Caltrans Says Signal or Nothing for Now


If there’s no signal at the main entrance to Emerald Bay, no other road improvements can be pursued there, Caltrans officials said Wednesday.

The statement came a week after the Laguna Beach City Council rejected a left-turn traffic signal proposed by the gated community intended to make exiting its main gate at North Coast Highway and Shamrock Road safer.  The council, however, agreed to other traffic-reducing plans for the intersection included in the proposal.

“We’re not going to say that the project’s off,” said Tracey Lavelle, Caltrans public information officer, “but what the city approved cannot go forward.”  James Pinheiro, deputy district director of operations and maintenance, said earlier that it’s a complete package that cannot be split.

Even though the City Council preliminarily approved road improvements proposed by the Emerald Bay Community Assn. by endorsing a coastal development permit for the project, council members unanimously nixed the proposed left-turn signal included in the $3 million package.

“The project should be looked at as a whole,” Pinheiro said in a Caltrans letter issued April 25 approving the installation of the left-turn light at North Coast Highway and Shamrock Road.  “To only implement the geometrical modifications [street improvements] without the traffic signal will not reduce the delay for motorists turning left into and out of Shamrock. This will not accomplish the purpose of the improvement.”

Susan Thomas, past president of the Emerald Bay Community Association, echoed that sentiment in an email on Monday. “Important and needed safety improvements cannot proceed without the half signal,” she said.

A contingent of opponents voiced their objections to the signal in person, via hundreds of emails and in phone calls in recent weeks to council members, claiming it’s a convenience issue for a privileged few and not a safety issue for thousands of motorists, as presented by the community’s governing board.

“Caltrans has stated several times in writing that the accident history of the intersection does not warrant a signal,” said 30-year Emerald Bay resident Patty Collisson, who opposes the signal. Caltrans based its approval not on safety, Collisson claimed, but on conditions relating to left turns in and out of the 537-home gated community.  “That’s for convenience,” said Collisson.  “They’re called designer signals, like Cher tried to get at her intersection in Malibu.”

City Manager John Pietig said Wednesday that the statement from Caltrans means revamping the proposal.  “What I have not heard yet is that Caltrans is not willing to look at some other project to improve safety without a signal,” he said.

Several of the proposed road improvements are not within Caltrans’ right-of-way jurisdiction along North Coast Highway, Pietig stated, specifically the proposal to move the guard house farther off the highway as well as more expedient gate-entry policies, such as issuing transponders and entry cards.

Pietig said submitting a revamped proposal to Caltrans omitting the traffic signal is the next logical step.  “We need to work with Caltrans and Emerald Bay to come up with a package that improves safety without a signal. That has not been vetted,” he said.

Councilmember Kelly Boyd, who made the motion last week to hold off on the signal and approve wider street access into and out of the private beach community, said the objection by Caltrans officials to street improvements sans signal will need to be discussed by the council.

The council unanimously nixed the signal because the number of cars going into and out of Emerald Bay there did not warrant stopping the northbound flow.  Opponents said the signal was for the benefit of a few Emerald Bay residents at the inconvenience of city drivers.  “They’ve got five other gates they can use,” Collisson pointed out.

“Making the improvements minus the signal would help the traffic flow and would help get the contractors’ trucks lined up each morning off of PCH,” she continued.  “These vehicles lining up each day are the problem and responsibility of Emerald Bay and Emerald Bay should take care of this problem.”

Because traffic statistics at that intersection do not require Caltrans to install the signal, the Emerald Bay association is prepared to underwrite the $3-million project, with the signal costing up to $400,000.

The public discussion at the council meeting revealed lingering animosity between city dwellers and residents of Emerald Bay, an unincorporated private community.

In last month’s letter from Caltrans, Pinheiro also stipulated that Laguna Beach must approve a coastal development permit for the changes at Emerald Bay’s main entrance to proceed.

Proposed improvements without the signal would push the main gate farther back from Coast Highway, increase the length of turning lanes and add additional entry and exit lanes.

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