Controversial crosswalk signal gets green light

DOWNEY - After months of discussion and now under the threat of liability, the Downey City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to install a high-intensity pedestrian-activated crosswalk beacon at Woodruff Avenue and Via Amorita in lieu of a traffic signal. Councilmembers believe the HAWK beacon is the best option for the city to ensure student safety at nearby Doty Middle School while addressing the aesthetic concerns of local homeowners.

"I know it's not ideal, but give it a try," said Mayor Pro Tem Fernando Vasquez addressing residents who live in the vicinity of the school. "I know it's not an ideal environment to live in, but in three to six months, if it's not working we can revisit it."

Vasquez continued: "I can't look parents in the eye and say we failed to do anything...I've got to look at the best interests as a whole."

With more than five vehicular accidents reported at the congested crosswalk over the last four years, city officials received a request from Doty Middle School, then East Middle School, five years ago asking for increased safety measures at the intersection.

City officials are hopeful the device helps curb accidents by providing a safer means for children to cross Woodruff Avenue to attend Doty Middle School.

According to a traffic study performed by city staff, nearly 8,100 vehicles and 700 pedestrians utilize Woodruff Avenue every day, leading the city to originally propose a traffic signal at Via Amorita. However, residents in the area expressed concerns earlier this year when the council moved forward with the plans, awarding a $127,700 contract to Select Electric, Inc.

"Based on their input, the City Council directed staff to halt the installation of the traffic signal until such time that the City Council could hear directly from all interested parties about their concerns related to this issue," said John Oskoui, director of public works.

During a special council meeting in July, the city council approved a number of safety recommendations including the assignment of a crossing guard, the installation of drop-off and pick-up zones, and a left turn restriction from westbound Via Amorita to southbound Woodruff Avenue during school hours to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles.

City staff also suggested the installation of a HAWK beacon instead of a traffic signal. Unlike a signal, the beacon can only be activated by pedestrians wishing to cross the street. During non- peak hours, the device is inactive, allowing traffic to flow with reduced congestion.

Hoping to learn more about the beacon, the council directed city staff in July to present the option at a later meeting with the opinion of the city attorney.

On Tuesday, City Attorney Yvette Abich Garcia recommended the council install the beacon or risk potential liability in the future.

"There are concerns from a city standpoint. First, we have not one, but two traffic studies that conclude a HAWK or signal is warranted," she said. "Also, the city is aware of accidents at this intersection. Anyone could use those two facts against the city."

Garcia said the exposure would be great if the city stalled to place a safety device at the intersection. Before the vote, Brent Shubin, principal of Doty Middle School, also endorsed the installation of the HAWK beacon, confident the device could prevent another kid from being hit by a car.

"Is there anything too safe for our kids," he asked. "Student safety trumps any of the other concerns mentioned. For every one in opposition, there'd be 100 grateful parents.

"We've had too many close calls...God forbid another kid is hit, but if so, at least I'll know in my heart that we did everything we can."

Via Amorita homeowner Jennifer Alvarez, however, disagrees with the council's decision and questions whether it's in the best interests of the students.

"Someone should be accountable for those who were hit -- why did it go on for so long," Alvarez asked. "There is no place for the kids to walk on Via Amorita. The city hasn't come full circle yet. If they were really sincere, they'd put in sidewalks so our kids wouldn't have to walk on the streets."

Alvarez also criticized the drop-off and pick-up zones on Woodruff Avenue, which she says prevents her family from parking on the street before and after school.

Nonetheless, councilmembers maintain their decision will promote a safer experience for kids and parents during the busy hours before and after classes at Doty Middle School.

"I couldn't have this on my conscience. Number one, it's safety and number two, it's liability," said Mayor Mario Guerra. "It's not even a question to me anymore -- I cannot not vote for this."

********** Published: Sept. 12, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 22