Engineering work will continue to move forward on a project aimed at improving pedestrian safety and traffic flow at the intersection near the historic Red Church in downtown Sonora, but with an even more simplified design.
At public meeting on Monday, the Sonora City Council reviewed the progress on the construction plans for the project and removed some of the more controversial features.
The council decided to nix the project’s so-called bulbouts on each side of the crosswalk on North Washington Street just south of the intersection near City Hall, as well as another in front of the former Dorathea’s Christmas store that would have eliminated one parking space.
Bulbout is a term used by engineers for a curb that extends from a sidewalk into a street. They are primarily intended to slow down traffic by narrowing a portion of the street and improve pedestrian safety by reducing the distance for people to cross and making them more visible to oncoming traffic.
Several people spoke in opposition to the designs that were presented at the meeting before the council made the changes, including retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief Barry Rudolph, who said the proposed bulbouts could lead to traffic delays during evacuations.
“Wider evacuation routes, not narrower,” Rudolph said. “Installing permanent concrete barriers of any form along Washington Street will serve to hinder evacuations and the use of the street for fire equipment, especially for buildings that are on fire next to where those are located.”
Rudolph cited a Los Angeles Times report in November about how bulbouts were used in Paradise to narrow some roads from four lanes to two, including the main one through its downtown area, prior to the devastating Camp Fire last year that killed 86 people and incinerated much of the town.
The LA Times report stated the bulbouts in Paradise were part of a project that received funding from the state to boost commerce in the town’s downtown area and improve safety for traffic and pedestrians.
However, questions were raised in the wake of the Camp Fire about whether the “traffic calming” features contributed to gridlock that reportedly led to some people being burned alive in their vehicles while trying to escape the flames.
While the proposed bulbouts on Washington Street would not eliminate any of the existing lanes, Rudolph said they would prevent the edges that are lined with parking spaces from potentially being used as an additional lane during a mass evacuation.
Olivia Phillips told the council she’s heard about the problems created by the bulbouts in Paradise directly from survivors of the Camp Fire, with whom she’s worked through her job as administrator of the property management division of Century 21 Wildwood Properties in Sonora.
Phillips also expressed concerns about the proposed bulbouts along Washington Street potentially preventing vehicles from being able to pull over for ambulances and fire trucks in certain places.
The intersection project was originally proposed in the Vision Sonora Plan adopted by the council in late 2013, which included a number of other similar proposals that were all aimed at improving the city’s appearance, traffic flow, and pedestrian safety.
Similar to the project that narrowed the main route through downtown Paradise, the City of Sonora has been approved to receive a $722,000 grant from Caltrans for the proposed improvements to the intersection near the Red Church.
Willdan Engineering was hired by the council in October using $105,000 from the grant to prepare the designs for the project.
The council directed the firm to make several changes to earlier versions of the designs that were presented at a meeting in early January.
One of the council’s directions was to reduce the size of a proposed bulbout in front of Dorothea’s Christmas store, which was originally proposed in the Vision Sonora Plan to be a mini-park with landscaping and benches.
However, the council directed the firm on Monday to just get rid of the bulbout from the final construction plans altogether in hopes of being able to save a parking space that would be eliminated.
“It made sense when it was a parklet, or an Italian-style gelato corner where you could sit there and enjoy the sun and have ice cream and coffee,” said Councilman Mark Plummer. “Once it gets cut down to this, it seems like an afterthought that has no purpose anymore except for directing the traffic.”
Contractors will continue working with city staff to complete the construction plans for the project that will incorporate the changes as directed by the council on Monday.
Rachelle Kellogg, community development director for the city, said they have applied for an extension to the deadline for submitting the final plans, which was originally at the end of this month.