Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Happenings: Benz Road Woes

After taking a trip to Lombardi Ranch for corn, I decided to stop by Benz Road and admire the diverter. The white-washed tagging on the K-rail spoke to its impending demise: "THIS DOESN'T WORK" and "NOT SAFE!" A woman driving by echoed these sentiments. She paused and we conversed thusly:

HER "Are you taking pictures to complain?"
ME "Yeah." [hopes that's the correct response]
HER "Good!" [speeds off]

Background for those in need: Benz Road was very heavily used as a cut-through to get from Copper Hill Drive to Bouquet Canyon Road, much to the displeasure of Benz Road homeowners. After years of begging for a solution, a diverter was installed to cut down on the traffic speeding through Benz. Outcry from neighboring drivers over the diverter very quickly precipitated this afternoon’s special City Council meeting.

Today's special meeting got off to a good start. Most mercifully, Mayor Kellar suggested that comments be kept under one minute. Even with this reduction in talk time, the sheer volume of speakers meant about an hour of comments.

As a group, the speakers reaffirmed that Santa Claritans are very healthy communicators, utterly unafraid to make venomous remarks about their neighbors for the record. Those who opposed the diverter did everything from shouting semi-coherently about how Benz Road residents “should not inconvenience us, they should move!” to talking about how their special needs kids now had to sit on the bus for unacceptably longer commutes. Speakers who liked the diverter compared the crowd against it to a kid screaming for a candy bar in the market. Quality of life trumped convenience, they claimed.

Both sides struggled to own the “safety” angle. Benz Road residents and supporters pointed out how having a diverter made Benz Road a much safer place for homeowners and their children. Fans of the cut-through countered with the argument that fire trucks wouldn’t be able to quickly reach families in need with the diverter in place. While I’m sure some of these people were sincere, there’s no doubt that others were using “slower emergency response time” as code for “I miss my shortcut.”

I quickly reached hyperbole overload, desensitized to real safety issues by the sensational claims people were making. It was the end of the world no matter what the Council decided.

At the end of public comments, a few distinct options emerged:

1. Leave the diverter for the 3-month study period. Let the data dictate what is done next.
2. Diverter out, speed bumps in.
3. Diverter out! Diverter out! Diverter out!
4. Close off Benz Road at its origin (Copper Hill) to alleviate problems.

So you're not in suspense any longer, they went with No. 2. Interpret that as you will.

The decision came after a fair bit of back and forth among councilmembers. Particularly vociferous was Mayor Pro-Tem Ferry, so much so that Councilmember Ender said—good naturedly, of course--“I want one of those marshmallow guns so I can shoot you for you to stop talking.” Ferry unveiled a grand plan for the City to stop a number of traffic regulating measures. He said that if roads are available, they ought to be used. Ferry feared that giving Benz Road speed bumps would lead to every citizen in Santa Clarita demanding them for their own streets. He even talked about how longer car trips around the diverter would contribute to global warming. After all, it is well known that our local contribution to climate change is the thing that keeps Ferry up at night.

Councilmember Laurene Weste demolished a number of Ferry’s arguments quite succinctly. By this point, it was clear that the diverter was toast, so she focused on Ferry’s remarks about speed bumps/humps/cushions, which were proposed as an alternative. She said Ferry couldn't have it both ways (basically he said that speed bumps would not work at all but everybody in SCV would want them and the City would have to pay). She said that trying the speed bumps could be a good way to establish once and for all whether they work, and Ender mentioned how the investment could be reused elsewhere if found ineffective for Benz. Councilmember McLean had a fair bit to say too, agreeing with Ferry on the speed bumps: “Speed bumps, speed cushions—everybody thinks that’s going to be the panacea but it’s not.” But nothing was more entertaining than when she struck back at audience members hissing at her: “I can hiss back at you [hisses, smiles wryly]” Sometimes, sometimes, I really like her pluck.

Eventually, Ferry made a three-pronged motion to remove the diverter, replace turn restrictions, and have staff work on comprehensive, city-wide policy against certain traffic regulating measures like speed bumps, special restrictions, and diverters. The vote failed, and Council then weighed in on several smaller motions. Here’s how all the votes went:

So basically, the diverter is gone, turn restrictions returned, and it ends up that Marsha McLean and Frank Ferry think a lot alike when it comes to traffic.

So is everything resolved? It's quite unlikely. We're in for hearing about how expensive the speed humps are, who will foot the bill, the results of their implementation, etc... Of course, then there's Nadine Teter who said that a reliable source had told her the City Council agreed to remove the diverter well before having the special meeting. Will she pursue this alleged violation of the Brown Act, as promised/threatened?

There are at least four things to be learned about Santa Claritans from this clash:
1. We don't want anyone's kids to get run over, but if it gets to that point, we volunteer to have their kids run over, not our own.
2. People will insist that there are solutions to problems that quite plainly don't have solutions--we just need more studies and creative thinking!
3. It's Southern California, and there's nothing like driving to get us fired up.
4. Those who complain the loudest win--at least sometimes.

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