Figuring Out The Future of Central Avenue

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

McKINLEYVILLE – Residents are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on a proposal to make safety improvements to the town’s main thoroughfare.

The current phase of the Central Avenue project is to gather information, identify problem spots and get public input.

During its first meeting of the year on Jan. 29, the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee (McKMAC) gathered to discuss Central Avenue and move the process forward. It was an opportunity to schedule an upcoming walking tour, a special town hall meeting, get a perspective on Central Avenue from the local fire department and hear about the results of a survey of local merchants.

Walking tour of Central Ave.

Humboldt County Public Works Director Tom Mattson was in attendance so that he could schedule a walking tour of Central Avenue with the McKMAC. The idea is for the group to walk from Anna Sparks Way at the Mill Creek Marketplace, up to Hiller Road near the McKinleyville Shopping Center and back. While doing so, they would discuss problem spots along that stretch of roadway, as well as possible solutions.

They are limiting themselves to this particular stretch because the county has obtained $1 million in grant funding to make improvements at this specific area. The county had originally proposed building a raised median strip with the grant, but that idea was strongly opposed by the McKMAC and other residents, so the idea was dropped.

The walking tour takes place from 2 to 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 25. Attendees will meet at Anna Sparks Way to begin the tour and will ultimately traverse both sides of Central Avenue.

Then, from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 12, a public meeting will be held to gather input on ideas for improving Central Avenue. A venue has yet to be selected for the meeting.

Fire Dept. weighs in

Arcata Fire Chief Desmond Cowan provided the McKMAC with statistics for the calls firefighters responded to on Central Avenue between Anna Sparks Way and Hiller Road.

Between 2002 and 2013, Arcata Fire responded to 947 calls along that one stretch of roadway.

The vast majority of calls, 596, were for people needing medical aid. Cowan told the McKMAC “505 of those were strictly medical. So somebody had chest pains, difficulty breathing, broke their ankle getting out of their car, or whatever it was.”

So how dangerous is this portion of Central Avenue for pedestrians and bicyclists?

“In that 12 year period, we had three bicycle accidents and seven motor vehicle versus pedestrian” accidents, Cowan said. That is a total of 10 pedestrian/bicycle related accidents over a period of 12 years.

The department does not have information on who was at fault in those accidents.

During those 12 years, there were 42 motor vehicle accidents.

“What we’ve seen – and I’m not minimizing anybody’s concerns – but what we’ve seen in emergency services is that if people are driving a reasonably modern car and wearing a seatbelt typically – and again this is a generalization – typically they walk away from the call with minimal injuries,” Cowan said.

The reason for this, he said, is because modern cars are built with airbags and more safety features.

“The nature of cars today versus 20 years ago – they’re an entirely different thing,” he said.

Whatever improvements are sought for Central Avenue must be done in a way that does not hinder the department’s ability to respond to calls.

“We have a need to efficiently access businesses and residences off Central Avenue,” Cowan said. “And Central is a little bit of a different kind of a duck, because if you’re in Arcata, Eureka, or many other towns, they’re built on a grid.” Central Avenue, however, is a strip. In many sections, there is no way to go around the block or access businesses on a different roadway.

As for the importance of the fire department being able to use the continuous middle turn lane that runs down Central Avenue, Cowan said it depends on traffic conditions.

During the morning, lunch hour and late afternoon, traffic dramatically increases on Central Avenue. Sometimes there are enough cars on the road that motorists cannot get over to the right when they hear the fire engine sirens. In this case, the fire trucks use the middle lane.

“That central lane becomes pretty critical,” Cowan said.”It is a critical component in our ability to make it through town.”

Cowan was asked if the fire department needed anything special in front of the McKinleyville Fire Station, like a blinking light or signs informing motorists to keep the lanes clear.

Cowan said that a button installed many years ago inside the fire station has solved that problem. When firefighters are dispatched to a call, they hit the button before jumping in their fire trucks.

“It changes the light pattern on Central to clear the intersection in front of the station,” Cowan said.

Traffic lights turn green to clear traffic headed away from the McKinleyville Station, and lights turn red to stop traffic from coming toward the station, thereby clearing the way.
“I think having this dialogue and looking at the real concerns of the community’s needs will get us to the right place where everybody’s concerns will be addressed,” Cowan said.

Merchant survey

Heather Vina, executive director of the McKinleyville Chamber of Commerce, reported on a survey of local merchants that she recently conducted.

She attempted to contact a total of 62 businesses. Representatives from 50 of those businesses were available to talk to Vina.

Of those businesses, about half had never heard of the McKMAC or the McKinleyville Organizing Committee, which is also pushing for Central Avenue improvements.

When asked if they had experienced or noticed safety issues when accessing Central Avenue, 50 percent said no. A tiny fraction cited problems with the central turn lane and turns at stoplights.

Many of those polled had no comments, or suggested that nothing be done to the roadway.

Some said they wanted more sidewalks, while others said that there were visibility issues caused by the Central Avenue landscaping.

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