How will this help San Marino?
What deadlines are there? Can we just say “no thanks”? Is there a catch? Are we talking with other cities?
Ever since L.A. Metro in December allocated hundreds of millions of tax-generated dollars to San Gabriel Valley cities for projects to improve traffic flow and reduce congestion, more and more in San Marino have asked these questions. They have taken it up with the city’s department heads, its Public Safety Commission and with Metro itself.
The city has been asking the public how it feels about projects at certain target areas, with the hope of delivering its modified plans to Metro by now, so that the agency could officially green-light them and start working with cities on funding schedules. Although ideas from residents have trickled in, there remains a contingent of residents who have aired skepticism since the beginning, skepticism that has now largely morphed into a resounding rejection.
Those residents’ concerns can essentially be reduced to one (perhaps rhetorical) question.
How will this help San Marino?
BORN FROM THE 710 TUNNEL’S DEMISE
After decades of debate on the subject, Metro — the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority — voted in 2017 to withdraw support for a 4.3-mile tunnel under South Pasadena that would have connected the 710 Freeway in Alhambra to the 210 Freeway near Pasadena. Metro’s board officially killed the project in 2018.
The big loose ends were that the 710 still abruptly ends just north of the 10 Freeway, which continues to dump northbound traffic into west valley surface streets, and that Metro had generated $780 million from the Measure R sales tax. The unruly daytime traffic that invades even strictly residential areas has become emblematic of the area, and for Southern California in general.
“The homes are not built where the jobs are,” explained Abdollah Ansari, a senior executive officer with Metro who also manages the agency’s highway programs. “This is something that is happening — more demand on the freeways — as a result of land-use policy. The disconnect is between the policies in land use and the policies of transportation. If you invest in one and not the other, it is to the detriment to this region.”
Although California has in recent years experienced a net population loss, L.A. County’s population continues to increase. In addition, Ansari said, more people are commuting from neighboring Orange and San Bernardino counties to work in L.A.
“This region, specifically L.A. County, is experiencing exponentially higher traffic volumes than in years past,” he said. “In the older days, there was a notion [on traffic patterns] pretty much quoting, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Well, they didn’t build it. Nothing of substance was invested in our highway systems, but they came anyway.”
It was around a year ago that Metro began asking cities that would have been directly affected by the 710 tunnel — not only San Marino but also South Pasadena, Alhambra, San Gabriel, Monterey Park, Pasadena, Rosemead and some Los Angeles County areas — what they might want to do to alleviate their traffic congestion. The board had decided to use the $780 million as match-free grants to those cities for their own local traffic projects. Because of the nature of the Measure R tax, the funds can pay only for projects that address congestion relief and traffic mobility.
“That was the message of Measure R, and consistently we have pushed for those projects that will make it happen,” Ansari said. “The intent is to give these cities a heads-up that it will happen, that you will see congestion, that you will see more traffic, and how can we help you? This is not an attempt to push more traffic through an area. The traffic will come.”
In December, the Metro board voted to set aside $515 million in Measure R funds as placeholders for a variety of these proposals, including $10 million for San Marino to install synchronization technology at traffic signals on both Huntington Drive and San Gabriel Boulevard. Ansari said Metro later set aside the remainder of its dollars for additional proposals, bringing San Marino’s placeholder money to $32 million.
These placeholders officially are represented by a series of alternatives to the 710 tunnel that Metro was required to consider when preparing its environmental impact report, or EIR, for the tunnel. Although cities are certainly free to just pick up those pre-approved plans and move forward with them, San Marino aims to modify those that apply to itself.
“I hope to be able to revise the current proposals to fit in all the community stuff without disrupting their overall process, so we can refine them and so we’re still good with Metro but that we’re not so far away that they say ‘Stop’ and have to put us in a whole other program,” said Michael Throne, the city’s director of parks and public works. “My goal is — and has been for several months — to synthesize and compile all the comments into projects and features that the community supports and squeeze them into the Metro funding process. A lot of the details that the community is interested in can be incorporated into those … projects.”
