New Traffic Pattern On Trinity Drive Following New County Council Vote On Road Diet

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Trinity Drive looks different to drivers with following re-striping. Courtesy photo

BY MAIRE O’NEILL
maire@losalamosreporter.com

Los Alamos residents were surprised to see new striping on Trinity Drive between Diamond Drive and Oppenheimer this week as part of a new “road diet” approved by Los Alamos County Council Wednesday by a 4-3 vote. On May 26, the road diet was voted down 4-3 by the Council but was placed back on the agenda for this week’s meeting for reconsideration at the request of Council Vice Chair Randy Ryti who along with Councilors Katrina Martin, James Robinson and Antonio Maggiore had voted “no” May 26.

Ryti told the Los Alamos Reporter Saturday that after the vote on May 26, he continued to think about the pros and cons of the re-striping proposal which reduces travel to two lanes with a third lane in the center for turning.

“One of the facts I realized after the May 26 meeting is that this section of Trinity Drive is residential on both the north and south sides of the road. I was concerned about travel speeds of vehicles on Trinity and thinking about alternatives to the road diet to achieve lower speeds. A main factor in pedestrian fatalities is the speed of traffic. For example fatality rates are more than 80 percent for traffic going 40 mph,” he said.

Ryti said that on June 3, Councilor David Izraelevitz informed him of the Council rule that allows an item to be reevaluated if a councilor voting in the majority asks to have it placed back on the agenda. He said he contacted County Manager Harry Burgess the same day to see if June 9 would still be timely in terms of taking action.

“I was asking if the Department of Transportation would have already proceeded with applying striping for the 2-travel lane option. Given the answer was that June 9 would still be timely I asked for Mr. Burgess to put this item back on the Council agenda for that meeting,” he said.

Ryti said when Council discussed the road diet May 26, he had two main concerns.

“First, I was concerned about the section of Trinity approaching Oppenheimer Drive and how cyclists might be able to merge into vehicle traffic. I was thinking that we had some options for signage and road markings to facilitate this transition. I also was interested in knowing if Oppenheimer might be designated as a bike route as the Trinity Drive bike lanes would terminate at Oppenheimer,” he said. “I discussed both of these suggestions with Public Works Department Manager Anne Laurent and County Engineer Eric Martinez. Public Works was receptive to addressing this concern and getting feedback on these options from users.”

Ryti said his second and larger concern was that he wanted to make sure the County monitored the actual performance of the road diet with respect to traffic flow, safety, usage by all modes of transportation, and general user satisfaction.

“I also realized that when we discussed the item on May 26, many in the public may not have realized NMDOT was asking the Council for this resolution. So I added an additional part to the motion to make sure we reviewed the project after one year and after two years,” he said. “The main benefit of the re-striping is that we can put back the two travel lane option if the road diet is not working. During my conversation with Public Works I was told that the re-striping would be monitored continuously. While I did not think Council and Transportation Board should have detailed updates at every meeting, I agree that we should get an additional update of this project before the end of 2020 or sooner if it is not working.”

Ryti said his main reason for supporting the road diet is safety in a residential section of Trinity.

“We did not have other options presented to us on May 26 such as acquiring additional right of way to widen the road and improve the pedestrian facilities. We also do not have the Canyon Rim Trail segment between 20th Street and Los Alamos Medical Center as originally proposed in March 2011 as an alternate route to Trinity Drive for walkers and cyclists,” he said.

Ryti feels there are some other important issues that should be addressed as Council goes forward.

“The policy matter is that we want our roads to function for all users. We need to make sure that safety and ingress-egress problems are addressed, especially on our County roads. I think we should evaluate Oppenheimer Drive and ingress-egress issues associated with the Los Alamos Police Department. Also, if police and fire cannot safely use Central Avenue, we need to know about that as well. We need to have more information on the condition of the Omega Bridge and its continued safe usage,” he said.

Ryti said that when he was running for Council in 2018, one of his stated goals was to “improve transportation”.

“I recognize we have good facilities for some modes of transportation but we can work to improve them. I have also commented to Council on at least two occasions about the trends we have in New Mexico and nationally related to pedestrian fatalities. We have had some pedestrians killed in Los Alamos while I have lived here,” he said.

