Pushing for Safe Crossings in the Canyon

Photo by Edgar Obrand College president Jonathan Burke treads outside academia to attempt to engineer improvements for foot traffic near the campus.
Photo by Edgar Obrand
College president Jonathan Burke treads outside academia to attempt to engineer improvements for foot traffic near the campus.

Motorists who travel inbound on Laguna Canyon Road, often ignoring the posted 45 mph speed limit, present an escalating threat to pedestrians near the main campus of Laguna College of Art & Design, according to the college’s top administrator.

While a pedestrian crosswalk and warning signs have been installed near the main campus and a bus stop, Jonathan Burke, the college’s president, and college trustees want to see improved safety measures, which potentially could impact traffic along the heavily used artery and state highway. Only one other painted crosswalk, at Canyon Acres Drive, crosses the canyon road.

“Everyone that has experienced a crossing there is worried,” Burke said, that “there is a strong possibility of an accident” because of the speed at which vehicles approach the crosswalk. “There’s a reaction time that concerns me,” he said. Such concern now can only be expected to increase as the expanding college, which already has four satellite facilities along Laguna Canyon Road, plans for long-term growth and enrolling 650 students. About 500 are presently enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs.

Statistics show Burke’s concerns have merit. Of the 45 traffic collisions reported in the 2000 block of Laguna Canyon Road for the last five years, 33 took place at 2222 Laguna Canyon Rd, the college’s address, according to statistics compiled by police. Over all, collisions along the entire length of the canyon road from Coast Highway to El Toro Road, have escalated over the last five years, increasing 22 percent in 2012 compared to 2008, police figures show. Last year, 123 collisions were reported, seven in front of LCAD.

Some have suggested that the college is contributing to the problem by acquiring property opposite the main campus, but Burke disagreed. The former gym is being converted into five studios for seniors to work on self-directed projects as part of their undergraduate majors. They would not be going back and forth during the day, but would likely use the studios after class, and most would drive their cars there.

Laguna Beach resident Carole Urie-Chickering, who owns a building opposite LCAD’s main campus, recently requested that Caltrans install a traffic light there “to prevent a disaster.” She said numerous accidents occur there and described witnessing a near-deadly incident last month.

Caltrans’ traffic operations engineers are investigating the location and expect to report results in April, said David Richardson, a spokesman for the department, which has jurisdiction over the roadway. “Safety is our number one issue,” said Richardson, who explained there is no specific threshold that would require a traffic signal. Engineers compare traffic data across the region before making a decision, he said.

College trustees too intend to plead with Caltrans to at least increase the visibility of the walkway.

That’s all local residents Pat and Bryan Menne wanted for a Coast Highway crossing at Ninth Avenue, but their plea resulted in a traffic signal installed in 2008. Caltrans studies, showing large volumes of beachgoers jaywalking to get to Thousand Steps Beach, determined that a crosswalk would be so heavily used, it would disrupt the flow of traffic more, Menne said.

In the meantime, the college runs a shuttle from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. to ferry students up and down the canyon, and they implore students to eschew the faster route of using the crosswalk in favor of the safer, if longer route by shuttle.

Burke plans to increase the school’s enrollment over time, but said, “we are managing our growth.” He also would not rule out intensifying the use of the recently acquired building opposite the main campus, though any future expansion or change of use would require city approval. The current use needed no special permit.

When city officials, at LCAD’s urging, previously asked Caltrans about installing a traffic signal, the roadway officials opted instead for the flashing crosswalk, said public works director Steve May. LCAD would have to initiate a second request, May said, though he conceded that Caltrans tends to respond more quickly to requests endorsed by the city. If LCAD pursued a future project that might impact pedestrian activity, the city would then get involved, he said.

No such projects are pending, said the city’s planning manager Ann Larson.

In a letter to the Indy last September, responding to an article about the college’s acquisition of the former gym, Patricia O’Brien, chair of LCAD’s board, insisted that the school’s planned expansion is modest, with build-out taking place over 10 years to eventually accommodate 650 students.

Some have raised concerns that a traffic light at the crosswalk, while improving pedestrian safety might make summertime traffic jams worse. An overhead pedestrian crossing, offering safe passage without slowing traffic, is a prohibitively expensive alternative, Burke said, as it would require an elevator to meet access requirements for the handicapped.

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