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Cynthia Sweeney 

Speeding, accidents, long wait-times, and precarious pedestrian crossings.

Residents of Foothill Boulevard had their say at the last city council meeting April 2, when it was decided that a stoplight will go in at the corner of Foothill and Petrified Forest Road.

Not everyone agrees that money spent on a stoplight at the busy intersection is a good solution. However, a stoplight at that intersection has been on the city books for decades, and funds are specially earmarked for one at three places in town. The other two are Lincoln and Foothill, and Lincoln and Fair Way. On April 2, the city gave the project at Petrified Forest the green light.

Several residents who live on Foothill testified at the meeting that speeding and reckless driving are daily issues on that road. One resident talked about accidents she witnesses right outside her driveway, and another has gone so far as to videotape speeders on the road.

I sat down with Police Chief Mitch Celaya last week to discuss traffic on Foothill, and the stoplight project. He said he is well aware of the problems on that road, and faces a number of challenges in patrolling it.

A big problem is speed. Between Lincoln and Petrified Forest the posted speed is 35 mph.

“We’ve caught people going faster than 55 mph. The challenge is individuals who are familiar with the area, the commuters and people who live in the area. They know the roadway and take it for granted, they use shortcuts and they are speeding. Most tourists follow the speed limits. Nine times out of 10 (the speeders) are locals,” he said.

Positioning a police car visible on the side of the road is also a challenge because of narrow shoulders. And there is a lack of manpower. The department has ongoing difficulties in recruiting officers to work in our small town. They want more action and more chance to advance their career, Celaya said.

Officers are also hesitant to pull speeders over into residential driveways for obvious reasons.

A meter that flashes drivers’ speed has been posted on Foothill, but the problem with those is that after drivers see it there and for a while slow down, but with no consequences, they start to ignore it.

Another problem for residents is pulling out onto the busy road. Often there is not a clear line of sight because of shrubbery or cars parked on the shoulder.

“It’s been characterized as not a real safe place to get on or off Foothill,” Celaya said.

As for the intersection at Petrified Forest, “Clearly, that area of Foothill is an extremely busy road. It’s impacted by commute traffic, people traveling from Santa Rosa, Sonoma County to Napa. We’ve noticed, and I’m sure others have, in the afternoons, particularly between about 4–6:30 it backs up, it’s incredible how far it backs up, from the stop signs,” he said.

A particular problem for police is drivers who recklessly avoid the long line of cars making a left turn onto Petrified Forest.

“The get frustrated so they drive on the shoulder to the entrance of the Rancho de Calistoga Mobile Home Park, make a right, then a U-turn to get onto Petrified Forest. The problem is there is not the line of sight, if you’re passing a truck. We’ve had some near misses and complaints by pedestrians and people living in the mobile home park,” Celaya said.

But the police chief is not sure a stoplight is the answer.

“Things like traffic signals and turnarounds are great when they work together. A traffic signal at that intersection would be great. But if it’s not timed with any single light at Lincoln Avenue you will have these backups. You might temporarily have a solution for Foothill and Petrified Forest, but then what is the unintended consequence for Foothill and Lincoln?” he said.

It would also be important to have the light timed for different levels of traffic during the day. And what about timers in the pavement that sense a driver has approached?

At the April 2 meeting, Council Member Don Williams brought up the point that a green light can give drivers a false sense of permission to speed through an intersection, whereas a stop sign forces drivers to stop and look around before proceeding.

Mayor Chris Canning acknowledged “unintended consequences,” but countered at the city council meeting that the majority of comments he receives from residents is that something needs to be done about the intersection.

“The community has been calling for some kind of mitigation and this is the best call,” he said.

Chief Celaya said, “Even though we do patrol the area we could probably do more. It’s challenging.”

Another problem (do we need one more?) is the street surveys for that area are way out of date, by at least 15 or 20 years in Celaya’s best estimate. He is working with the county to get Calistoga roadways, especially Lincoln and Foothill resurveyed. And is also working with CHP to get some help in patrolling the roadway.

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