Belmont Council Member: “Cars Come First” on Deadly Ralston Avenue

Belmont residents fed up with dangerous conditions from speeding drivers on Ralston Avenue have launched an online petition with nearly 600 signatures so far, calling on the city council to implement safety improvements.

But proponents of safer streets apparently can’t count on support from Belmont City Council Member Coralin Feierbach, who voiced her opposition to bike lanes and red-light cameras this week. “Cars come first,” said Feierbach, according to the Daily Journal. ”It’s our lifeline.”

Coralin Feierbach

Coralin Feierbach. Photo: Belmont Patch

Feierbach seemed to have no problem with the fact that “when you ride your bike on Ralston you take your life into your own hands,” deeming it “impossible” to reduce speeding from drivers.

With crosswalks typically placed up to a quarter-mile apart, and the street spanning five wide lanes of motor traffic, walking on Ralston can also be nerve-racking, and often deadly.

But Feierbach’s defense of the dangerous status quo on Ralston won’t do much to help mothers like May Dembowski, who lives in downtown Belmont and regularly walks her 8-year-old daughter on Ralston to Central Elementary School.

“I’m nervous all the time — it’s very stressful to cross. We’ve almost been hit by cars several times,” said Dembowski. “The crosswalk lights don’t give children enough time to get across — even many adults can’t make it. And many drivers are in a hurry and just run the red lights.”

There are 10 schools on or near Ralston, a 2.5-mile long street where drivers often exceed speed limits, which vary from 30 to 40 mph, according to data from the Belmont Public Works Department [PDF]. The street serves as a connection for drivers between the 101 and 280 highways.

According to data from the Belmont Police Department, Ralston saw 70 traffic crashes last year — an average of one every five days. Since 1998, the street has seen an average of 65 crashes annually, according to data from the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS). In those crashes, 193 people suffered injuries — 160 drivers or passengers, and 33 people walking or biking.

Drivers often exceed the speed limit on Ralston Avenue, seen here near Ralston Middle School. Photo: Google Maps

An 80-year-old woman suffered serious injuries in February when she was struck by a driver while crossing Ralston at Notre Dame de Namur. In December 2011, 71-year-old Lourdes Gallegos was killed by a driver as she was crossing the street near El Camino Real.

In 2007, an SUV driver also hospitalized 13 students when he crashed into a SamTrans bus stop in the front of Ralston Middle School, though that took place in the school’s loading area. The San Mateo County District Attorney decided not to press charges against the SUV driver, chalking it up as an innocent mistake.

Two people on bikes have also been injured on Ralston in the past month alone. On June 1, a 46-year-old woman was right-hooked by an SUV driver, and a 75-year-old man crashed near Davis Drive for reasons that remain unclear. In January 2012, a 20-year-old Martinez man was seriously injured after being struck near Holly Road by a van driver pulling a trailer, who dragged him and his bicycle for 100 feet before colliding with the curb. And in October 2012, a 62-year-old woman was hospitalized after being struck by a driver turning left into the Carlmont Village Shopping Center.

An SUV driver injured 13 students by crashing into a bus stop at Ralston Middle School in 2007. Photo: Lance Iverson, SFGate

While bike lanes exist on some stretches of Ralston, those crashes all occurred on a section of Ralston which lacks bike lanes, where drivers tend to speed the most.

Mike Swire, who started the online petition, said there seems to be “a serious bike or pedestrian collision every one to two months.”

“It’s amazing that the city has done nothing,” he said. “If there were a homicide or serious assault at that rate, the city would be up in arms. Traffic collisions are a serious public health impact here, but the city’s ignoring it.”

The Belmont City Council did grant initial funding for a study of potential measures to improve safety and reduce traffic congestion on Ralston in February. And safety improvements for the street were included on its list of high-priority projects this year.

However, the council only approved $150,000 of the $250,000 needed for the three-phase study, and the third phase that would enable the city to pursue grants from sources outside the city can’t move forward until the remainder of funding is approved.

Feierbach was one of two members on the five-member council who voted against funding the study, saying, “To spend money first to make decisions later does not make fiscal sense to me,” according to the Daily Journal.

A bicycle rider was injured by a driver on Ralston in October 2012. Photo: Joan Dentler, Belmont Patch

The Belmont City Council is also set to vote on Tuesday on renewal of a contract for red-light cameras that were installed three years ago at Ralston Avenue and El Camino Real, the city’s busiest intersection. Though data on the impact of those cameras on the intersection aren’t available, red-light cameras typically reduce fatal crashes caused by driver running red lights by 24 percent, according to a 2011 study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Feierbach told the Daily Journal she plans to vote against renewing red-light camera contract, saying she doesn’t “think we need them.”

Belmont Planning Commissioner Gladwyn d’Souza, who is running in this November’s city council election to replace Feierbach, begs to differ.

“The town should be safe for everyone. Traffic safety must become a priority for us,” said d’Souza. ”No one should have to take their life in their hands to use our streets, especially not our children and parents who can’t drive.”

Supporters can show their support for safety improvements on Ralston by signing the petition.