Agua Caliente stop sign a no-go

A grassroots effort to slow traffic along one of the Springs neighborhood’s busiest streets has stalled, according to the Sonoma County Transportation and Public Works Department, which has rejected neighbors’ requests to erect a permanent stop sign at a key intersection along Agua Caliente Road.

The decision is a disappointment to many local residents, who have long been concerned that a serious injury or fatal accident could be on its way near the crossing of Agua Caliente Road and Lake Street.

Despite the lack of signage, however, other public works efforts to curtail speeding on Agua Caliente Road have been moderately successful, according to findings presented by County officials at a community meeting Thursday, Feb. 9, at the Sonoma Charter School. About three dozen community members were in attendance at the meeting at which public works representatives addressed the County’s conclusions following a study of the viability of an Agua Caliente/Lake stop sign.

Ultimately, according to the County’s assistant traffic engineer Andrew Manalastas, the department concluded that the study does not support installing a stop sign.

“We’ve measured the speed of traffic along Agua Caliente Road, to get a sense of what is really going on there,” said Manalastas, who said that Public Works officials have been monitoring the traffic in the area since receiving a steady flow of complaints about speeding cars and impaired sightlines over the last two years. Residents attempting to pull out of their driveways onto the street say that parked cars and shrubbery often block their view, creating a hazard when attempting to merge into fast-moving traffic.

According to Manalastas, the study shows that 85 percent of drivers along that stretch were traveling at or below 37 mph in the 30 mph zone – not considered sufficient enough, by state law and national standards, to mandate a stop sign.

“After a lot of discussion with CHP and the members of the community,” Manalastas said, “our course of action was to install what we call ‘radar feedback signs,’ which are signs that tell you how fast you are going, and if you are exceeding the speed limit, flash a message telling you to slow down.”

The signs, installed near the corner of Valletti Drive and Agua Caliente, and just west of the fire station near Sonoma Highway, display drivers’ speeds below 30 mph, and flash a “slow down” message when speeds exceed the limit. According to Manalastas, subsequent surveys show that 85 percent of drivers slowed to 35 mph. after passing the signs.

“Drivers are still speeding,” Manalastas pointed out, “but not as much. An average of 34 or 35 miles per hour in a 30-mile per hour zone is considered enforceable.”

Regarding neighbors’ concerns about impaired sightlines, Manalastas reported that the County has trimmed vegetation, developed a “no parking” ordinance at certain points on the street, painting red curbs around targeted driveways, and posting a “no parking” sign at the corner of Agua Caliente Road and Lake Street.

Despite these improvements, neighbors continue to report frequent speeding, and continued problems with limited visibility along the road, Manalastas said. He said the County could potentially add more red curbs and “no parking” zones, but the diminished parking would create other problems, forcing cars onto nearby streets, most of which are already crowded.

California Highway Patrol Captain Chris Childs added that speed limits are largely determined by the average speed of drivers, not by the concerns of pedestrians and residents.

“People will often get a speeding ticket, and will challenge it in court,” said Childs. “They usually claim that there are no studies that justify drivers keeping their speeds at whatever the given speed limit is. And sometimes they persuade a judge that that’s the case.”

Manalaskas said that official speed limits are typically based on surveys like the one conducted on Agua Caliente Road. State law, he said, mandates that speed limits are based on the prevailing speed of traffic in a given area.

“The reason people tend to drive fast on Agua Caliente,” said Manalaskas, “is that conditions along that road make it possible for them to drive faster.”

Because of these factors, he said, the speed limit on Agua Caliente Road can’t be reduced to 25 mph – a common request from residents.

“State law tends to tie or hands as to how low we can set speed limits in areas where people are driving fast,” Manalaskas said.

Childs was asked by one attendee if this means illegal speeders are setting the speed limits.

“Yes, exactly,” he said. “If the speed drops... to the point that a lower limit could be enforceable, then we can lower the speed limit. But while people are driving fast, it’s hard to make the speed limits lower – without people claiming that we’re arbitrarily setting the limits low so we can write more tickets.”

Childs said state law forbids municipalities from setting arbitrary speed limits.

“Otherwise, municipalities can set limits at 5 mph all over town and write tickets all day,” said Childs. “So the way to get the speed limit to be legally lowered on your street, is to talk to your neighbors and everyone you can, and get them to drive slower.”

Email David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.