According to Ansari, Metro planned to collect these modified proposals, evaluate them at a staff level to ensure they met the necessary criteria and then present them to the Metro board at its June meeting to be rubber-stamped. He referred to this as the “round two” mentioned in various media reports and in comments at meetings.
That did not happen. The Metro board will only consider the full trove of proposals at once, rather than piecemeal, and one city has yet to submit anything for this second round of consideration. Although Metro’s staff is tying up loose ends in some other cities’ proposals, San Marino is holding the process up, Ansari said, and the window to submit proposals in time for the July board meeting is all but shut. Additionally, the Metro board is inactive in August, so the next meeting would have to be in September.
“We’ve got most of the projects. What is left is a decision by San Marino whether they want to keep the projects and funds moving forward,” Ansari said.
Throne’s perspective clashes with Ansari’s. Both Throne and City Manager Marcella Marlowe said their understanding of Metro’s “round two” was that there would be funding made available for alternative transportation projects, such as improved bus routes or bicycle lanes.
“Metro is playing very atypical on this process,” Throne admitted in a phone interview this week. “It seems very rushed and ad hoc. There is no formal communication. That is very different and very unusual for a government funding process. It’s very confusing for us and any other agency working with them.”
Additionally, Throne said the idea of a deadline for Metro’s July meeting was news to him.
“It’s a little surprising that all of a sudden, they have a hurry-up,” he added.
WHAT ARE THESE PROPOSALS?
San Marino’s $32 million in Metro earmarks is the sum of proposals for five target areas.
As mentioned above, the city has officially asked Metro to apportion money based on alternative projects that Metro itself designed as an alternative to the 710 tunnel, largely to satisfy the demands of the EIR. This apportionment is not a commitment to anything, and the city has been soliciting ideas to make changes for those projects. Because city councils control their municipalities’ funding and plans, they hold final sway over what will be submitted to Metro.
“There’s always going to be a modification,” Throne said. “In the typical process, projects originate in the community, then they get into the capital plan and they discuss it at the city level, and then you go out and look for money.
“This process, it’s backwards,” he continued. “What we’re doing now is going back to the beginning process, which is querying the community as to where they see problems areas and seeing what might be eligible for Measure R money or might be available with some other dollars.”
Perhaps most discussed is the $10 million for traffic signal synchronization on 12 Huntington Drive intersections from Atlantic Boulevard to Rosemead Boulevard, and seven San Gabriel Boulevard intersections from Colorado Boulevard to Longden Avenue.
Synchronization is designed to move a group of vehicles from one point to the other without it backing up at one or more signals.
In response to resident questions about the technology, Ahmad Ansari and Jana Robbins — who work for the city’s contractor on traffic engineering, Chino-based Transtech Engineers — prepared detailed explanations on signal synchronization to the city. (Coincidentally, Ahmad Ansari and Abdollah Ansari, the Metro executive, are cousins.)
Assuming the vehicles travel at the set speed limit, the group should pass through the series of signals without having to stop. This is because the programming of the synchronization considers the posted speed limit, which is 40 mph on Huntington Drive, along with how many vehicles pass through the first green light in the sequence. Any motorist who drives at an excessive speed will in all likelihood have to stop at the next signal and wait for the rest of the group, the Transtech response said.
“In a coordinated system, if a vehicle is traveling faster than the design speed for optimal progression, they will continue to hit a red light at each signal,” the response reads, “but if they follow the design speed, they will progress through the arterial with minimal delay and stopping.”
This technology differs from the current system, in which timing is based on now-antiquated traffic pattern data. Synchronization technology, which is adaptive in real time, will allow variations in light changes to account for minimal traffic or high traffic.
“The adaptive system is essentially a hardware and software platform that sends information about congestion, queues [and the] speed of traffic that is being picked up at each signalized location along the corridor to a traffic management system at the city, so that changes to signal timing can be adjusted if needed and changed based on actual real-time traffic demand,” the Transtech engineers wrote.
The hardware typically consists of cameras or in-pavement sensors that relay data to a centralized computer system, which uses software to adjust the rest of the system’s light changes automatically. Outside of peak hours, the system can be changed back to the normal, non-synchronized programming with which San Marino residents are familiar.
