Fresno City Council weighs $1.7m trail tunnel question in wake of fatal crash
Donovan Maldonado was killed by a suspected drunken driver last month while riding his bicycle across a deceptively complex intersection in northeast Fresno.
Now the City Council must decide whether to proceed with the construction of a long-planned $1.7 million pedestrian tunnel beneath the spot on Shepherd Avenue where the 7-year-old boy was hit.
The decision may not be a slam-dunk yes. Is there a less-expensive but effective way to get trail-users safely from one side of Shepherd to the other? Should the city save scarce dollars for new trails in parts of town without them?
Some council members said they’re chewing on those questions.
“The key is: What else could you do with this money?” said Council Member Lee Brand, who represents northeast Fresno. “No matter where it comes from, it’s still taxpayer money. Is this the best way to spend it?”
Council Member Oliver Baines said he can’t think of a pedestrian trail in his southwest Fresno district like the one Donovan was on. He said he hasn’t had time to study the proposed Shepherd tunnel, but added that he knows what his constituents want.
“The people of southwest Fresno would like to have trails, too,” Baines said.
Council Member Sal Quintero, a 20-year City Hall-veteran who represents southeast Fresno, said he wonders if a tunnel with a seven-figure price tag is the wisest choice.
Even Mark Keppler, the Fresno State business professor who is perhaps the city’s most ardent champion of pedestrian trails, said he’s not 100% sure the tunnel is necessary.
“I’m not an expert,” Keppler said. “I leave that decision to the city.”
An unusual crossing
The death of Donovan has shaken City Hall and shined a harsh spotlight on its growing system of pedestrian trails.
Donovan was killed July 25 while riding a bicycle on the crosswalk where the Sugar Pine Trail intersects Shepherd. He and family members, some on foot, were out for evening exercise with friends.
Donovan was crossing Shepherd from north to south. He was on the inside of two westbound lanes when hit around 9 p.m. by a car. He was dragged several hundred yards and later died of his injuries.
His father, Jesse Maldonado, and his 18-month-old sister, Bella, were together on a bicycle near Donovan. Both were seriously injured.
Police arrested Loren LeBeau, the 42-year-old coach of the Central High School boys basketball team, on suspicion of drunken driving and vehicular manslaughter. His blood-alcohol level was 0.11, above the state’s 0.08 limit for intoxicated driving.
The Sugar Pine Trail in Fresno is about seven miles of a longer trail system that runs along an old rail line through Fresno and Clovis. The regional trails program has long been a passion with city and community leaders. Better health, cleaner air, civic amenity — the program pushes all the right buttons.
Keppler said he began pushing for the Sugar Pine Trail some 15 years ago.
The challenge is building a trail with smooth flow for walkers, joggers and bicyclists in an urban landscape. Users of the Sugar Pine Trail, for example, traverse streets sometimes through tunnels, sometimes at intersections with traffic signals.
City officials said Sugar Pine Trail advocates from the beginning wanted the trail to be faithful to the old rail line — no deviation if possible.
That led to Fresno City Hall’s engineering challenge where the old rail line crosses Shepherd, between Millbrook and Perrin avenues.
Heading west, the old rail line — and, therefore, the trail — runs parallel to Shepherd as it goes past Millbrook on the north side of the street. Then, about 150 yards west of Millbrook, the old rail line veers to the southwest, across Shepherd. It continues in this direction to the intersection of Audubon and Cole avenues, near River Park, about a half-mile away.
How to get trail-users safely across Shepherd, with its 40-mph posted speed limit?
Route them over the cross-walk at Millbrook with its stop lights, even though this would mean a brief trek on a city sidewalk rather than the old rail line?
Or maintain the purity of the rails-to-trails concept and devise a crossing that seeks a balance between the needs of motorists and trail-users?
The city came up with a two-part answer. Build a surface-level trail-crossing with no stop lights but plenty of warning signs and flashing lights to maximize everyone’s safety. Then, when the money comes through, build a pedestrian tunnel.
As city officials have said repeatedly, it’s all a matter of priorities in a world with many demands but limited resources.
City Hall’s decision to follow the old rail line rather than use the Millbrook crosswalk produced a distinctive crossing.
Simply put, there’s a lot going on at the Shepherd/trail intersection.
Someone approaching the crossing on the north side of Shepherd will see two poles with yellow flashing lights. These are an early warning to motorists. Public Works director Patrick Wiemiller has said the lights were working on July 25.
The crossing has plenty of signs. Some tell motorists they’re nearing a crosswalk. Others tell trail-users that they nearing a crossing where motorists aren’t required to stop.
Shepherd has two lanes headed west, two headed east, with a wide median island. The hash-marked trail crosswalk is angled. A trail-user has a longer journey than if the crosswalk were perpendicular to the street. Because of the angle, a trail-user crossing the westbound lanes from north to south also is facing partially away from oncoming traffic.
Much of northeast Fresno’s geography is gently rolling. Shepherd runs slightly downhill as it passes Millbrook and approaches the trail crossing. Westbound cars can hit a green light at Millbrook and continue toward the crossing.
Asked if the crossing is well-designed, Public Works assistant director Scott Mozier said, “We would say it is. It has all the standard and required signage [and] quite a bit of warning.”
But trails advocate Keppler said the crossing could be improved. For example, he said, flashing warning lights could be embedded on the crosswalk at street-level. He said the city might install synchronized pedestrian push-buttons that would activate the stop-lights at Millbrook and Perrin when someone wants to cross.
“If you just be smart about it, that crossing would be fine,” Keppler said.
Mozier said city policy discourages surface-level warning lights in crosswalks, in part because of maintenance concerns. He said it’s impractical to have Shepherd’s traffic flow affected at Millbrook and Perrin every time a trail-user pushes a button at the crossing.
But there is a tunnel coming to make such debate moot, right?
Tunnel has critics
Trail advocates have pitched a Shepherd tunnel for years. And from the beginning, the idea had its critics.
Brand and Keppler said nearby residents worried the tunnel could attract taggers, the homeless and violent criminals.
It’s not clear if those worries have faded. However, the city for several years has identified the tunnel as a planned project.
The tunnel also figures to be a big job. According to city documents, the tunnel would be 12 feet in diameter and feature pre-cast arch culverts. In essence, dig a hole, plop in a tube, top off with dirt and asphalt. But any city utilities must be moved and tunnel approaches must be at an angle gradual enough to comply with laws protecting the disabled.
Shepherd would be closed during this work.
The City Council, through various budget votes, already has given a green light to Public Works to seek bids from contractors to do the project. Construction could begin next summer, when school is out and the effect of Shepherd’s closing is minimized.
But the council will get one last opportunity to weigh in. In perhaps early 2013, council members will vote on whether to accept a bid or reject them all and try again to find a way to get Sugar Pine Trail users from one side of Shepherd to the other.
The nearly $1.7 million — most from a federal grant, the rest from the Measure C sales tax — has restrictions. But, some city officials said, they may not be so severe to preclude potential use of at least some of the money on trails and clean-air initiatives elsewhere in the city.
Brand said all this talk about crosswalk engineering and trail design may appear unseemly while the shock of Donovan’s death remains so fresh in Fresno’s collective mind.
But, Brand added, such public-policy debate is how a city gets better — yet doesn’t happen enough.
“A tragic accident like this shines a light on things that happen behind the scenes,” Brand said. “Something happens and people suddenly say: ‘What’s going on here?’ ”
By George Hostetter