Lastly, Ryti said he reads and takes seriously all comments the County Council receives.

“Like the previous studies of Trinity in 2010-2012 and the roundabout project currently underway, I know that people have various opinions and strong preferences. By making sure that we monitor the performance of the road diet I hope people opposed to that option feel like Council has heard their voices,” he said.

At Wednesday’s Council meeting, Laurent, responding to Ryti’s questions, said the DOT scope of work on the Trinity Drive project is re-milling and restriping and that the County had an opportunity to implement the road diet and striping from a section of Oppenheimer to NM 502. She said the signage itself will be under the County’s purview and would be done by the in-house sign shop to DOT’s specifications.

Laurent said the County has the latitude to post any signage that would connect bicyclists on Trinity down Oppenheimer as part of the project and has a variety of different types of signage that would meet the guidelines.

Ryti asked for updates to the Transportation Board and the Council on the performance of the road diet. Laurent said the County would have the ability to do traffic counts and study the performance but also needed to adjust the timings of the traffic signals to optimize them.

“If the modeling was to be completely wrong we could certainly look at a different solution,” Laurent said.  She also noted that medians would be installed as part of the project and that some additional intersection improvements will take place as part of The Hill Apartments project. She said there are plans also to relocate the access to Los Alamos Medical Center.

Martinez said the realignment of 35th and 36th Streets will also take place during the development of The Hill Apartments.

Councilor James Robinson asked about the access permit for the Hills Apartments and whether it is normal for DOT to require a resolution of support for an idea for striping a road. Laurent responded that this specific ask is not one the County has encountered but is consistent with the DOT manual.

“I do think they’re being very cautious because their recommendation is they want to make sure they have community support for making the change. I think their goal is not to mandate that this is the only alternative to how the road can work. That’s why when we did the traffic analysis, we looked at the various alternatives and there is not just one solution,” Laurent said. “One of the reasons the road diet looked so favorable in this particular section of the road is the residential use and how much it reduces the conflicts between the two lanes of traffic stopping to turn left and then stopping the flow of traffic in that lane.”

She said the resolution is part the process, but when asked by Robinson if the County was required to do the same with the roundabout project, she responded that it was not.

Robinson said his concern was how to evacuate several thousand people with two lanes on Diamond and one lane on Trinity and back to two lanes and back down to one lane. Laurent responded that all the options were evaluated.

“We met with emergency services and looked at all the details and got their support,” she said.

“There was no concern from Emergency Services or LAFD that this could delay an evacuation of Los Alamos?” Robinson asked. “Correct,” Laurent responded.

Councilor Katrina Martin was concerned that the road diet would make traffic considerably more dense and make turns in either direction difficult. She asked if there had been public outreach to get the sense of how the public feels about it.

Laurent said that conversations began in 2018 with the Transportation Board which had asked for the road diet option to be considered. She noted that the road diet was discussed in published public meetings.

Councilor Antonio Maggiore voiced concern about public outreach on the road diet. He expressed surprise that people who live along the section of Trinity Drive in question were not given individual notices.

“That is something that should change because those people should have some of the loudest voices in this process and it bothers me that they were not directly consulted. We talk always about transparency and transparency is also being willing to put ourselves out there and I don’t feel that’s happened here,” he said. He said as someone who watches all the traffic stream by on the Omega bridge, I really have doubts about how this will perform. Again don’t think I will support it,” he said.

County Manager Harry Burgess said the road diet went in front of the Transportation Board and came in front of Council last year and that there were “some articles that were in the paper”.

“However this year when it was brought to us it was kind of one of those where ‘we’re going to be here next week and we need a resolution if we’re going to do it this way’ types of requests. It was a situation where we talked about it last year then we had nothing and were under the gun to bring it in front of Council this year. So there was not opportunity for any additional outreach this time,” Burgess said.

Council Vice Chair Pete Sheehey said in the event of an evacuation, he felt it would be “a relatively easy thing for police to put down a couple of cones and establish that the center turn lane is now a second evacuation lane”.

Councilor Robinson asked Laurent if the Council didn’t pass the resolution approving the road diet, would the state not accept the County’s access permit for the realignment of 35th Street.