The Transtech engineers also noted that the city would likely have to retain a consultant to handle system upkeep for the synchronized signals.
The city also has asked for $12 million to potentially make several modifications to turn lanes at certain intersections along Huntington Drive, not least of which is the uniquely complicated triangular intersection with Atlantic Boulevard, Garfield Avenue and Los Robles Avenue.
The city has suggested creating a dedicated right-turn lane onto westbound Huntington from either Los Robles or Garfield, as well as restricting northbound travel on Atlantic where it becomes Los Robles to reduce traffic at certain intervals; the residential street is essentially a parking lot in mornings, many of its residents have told city officials. (Notably, one resident declined to comment on the record for an earlier Outlook article for fear that a prospective home buyer would search her name on the internet and discover the complaints about the traffic.)
“We proposed to be the lead on this project, so that we can have more control of the destiny of the traffic,” Throne said, noting that San Marino owns a minority portion of that intersection.
To prevent vehicles from stacking outside of left-turn lanes into travel lanes, the city also is considering lengthening the existing lane at Oak Knoll Avenue and adding second lanes at both San Marino Avenue and San Gabriel Boulevard. Additionally, there could be restrictions on eastbound left turns onto Oak Knoll and a variety of enhancements to pedestrian safety at the intersections.
Another $6 million is reserved for capacity improvements on Huntington Drive at three locations: at San Marino High School, Carver Elementary School and the combined site of Huntington Middle School and Valentine Elementary School.
Traffic becomes congested in mornings and mid-afternoons at these sites, coinciding with drop-off and pickup times for the schools. Parents at HMS and Valentine in particular will park at the curb on eastbound Huntington Drive, which is legal but creates traffic issues because motorists traveling in the next lane slow down or have to brake accordingly with people opening car doors or pulling out into traffic.
A solution, the city says, could be to remove the grassy parkway along the school sites where applicable, to create a larger and safer parking area for parents that would be farther away from travel lanes.
Another placeholder is $4 million for corridor improvements on Sierra Madre Boulevard, including suggestions of creating left-turn pockets at the beginning of the odd intersection with San Marino Avenue and Euston Road, the installation of warning signs to urge speed reduction, and the installation of larger signal heads at the intersection with California Boulevard.
At one point earlier this year, during an entirely unrelated discussion, Councilman Steve Talt — known for the sharp wit that becomes an attorney — quipped innocuously that “we don’t like change in San Marino.”
He is not the first or the last to make that joke, as the city bears a reputation for restrictive planning and design policies designed to preserve the picturesque neighborhoods of the 3.77-square-mile community, and for proudly generating most of its operating and capital revenues from property taxes instead of from its limited number of businesses on Huntington Drive and Mission Street, few if any of which are national brands.
This sentiment appears to intersect with the feelings of a group of residents who have, for most of the year, voiced displeasure at what they characterize as Metro waltzing in and dropping its supposed goal of turning surface streets into freeways onto San Marino.
“Enough is enough” is the phrase often used by Dr. Ghassan Roumani, a retired urologist who lives on Oak Knoll and unites fellow Metro-skeptics in his community group, Citizens for a Safe San Marino. Roumani has been critical of the city’s process throughout, characterizing it as lacking transparency.
In 2017, after Metro signaled an end to the 710 tunnel and began discussing the possibility of directing money to cities for their own projects, the city appointed a community liaison to work with local officials in identifying problem areas and suggesting potential solutions that residents would be amenable to.
Roumani decried the process by which the city worked with this liaison — Hal Suetsugu — as “behind closed doors,” saying it should have been more like the public meetings the city is hosting now, after the initial proposals have been given to Metro as placeholders.
“All these meetings, all these fights, are to fix the problem they created to begin with,” Roumani said.
His group is behind a petition urging the city to reject the money and proposals outright, and the document had more than 700 signatures last week. (San Marino had more than 8,200 registered voters at the time of its last municipal election.)
Suetsugu, who is vice chair of the city’s Recreation Commission, said he believed these proposed projects to be “very modest” in scope and would address concerns that residents have had for years.
