Torrey Pines Community Planning Board OKs light at Del Mar Heights and Mercado

Traffic improvements along Del Mar Heights Road have been a contentious issue for local residents over the years. The Torrey Pines Community Planning Board signed off on a traffic signal at Del Mar Heights Road and Mercado Drive.
(Luke Harold)

After a contentious two hours of public comment at Del Mar Heights Elementary School Nov. 14, Torrey Pines Community Planning Board members prepared to vote on a new traffic signal at Mercado Drive. How to best make the street safer has been a divisive issue among local residents for years.

As the meeting approached a hard 9 p.m. adjournment and janitors prepared to shut off the lights, about half of the 80 attendees urged board members to postpone a decision. The board’s chair, Dennis Ridz, wanted to wait for further analysis from the city of San Diego’s traffic engineers.

Moments later, eight of 11 board members voted for the city to proceed with the traffic signal.

“We’re out of time and this conversation has been going on for decades,” board member Susan Lyon said.

Once the motion was presented to proceed with the traffic signal installation, Ridz voted yes.

“Everybody agrees on one fact: People go too fast,” he said after the meeting, adding that if the board had rejected the traffic signal, it would have been unclear how much longer the community would have to wait before any other options were on the table.

Based on a city study of traffic volume, pedestrians and reported accidents, the city of San Diego declared the intersection of Del Mar Heights Road and Mercado Drive eligible for a traffic signal, senior traffic engineer Joe Jimenez informed the board in a September email. There have been 15 collisions that have caused 21 injuries on Del Mar Heights Road between Recuerdo and Mango drives from 2006 to 2018, based on data from UC Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System. Two of them took place at Del Mar Heights Road and Mercado Drive. Nine collisions were at or near Mango Drive. Residents also spoke of the everyday difficulties they have maneuvering safely along Del Mar Heights Road, such as making left turns through two lanes of oncoming traffic.

The next step was last week’s board vote. Torrey Pines Community Planning Board members typically cast nonbinding votes to advise city policy. But according to Steve Hadley, director of community outreach for City Council President Pro Tem Barbara Bry, their vote for the traffic signal officially adds the project to the city’s list of capital improvement projects. The estimated cost is $400,000, to be funded from sources including development impact fees.

Kevin Cahill was one of several local residents who said they thought there wasn’t enough notice to the community about the community planning board’s vote. He and many other residents also said they felt the light would cause more congestion without improving safety.

“I question the thoroughness of this study,” Cahill said, adding that he thought there wasn’t enough traffic data taken into account.

Another resident, Tony Sanchez, a civil engineer, echoed other attendees who thought the board should hold out for a more comprehensive solution.

“We should not settle for just a light,” he said.

Others, including former community planning board member Bob Shopes, said that adding a traffic signal would be a good start.

“It would be silly to turn that down,” he said.

Past attempts to improve street safety on Del Mar Heights, including a grant with $220,000 funding from SANDAG and $135,000 from the city of San Diego to put together a complete streets plan for Del Mar Heights Road, had fallen through. Bry wrote a letter in support. The grant application, submitted by the city of San Diego, did not receive first priority and ultimately unraveled due to approximately $80,000 more that the city would have had to contribute.

“As the District 1 representative, it is important to support the community and their efforts to secure outside grant funding,” Bry said in a statement. “Although this grant was not awarded, I will continue to work with the community to identify solutions to improve safety in Del Mar Heights.”

Diana Scheffler said that for the last 20 years, the debate over street safety on Del Mar Heights Road has flared up repeatedly, only to recede with no action taken. She said she was “pleased and relieved” the board approved the traffic signal. In terms of the city finding the means for a complete streets plan for Del Mar Heights Road?

“I’m always hopeful but I’m also skeptical,” Scheffler said.