highest priority,” Jonsson said. “We know that’s the way of the future.”

For her part, Fisher is concerned civic divisiveness will rear its head again. “Often, nothing happens here until somebody gets sued,” she said. “That’s what we don’t want to happen on Highway 1. Now that we have kids from three neighborhoods walking the highway, we need to come up with a plan and implement it immediately.”

Guehring said the city is committed to fixing the pedestrian puzzle.

Veterans of highway planning efforts say that while they can be lengthy and contentious, such processes can also produce results. Len Erickson, who lives to the north of Half Moon Bay in Montara, helped lead a Highway 1 “citizen’s committee” that advised San Mateo County on safety issues in 2011. “This is a long-haul process. It took 10 years just to put marks in the sand,” he said.

Stuart Grunow, an architect from Half Moon Bay who briefly sat on the Highway 1 committee, agrees, but is optimistic. “Highway 1 is our main street,” he said. “I wouldn’t relegate any of those concerns about pedestrian safety. Now, pedestrians are made to do the most ludicrous things to facilitate the ease of a car.”

See below for a map with the current signalized Highway 1 intersections in Half Moon Bay, as well as the proposed signalized intersections.

View Half Moon Bay Pedestrian Safety Map in a larger map

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