“Because I’m a community member, I experience the traffic and live it, throughout the 10 or 11 years of my living here,” he said in a phone interview. “We’ve worked on projects like the [Huntington Drive Safe Streets Corridor Plan]. A lot of these ideas came out of there. The community was involved with it. A lot of it just came out of steady steps the city took in the past.”
Suetsugu said that having kids in the schools here exposed him to the traffic issues and that the woes were a frequent topic of conversation among fellow parents, even before he was tabbed as the liaison. He said this is a conversation he’s had with many residents.
“Probably hundreds,” he added. “Out of these conversations, you get an idea of what can be done. Some of the ideas that are coming out of parents and out of the community are on that list.”
Another resident, Dr. Raymond Quan, has taken a data-driven approach to scrutinizing the ideas that have been proposed, citing heavily the EIR generated for the 710 tunnel project as well as traffic pattern data from the county Department of Public Works and Caltrans.
Regarding signal synchronization, Quan — who also is a freelance photographer for The Outlook — said he has compounded changes in average speed recorded by the county on synchronized San Gabriel Valley roadways from 1997-2013, which netted out to a 16% increase in average speed. The transportation department did not itself produce such a calculation.
Skeptical residents have piggybacked on this conclusion, claiming in meetings that Huntington Drive’s average speed could reach freeway speeds with synchronized signals. This issue compounds itself, those residents say, because speed limits are in most cases established by the 85th-percentile speed in traffic surveys. (“Local streets” are the exception to this rule.)
Finally, in response to a query about synchronized signals and speed, L.A. County Public Works senior civil engineer Jane White told Quan in an email “traffic signals are timed based on the posted speed limit and can be timed at any speed. However, establishing signal timing to a lower speed may cause vehicles to stop at additional red traffic signals, yet may not decrease speeds between traffic signals, as most motorists travel at the speed they feel comfortable on that particular roadway.”
“This is where the idea that traffic will go faster extends from,” Quan said. “I think this [calculation] is about as good as it can get. That’s the problem with the number: It’s as a whole, but what would our number be? That’s not Metro data. This is L.A. County Public Works and a layperson’s calculations.”
Suetsugu said he thinks the notion that Metro is “shoving it down our throat” is misguided and added the traffic signal project would give the city better control of its traffic.
“I think the major issue is that they think, because of the signal synchronization, that traffic is going to go faster, that there’s going to be more cars on the street and there are going to be more people coming through San Marino,” he said. “The last 20-30 years, we’ve done nothing to Huntington, yet traffic has increased steadily. We’ve done nothing to it but congestion is getting worse and worse. Whether we have our signals synchronized or not, it’s going to happen anyway.”
Police Chief John Incontro said stacking turn lanes, as often presented on Huntington Drive’s left turns, presents safety problems when motorists become impatient with them.
“If you’re not paying attention, you may rear-end somebody,” he said, addressing motorists who suddenly pull out of stacked turn lanes. “That’s when people aren’t paying attention or they’re not signaling and they just go. You just have to be a little patient and understand that [waiting] 10 seconds here can save you from a collision.”
Narrower travel lanes, Incontro added, tend to result in slower speeds, because motorists are wary of their proximity to vehicles in parallel lanes.
“Especially when you have a road that curves,” he added, referring specifically to Sierra Madre Boulevard.
Volume represents another principal concern among residents (“I can’t find anything on volume,” Quan said. “I make inferences, which is about the best I can do”), who speculate that if San Marino were to suddenly become an effective short cut through the region, even more motorists would use it. Minimally, residents say it would create more noise and emissions pollution and at worst it would result in periodic gridlock that just sends motorists using navigation apps through side streets.
“Traffic is like water,” resident Eileen Hale, a former member of the city’s Traffic Advisory Commission, said at a meeting about these projects in May. “It goes where the path of least resistance is.”
With that in mind, Quan said he felt the San Gabriel Boulevard synchronization had some merit.
“We can’t figure out a reason not to do that,” he said. “It keeps people continuing on outside of our city. It keeps them north-south. Why would they want to make a right turn onto Huntington?”
