By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
Erica Jones’s voice changes when she talks about her brother, Aaron.
“He is a kind person, and a great uncle. He was happy he didn’t have to do Thanksgiving dishes that night because he had two nephews that were going to do it for him. That’s what he was thankful for.”
A car struck the 45-year-old as he crossed Coast Highway at Brooks Street after Thanksgiving dinner, Nov. 24. This past Tuesday, Dec. 13, Erica Jones and her husband Keith fought back tears as they and others told the Laguna Beach City Council about his injuries, seven broken ribs, concussion and ruptured spleen that has now ruptured this Laguna Beach family.
“The timeline is way too long,” said Keith Jones. “The data has been available for so long of the high incidents of pedestrians to vehicles. There has to be something to speed up this process.”
The couple’s pleas came as the council took testimony from James Pinheiro, deputy district director for Caltrans’ local district 12. He reported on impending safety upgrades at three Coast Highway intersections described by police as among the city’s most dangerous: Anita, Brooks and Calliope Streets.
“We are very concerned about the pedestrian accidents that have occurred at the three intersections,” Pinheiro said. “We are moving those two projects forward and are looking for things we can do to enhance pedestrian safety quickly.”
But for the Jones family and others who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, it’s not quick enough.
Jones’ accident adds to the mounting car-pedestrian incidents along Coast Highway this year, totaling two at Anita, two at Calliope and Jones’ accident at Brooks. Though Caltrans plans in-road lighting systems for the three intersections and overhead flashing beacons in the next 18 months, residents and council members both pressed for swifter action from Caltrans.
“When I got the email over Thanksgiving about someone else being hit, it tore me up,” said City Council member Bob Whalen. “Then to see this, the summer of 2018 as the ultimate solution, three years after the first accident in the Brooks crosswalk. I just don’t think that is good enough.”
Pinheiro said crews were out this week replacing the reflective thermo plastic crosswalk markings at the Brooks Street crossing and planned to refresh the other crosswalks in the coming days, including replacing the lumineers on the mast arm over the crosswalks with higher-wattage bulbs. He also recommended the city work with Southern California Edison to replace amber-colored warning lights with brighter colored bulbs.
“We think the combination of those changes will help significantly,” Pinheiro said.
Whalen wasn’t placated.
“If you just carry this forward another 18 months, we have already had two in the first 18 months, will we have two more in the next 18 months.
“Figure out a way to cut through the bureaucracy and make this happen more quickly. That is my request.”
Pinheiro seemed doubtful the in-street warning light project could be expedited. He told the city he would do what he could, but also offered one option: the city take over the project itself.
“The city comes in and designs and delivers the improvements and Caltrans expedites the permit approval and takes over ownership of those improvements and maintains and operates them,” Pinheiro said. “But that means the city would fund those efforts.”
When asked by Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Boyd if the city would be reimbursed by Caltrans for its costs, Pinheiro didn’t have an answer.
“I can go and find out,” Pinheiro said.
Council member Rob Zur Schmeide asked Pinheiro why speed limits can’t be lowered further on Coast Highway.
“As owners and operators of our state highway, that is your responsibility,” Zur Schmeide said. “I think people drive too fast through town. You have a lot of good ideas, but moving this forward is a priority.”
Pinheiro said Caltrans conducts a speed zone survey every seven years, most recently in 2015. He says Caltrans kept the speeds as low as the law allowed.
“We are going to explore a rumble strip in the pavement as they are approaching a crosswalk. We need to explore this and figure out how to do it,” Pinheiro said.
Like the cars traveling Coast Highway, a solution can’t come fast enough for people like the Jones family.
“Nobody can wait for this, nobody can be in the ICU and nobody can have any more dogs or anyone being hurt by these things,” Erica Jones said.
“You guys have known for a long time and you need to change it fast,” Keith Jones said, choking back tears. “Please.”