A letter written in the strongest terms with supporting data objecting to Caltrans plans to erect a median strip on Florida Avenue is being sent to the state transportation department by the Hemet City Council, following a contentious council discussion Tuesday, Nov. 14.
The issue with Caltrans plans to build the median strips in the middle of Florida Avenue from West Acacia through the downtown area and to the eastern city limits has been the subject of controversy between Caltrans District 8 project manager and engineers and the city for months.
The Tuesday evening meeting discussion led by Mayor Linda Krupa focused on a meeting the council had with Caltrans officials earlier at the Hemet Public Library that ended with the state agency declaring the median strips will be built even it the city does not want it. A letter from the council totally opposing the project went to Caltrans in October.
Interim City Manager Allen Parker said they had talked to the Caltrans median project manager since the letter was sent and gave this report at the Tuesday meeting.
“We have since learned after talking to them that they are moving forward on it notwithstanding the city council’s position, and several of you in the audience and others have written Caltrans opposing it from a traffic standpoint, from a business standpoint,” Parker said. “One of the major concerns that we’ve had is the emergency vehicles. When they put that median strip in, you have the normal amount of traffic on Florida they can’t get through, unless they go down where the median strip is going to be constructed.”
He said there was no consideration from Caltrans on the problem with emergency vehicles response time being hindered because of the project.
Parker said he, Krupa and Councilman Karlee Meyer met with California Assemblyman Chad Mayes about the displeasure the council is having with the Caltrans state Route 74 median strip project they “are pushing down our throats.”
The city manager said the assemblyman listened to the major points the council had and is asking for the city to supply him with the information. If so, he would request a meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown about this matter.
“Assemblyman Mayes is going to bat for us on this project, but we don’t know if this is going to happen,” Parker said. Krupa said Mayes has a meeting scheduled with the governor’s office on the city’s objection to the project.
Caltrans has been planning the median strip along Hemet’s Highway 74 for more than five years, claiming it is a “safety issue” that needs to be resolved. Since Florida Avenue is a state highway, it is maintained by Caltrans who has the final say on its care and maintenance, technically without any city input. What is different in this situation than many other state highways is that Florida Avenue runs through Hemet’s busy downtown business area, whose merchants depend on Florida Avenue to allow customer’s access to their services and shopping needs.
Cars park parallel on both sides of the highway in the downtown area to get to the shops. Delivery trucks use the open left-hand turn lanes to enter parking lots and drop off areas. Police, fire and ambulances, in sometimes very heavy traffic, often use the open median areas to get around traffic to rush to accidents, fires and other emergencies.
Parker said Caltrans decided a median strip was needed because of increasing cross median collisions in a 2011 traffic study they made on Florida Avenue. Following up on the Caltrans study, the Hemet Police Department, working with the California Highway Patrol, put together a 15-month traffic enforcement program between 2013 and 2014 that resulted in reducing the traffic accidents on Florida Avenue by more that 50 percent. The police department concluded that better traffic enforcement, not a median strip would be better for the highway’s safety. “They (Caltrans) wouldn’t listen to that,” Parker said.
The police and fire departments argue the medians will seriously reduce their response times since their heavy trucks won’t be able to cross over them in heavy traffic. Ambulances will have the same difficulty. Using other side streets instead of Florida will slow response times. In an emergency “seconds mean life,” the first responders said.
The council allowed a number of residents in the audience to come forward with their opinions on the Caltrans project.
Coming forward in objection of the median project were Andy Anderson of the Hemet San Jacinto Chamber of Commerce; Lori VanArsdale, president of the board of directors for the Ramona Bowl amphitheater; Dan McLaughlin, CEO of Hemet Valley Medical Center; Dr. Sreenivasa Nakka, vice president of Physicians for Healthy Hospitals; Rob Davis, attorney; Hemet Fire Chief Scott Brown; Hemet Police Chief Dave Brown and others, all of whom voiced their support for the council’s decision to take their opposition to the highest level.
“The Caltrans median project will demonstratively impact our ability to respond in a timely fashion to emergencies throughout our city,” Fire Chief Brown said.
He said Florida Avenue/state Route 74 is the fire department’s only lifeline to the city’s only hospital.
“Seconds do count,” in a life or death situation Brown said. “Tonight, I stand united and strongly support our mayor and our city council and oppose the Caltrans median project. Caltrans, you need to listen and listen now.”
Police Chief Brown said the department will strongly enforce the traffic laws on Florida Avenue to reduce accidents and can do so with new traffic officers now on patrol in the city thanks to the Measure U.
“So beware,” he said jokingly.
Caltrans, until the median strips engineering plans were completed last year, did not notify the city about the project and when it was to begin. It took the city engineers and council completely by surprise. The city demanded meetings with the state agency who did offer a series of public meetings to illustrate how and where the median would be constructed. Caltrans learned at the meetings that the city merchants and public safety agencies wanted Caltrans to either modify the median plans or stop it completely through the downtown area.
Caltrans, after listening to some of the objections, modified their median plans allowing longer left turn lanes, a traffic signal system that would give green lights to emergency vehicles, roll-over areas for crossover emergency vehicles and a few more breaks for motorists to access businesses.
Caltrans also offered to put landscaping on portions of the median strip with responsibility of maintaining the landscaping left to the city. It still did not satisfy the city council, city engineers, businessmen and merchants of the community who now want the project stopped completely.
It seemed certain, following the council’s last meeting with Caltrans officials, that no matter what objections the city had, the median strip will be built with the city having no authority over the state highway.
City Councilman Russ Brown and Mayor Pro Tem Michael Perciful suggested Caltrans should start the median project on SR-74 from the Interstate 215 freeway up to the Hemet city limits and see if will reduce traffic accidents before they build the median in the Hemet city area.
Brown said as a longtime police officer that traffic accidents are reduced by better traffic enforcement, not by median strips. He said in conclusion to his remarks, in his opinion, “Caltrans project engineers are probably in the right business because they seem to have minds of concrete that are permanently set.”