Carmel Valley board hopes to find solutions for traffic, mobility issues

The Carmel Valley Road and Village Center Loop/Del MAr Heights intersection.
(Karen Billing)

The Carmel Valley Community Planning Board (CVCPB) is finally seeing some movement from the city on its livability report, a comprehensive plan nearly seven years in the making to improve traffic-related mobility, safety and quality of life issues in Carmel Valley neighborhoods.

After years of pushing the city for a response, at the board’s Jan. 27 meeting they heard that progress is being made: City traffic engineers are currently in the process of performing evaluations of the projects listed in the 2016 report.

The mobility assessment breaks down the issues into categories such as bike lanes, missing sidewalks, school traffic, pedestrian safety and the lack of traffic control on the community’s long looping streets that transform into high-speed highways. The board was interested in the development of alternative projects to mitigate speed, not necessarily just throwing up stop signs everywhere.

“We wanted to look at it more as how can we live in our community better by making some of these changes,” CVCPB Frisco White said. “We want to be able to establish our destiny and have some control on the expenditure of the funds and the improvements of our community,”

Traffic Engineer Duncan Hughes said they are considering projects that can be done with city operations and maintenance funding, leaving the board with a smaller pile of projects to prioritize utilizing their developer impact fees/community benefits assessment funds.

The next steps would be establishing capital improvement program (CIP) projects with the city to move forward with, identify funding and eventually get into the design and construction phase. Hughes said they are a couple months away from a compiling a list of potential CIP projects.

“This is a step in the right direction,” remarked CVCPB Vice Chair Barry Schultz.

The livability report is not completely comprehensive as when it was drafted, One Paseo was not yet completed and the majority of Pacific Highlands Ranch hadn’t yet been built out.

Michelle Strauss, the Pacific Highlands Ranch representative, said everyone knows the traffic struggles experienced in her community. She asked the engineers specifically about potential pedestrian safety improvements at PHR Parkway and Carmel Valley Road as well as Del Mar Heights and Carmel Valley Roads.

“It’s a concern because a lot of students cross there,” Strauss said. “At both of those intersections, there are schools on both sides so there’s a big volume of kids crossing and there’s a lot of cars.”

In early 2020 Pacific Highlands Ranch resident Randi Marsella raised awareness about the dangerous intersection after her 12-year-old daughter was hit by a driver making a right turn onto Carmel Valley Road from Village Center Loop Road. In response, the city approved “No right on red” and “Turning vehicles yield to pedestrians” signs on Village Center Loop. In the past, a pedestrian scrambler was also proposed at the intersection. A scrambler temporarily stops all vehicular traffic allowing pedestrians to cross an intersection in every direction, including diagonally, at the same time.

Hughes said such all-way pedestrian crossings are uncommon but they are considering traffic signal operations such as pedestrian lead intervals, which allow pedestrians a head start before vehicles get a green light.

“We are looking at the entire intersection and what we can do to make it as safe as it can be,” Hughes said.

Locals propose lowering Carmel Valley Road’s speed limit

Safety on Carmel Valley Road is something that Pacific Highlands Ranch resident Auggie Gharek has been strongly advocating for over the past year.

Gharek believes that the road’s 50-mile-per-hour speed limit should not be allowed on the street because it’s densely populated with homes and five schools in the area with a sixth opening this fall.

“Myself and many parents in the community are frightened every time we have to pick up and drop off our children,” said Gharek, a Sycamore Ridge School parent. “You would think in this neighborhood there will be no reason to be scared to drive and to walk or bike across a street. Unfortunately, there are many reasons and no one is listening or doing anything about it.”

Pacific Highlands Ranch was designed to be a walkable community, with the intent that residents could walk to the shopping center, schools, park, community center and future library. Yet Gharek can not imagine walking safely in her community—last year she passed on Walk to School Day.

Gharek has raised her concerns to Councilmember Joe LaCava, to the city traffic engineers, the planning board, the police department and the school principal: “I don’t want it put it on the back burner, I want it to be taken care of now.” Through Nextdoor, she has found a partner in advocacy in Michael Ferry, a Del Sur resident who gets caught in the Carmel Valley Road commute on his way to work in Sorrento Valley.

Ferry is also a bike commuter who rides to work a couple days a week. “It’s pretty bad in the morning,” he said, noting riding his bike on rush hour on Carmel Valley Road is more stressful than riding on Highway 67 in Ramona.

About two years ago Ferry experienced a near miss on the road where the bike lane shifts between the left and center through lanes. Like many mornings, there was a long line of cars backed up at the intersection waiting to turn right on Del Mar Heights. In the intersection. someone tried to make a right turn from the through lane across the bike lane where he was riding. Ferry had to slam on his brakes and skidded to avoid impact. The incident was scary enough that he considered not ever biking to work again.

Gharek and Ferry said near-misses like his are not uncommon on the road and they are concerned that the city won’t take action until it’s too late.

“Why should somebody have to die for someone to determine that this street is dangerous?” Ferry said. “This street is unsafe.”

Ferry said one solution could be a simple increase in enforcement. He also sees potential for the city to make a change under a new law regarding speed limits. Assembly Bill 43, which went into effect on Jan. 1, gives local jurisdictions more determination on setting a speed limit if the street is determined to be a safety corridor.

According to the bill’s author Assembly member Laura Friedman, California bases its speed limits using a process known as the 85th percentile where traffic surveyors measure the speed of drivers and set the speed limit to reflect the speed at which 85% of drivers were driving.

“It’s shocking that speeders set the speed limit,” Ferry said.

For many years, the 85th percentile was considered the safest speed but transportation experts have concluded that the state needs to reform the way speed limits are set, particularly given the increase in traffic-related injuries and deaths.

Assembly Bill 43 now requires traffic surveyors to take into account the presence of vulnerable groups when setting speed limits, permits cities to lower speed limits beyond the 85th percentile on streets with high injuries and fatalities, and provides for greater flexibility in setting school speed limits to protect children.

“I think Carmel Valley Road would be a great candidate for a safety corridor,” Ferry said. “I believe the needs of people using the roads, especially the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, should take precedence over the speed of vehicles.”

According to Anthony Santacroce, senior public information officer for the City of San Diego, the city has begun evaluating streets in the network for possible speed reductions based on AB 43. He said the process is in its beginning stages and he did not have any specific information regarding Carmel Valley Road at this time.