SCHOOLS STAND TO BENEFIT
Before Metro even entered the public discussion, the San Marino Unified School District in September took a presentation from one of its consulting firms on a traffic circulation study for all four of its schools.
Some of these proposals, prepared by the Fullerton-based firm Albert Grover and Associates, concern modifications along Huntington Drive, at virtually the same spots identified by the city and by Metro as problems to be solved. At Carver, for example, the school district’s study suggested changes to red zone curbs near the school’s driveway, so that students would not have to cross that driveway to get to the school if their parents dropped them off on Huntington.
HMS in particular provides a potential Venn diagram to marry proposals between the city and the district. The school system’s study suggested removing — with the city’s consent — around 120 feet of grassy parkway on Huntington Drive to create a right turn lane into the northern HMS parking lot and designating that lot entrance as a drop-off/pick-up zone for parents. The report noted that parents already do this, though the school forbids it.
Incontro, who has children in San Marino schools, said the bad habits of parents at schools in the mornings or afternoons frustrate him and create unnecessary safety hazards.
“Sometimes kids are dropped off on that travel lane, and they’ll get out on the left side [of the vehicle],” he said. “It’s really unsafe and we have to figure out a way to facilitate the parking and the traffic moving past the schools, and do it safely.”
In an email, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Julie Boucher, who commissioned the study, said that she has provided the study to the city, has met with staff regarding the study, and the city is exploring whether any of the proposals would fit Metro’s criteria for these funds.
School board President Lisa Link said she understands that Metro-funded projects would have to target capacity and congestion relief, but observed that the city might also benefit from the “added side effect” of safety improvement.
“I think we’re all interested in the safety of our students,” she said. “I hope that the city is able to identify projects that will be approved by Metro that will help to improve safety along Huntington Drive, because that does affect all of our schools. I know there are some options that would be helpful.
“We are open to working with the city and doing what is possible to improve the safety of our students at all four school sites that is consistent with what is identified in our traffic safety report,” Link added.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Since December, the city’s Public Safety Commission has discussed this issue at three meetings. The city dedicated its April town hall meeting to these proposals and hosted two additional public meetings afterward, one to continue soliciting ideas and the other, held last week, to collect the questions that were partially answered by Transtech.
The city plans to publicly answer those questions at the Public Safety Commission meeting on Monday, and the City Council is slated to start discussing the issue at its Wednesday, July 10, meeting.
The April town hall meeting “was a great meeting because it brought out a lot of great suggestions from community members,” Throne said. “The folks who live on Oak Knoll, who live on Los Robles, have been wonderful in getting ideas to us. Their comments can go a long way to modifying the projects. At the end of the day, the City Council gets to decide whether it’s the projects as originally proposed, modified project or no projects at all.”
In addition to the school district’s traffic study, the Southern California Association of Governments commissioned in 2017 its Huntington Drive Safe Streets Corridor Plan, which outlined a number of possible modifications to Huntington to better accommodate street parking for businesses and improve pedestrian safety, among other ideas.
Throne said he was considering that report amid everything else. Quan, an interventional radiologist who previously dedicated his time and energy to lobbying for the (now scheduled) removal of two Verizon-owned cell towers on school properties, endorsed more ideas such as those, which modify capacity while also improving life for residents and pedestrians.
“I think these are the kinds of things we endorse, but nobody talks about it,” he said.
Roumani admitted that much of his skepticism stems from distrust of the massive bureaucracy of Metro, which, he routinely reminds people, spent decades leaning on South Pasadena for a tunnel that the city didn’t want.
“We are familiar with Metro’s maneuvering and Caltrans’ history. Using their own words, they are ‘car-driven,’ not ‘safety-driven,’” Roumani said. “We are open to discussion and to opinions as long as it is wide open and transparent as to how they make a decision. If we don’t act properly, we might end with a bad deal imposed on us just because of mismanagement. You have to deal with them very, very carefully.”
The Public Safety Commission meets at 7 p.m. this Monday, June 24, at San Marino Community Church. The City Council’s meeting begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 10, at City Hall.