“No, because we knew we had to come before Council and we didn’t know what the decision was and because this access permit was a requirement to have in place in April so that we could transfer the property under the terms of the development agreement for that sale we requested they put in alternative language that they would just maintain the current striping configuration,” she responded.

Robinson said again he is not favor of the road diet and is a little  disappointed that it came back after this Council voted it down.

“I think that was an interesting change. I know it’s within our Council rules, I’ve just never seen it before. Originally I was fine with this first motion to send this idea to DOT recognizing that they would pick the idea that we generated and they would move forward with it. I did not expect them to come back with a requirement in a permit for our support. That to me is not how business has been currently done and I am not in favor of it being done now,” Robinson said.

Robinson noted that the stretch of road involved is a main thoroughfare for a lot of the town.

“I don’t believe that reducing it and adding bike lanes will make it any easier for our emergency services to go up and down that road. In fact, I think it will make it more complicated. Should there be an accident now, there is an open lane for traffic to go around. Should there be an accident in the road diet, that shuts down one whole lane of Trinity to either the turn lane which has now become a thoroughfare for both turns or we sit and wait,” Robinson said. “ I am also fearful that the amount of traffic that comes off that road on any given day that the Lab lets out will back up traffic past the intersections and onto a bridge that already has been cited as being too old for the capacity that it’s existing for.”

He said it’s one thing to back up traffic to Pajarito Road on State Route 4, because that’s a nice solid road but that it’s another thing to put standing cars on a bridge that is not structurally sound.

“My main concern is the evacuation of this town. We’ve done it twice where the advantages of Trinity are a maximum of four lanes. We can dump traffic from Diamond onto Trinity. We have no merging, reopening, merging,” he said.

Councilor David Izraelevitz addressed the concerns about bottlenecks.

“When you have multiple bottlenecks it’s the smallest bottleneck that’s going to bound your performance and we’ve heard time and time again that it’s the signalized intersections that bound the performance. You can have two, three, four lanes on Trinity but if you’re evacuating and you’re going off the Main Hill Road which is a two-lane winding mountain road – that is going to be fundamentally the bottleneck even if you discount the signalized intersections,” he said.

Izraelevitz said he going back to public comment, he agrees that Council should have as much public comment as it can.

“Remember that we’re going to have The Hills Apartments which is 135 apartments so we’re talking 400 people. Who speaks for them? Our decision today is going to affect their capacity to turn left or right – their quality of life in terms of walkability around Trinity. We can’t ask them what they think because they’re not there yet. That is why it is our responsibility to put ourselves in the position of those future residents and make the decision that is best not just for our current residents and the current neighbors and current commuters but to think strategically about our long-term view of our community so I would encourage our fellow councilors to keep that in mind,” he said.

Izraelevitz noted he was not saying Council shouldn’t listen to public comment.

“I think that’s very important, but there are many other considerations and this is a perfect example. Hundreds of people are going to be affected by our decision today and there really is no way to measure their opinion. Those future citizens are relying on our best judgment and on our objective evaluation. I appreciate that we have an opportunity to reconsider this, and that is why I seconded the motion,” he said.

Maggiore said when the road diet was pitched to Council, it was “let’s try this and we can paint it back”.

“That is going to be my rebuttal to Councilor Izraelevitz. If and when the Hill Apartments are built, which is 2022-2023, this can be most definitely revisited. But at present it does not seem to me to make sense or be necessary,” he said.

Last to comment before the vote, Chair Sara Scott said it was her understanding based on the analysis that’s been done by professional engineers that there are safety and walkability concerns for pedestrians, bikers and cars with the current configuration.

“It was described as non-functioning at the new intersection of the realigned 35th Street, 37th Street and Trinity, that intersection that is going to be upgraded in the future. I believe the term used in the analysis is ‘that intersection fails” so the road diet approach to address those issues as well as future concerns was proposed and validated by the Transportation Board, the County engineers and the state engineers, and so I support this approach,” she said.

The new vote on the road diet was 4-3 with Councilors Scott, Izraelevitz, Sheehey and Ryti voting in favor.