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City to move on long-awaited safety improvements for Carlson Corridor

The intersections that connect Carlson Drive with H and J Street in East Sacramento are either a cyclist’s nightmare or a daredevil’s dream. Vehicles whiz by at freeway speeds onto streets with obscured traffic lights. Lanes are confusingly split into three separate sections by raised islands. Cyclists battle for already-narrow lanes against encroaching transit busses. Left turns become a biker’s harrowing tale of the day while even pedestrians find themselves scrambling across streets without the security of crosswalks.

Welcome to the Carlson Corridor.

The Carlson Corridor is a critical crossroad that connects traffic from California State University Sacramento and the American River Trail. The volume of daily traffic combined with the unconventional design of the Corridor has led to numerous close calls and near misses, though not everyone has been so lucky. The corridor has laid claim to the lives of two cyclists and a motorist within the past three years.

After over a year of debate and community discussion, city council members will vote Tuesday on whether to authorize city staff to seek federal grant funding for bike and pedestrian safety improvements to the Corridor, including the addition of left turn traffic signals, new crosswalks and other street design changes.

The process to get to the vote was in large part driven by the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates. After the second cyclist’s death in April of 2011, SABA began researching the Corridor’s design issues and spoke to locals, including the River Park Neighborhood Association, about their concerns. In a few months, SABA produced a set of recommended changes and teamed up with the RPNA to present the plans to city officials in a meeting in May of 2012.

City staff promised to take action, and the wheels began rolling in May of this year, when the city released four preliminary drafts with proposed changes to the intersections that reflected many of SABA’s recommendations.

Jim Brown, director of SABA, notes that much of the necessary construction’s costs will be significant. Still, rather than seeking separate grants for individual phases, Brown feels it would be more sensible for the city to pursue funding which would address all of SABA’s recommendations. “If [the city] is going to go after grant funding, then they might as well go after grant funding for everything they want to do.”

According to Ed Cox, city of Sacramento’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, the city currently has sufficient funds to go ahead with the first part of the plan of adding green paint to existing bicycle lanes – regardless of whether it obtains additional grant funding or not. These changes are supposed to occur sometime later this summer or fall.

The next phase requires heavy construction and the city would need to seek federal funding via Caltrans in order to move forward — hence the vote on Tuesday. If it receives funding, this phase, called “Option B,” would square off Carlson and J Street, add two crosswalks for pedestrians on H and J, and install Sacramento’s first bike boxes, or painted boxes at intersections where bicyclists can congregate ahead of waiting traffic.

Bike boxes in Portland.
Brown would like to see the city seek funding for the additional improvements indicated in the plans, like addressing the confusing eastbound lanes on H Street. The eastbound lanes currently split off twice into three separate narrow lanes with virtually no safe left turning option available to bicyclists. The plans would either alter H street into a simple two-lane street or construct a roundabout on Carlson and H, which Brown believes would resolve the primary issue with any intersection involving motorists and cyclists – high speed traffic.

Although the release of the plans seems to be a step forward, Brown feels that the city has made no indication that improving bike and pedestrian safety on the Corridor is a high priority. According to Brown, when the community first voiced their concerns, officials responded by claiming that the intersections in question have had no record of having an unusual number of collisions or fatalities. However, Brown believes that this is in part due to bicyclists actively avoiding the intersections altogether. “This is a problem for everyone” Brown says. “All you have to do is spend a little time out there to see what a mess it is.”

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