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Taking the high road: Infrastructure improvements coming to the Jewel

The road less-well traveled is being taken in upgrading La Jolla’s infrastructure.

Plans are forging ahead to create three more roundabout traffic circles in Bird Rock and to sychronize traffic signalization to decrease congestion in the Throat. Progress is also being made on plans to rectify - and beautify - problems with pedestrian safety and aesthetics along the Torrey Pines Road gateway corridor.

Those road infrastructure improvements, some in progress, others about to begin and a few still a ways off, will ultimately make it easier for vehicles to get into and out of La Jolla, as well as make it safer for pedestrians crossing the street.

But getting there could be a bumpy ride.

Perhaps the most visible and ambitious road infrastructure improvement project slated for the Jewel is the three remaining roundabouts to be built along La Jolla Boulevard in Bird Rock. Mike Arnold of the city of San Diego’s traffic engineering division, said work on phase one of the project, adding roundabouts at Camino De La Costa, Bird Rock Avenue and Forward Street, joining two existing traffic circles built by Seahaus condominiums at Midway and Colima Streets, has been delayed due to a bidding glitch.

But not to worry, said Arnold, the $975,000 cost for phase one of the project, the roundabouts themselves, has been secured and the project will be delivered. “If all goes well with bidding and advertising, and there’s no rejected bids this time,” he said, “it looks like we’ll be awarding the bid for those roundabouts the end of may, the first part of June.”

The roundabout infrastructure improvement project is in two phases. One involves the traffic circles themselves. The other deals with side street improvements such as bulb outs and other traffic-calming measures. Plans for each now call for them to be constructed concurrently.

“Both phases of the project are on a parallel timetable,” said Arnold, “and it’s now looking like these two overlapping projects will be awarded at the same time. The duration of construction for everything would be about 176 working days: eight months.”

The entire roundabout project is targeted for completion in January or February 2008.

As with the first two Bird Rock roundabouts, once construction begins, Hard Hat Communications will serve as a liaison between the city and businesses and the community, addressing concerns over the rerouting of traffic and parking while construction is ongoing.

Reaction to the resurrection of the roundabout project in Bird Rock has been mostly positive. But not everyone, like Dave Burton, who lives at 5940 La Jolla Blvd. near one of the three new traffic circles to be built, is convinced they’re really the best alternative overall for traffic calming.

“I don’t think they work, they’re undersize, not like roundabouts in Europe or anywhere else,” said Burton. “You watch trucks and buses drive over the curbs and ram into things. They’re also immensely prohibitive for the people who have businesses along La Jolla Boulevard. I find it incredible that we want to go through this all again and spend the money to do something I find ineffectual.”

Cory Schmelzer, a past president of Bird Rock Community Council and former Seahaus resident who owns two parcels of property on the 5400 block of La Jolla Boulevard, disagrees with Burton, believing the traffic circles have done everything for which they were intended.

“For awhile there I was crossing that street daily walking my dog,” said Schmelzer, “and it made the street much safer, much more peaceful. Instead of being scared to cross the street, it was neat almost. It was kind of an experience.”

Schmelzer believes the two existing Bird Rock roundabouts have accomplished their goal of slowing traffic, while enhancing the aesthetics of the street. “It looks dramatically better,” he said.

The roundabouts have had other public benefits, in Schmelzer’s view. “I think property values on the block have gone up,” he said. “The other issue is parking. I find it much easier, with a single lane, to park there and get in and out of traffic. I have felt no delays in getting through Bird Rock because of those roundabouts.”

Another important road project in the Jewel that is in the works is traffic signal synchronization of the throat intersection at Torrey Pines Road, realignment of which was accomplished a couple of years ago. Traffic through the infamously bottlenecked intersection was significantly streamlined by road realignment.

“It was working,” said city senior traffic engineer Ahmed Aburahmah. “It never came to my attention that people were complaining about the timing of the traffic signals.”

But Aburahmah noted the timing of the signalization is very old, three years now, and it has since been brought to the attention of the city that four different traffic signals along the major thoroughfare are no longer in perfect harmony, causing renewed traffic congestion. Said Aburahmah: “Staff member Siavash Pazargadi came to us and stated that the coordination between these signals may not be optimized. That’s what we’re doing, coordinating with staff to optimize the

synchronization to the point where they can carry the maximum flow of traffic.”

It has therefore become necessary for the city to reengineer traffic signals along Torrey Pines Road to recalibrate them, giving them an operational tune up. A problem has arisen with updating traffic counts along the Throat intersection, but Aburahmah doesn’t see that as a major obstacle in recalibrating the coordination between the traffic lights. “Using the existing counts that we have,” he said, “we should be able to do some improvement.”

Significant progress is also being made on another visionary infrastructure improvement project to construct long-term traffic and streetscape upgrades along the Torrey Pines Road corridor leading into and out of La Jolla, which is designed to make the corridor more pedestrian-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. However, a controversial bump in the road has surfaced: Controversy over putting in a proposed new traffic signal at Princess Street.

Nonetheless, that traffic signal was approved Feb. 1 by the La Jolla Community Planning Association, La Jolla’s advisory group on planning and land-use issues for the city. Robert Thiele, a La Jolla architect who has spearheaded the Torrey Pines Road corridor improvement project, said it is forging ahead and will likely be brought by city traffic engineers to the City Council in six months for their approval.

“The Torrey Pines Road plan accommodates safe pedestrian walkways between La Jolla Village and La Jolla Shores,” said Thiele, “with five-foot-wide unobstructed sidewalks and 18-inch planted parkways that separate pedestrian traffic from automobile and bicycle traffic. The Torrey Pines Road plan will provide continous bike lanes betwen Prospect Place and the Throat on both sides. The new signal on Princess Street will provide safe pedestrian crossing for the first time.”

One of 19 recommendations in the Torrey Pines road plan has been abandoned, a proposal to create pedestrian refuge areas in center medians, discarded due to a conflict with the need for emergency medical vehicles like ambulances to access those medians during busy traffic times.

Refinement of streetscapes along the Torrey Pines corridor could also add two pocket parks, one on LIttle Street, and the other at Amalfi Street. Thiele said streetscape refinements also call for providing cobblestone guardrails at three locations, similar to ones now existing at La Jolla Cove. “The cobblestone guardrails will be located between Coast Walk and Prospect Place on the ocean side of the sidewalk,” said Thiele, “providing new panoramic views of La Jolla Shores from Torrey Pines Road.”

But Thiele cautioned the Torrey Pines Road plan is a long-range project with uncertain funding. “Realistically, it will be five years before it’s completed,” he said.

Council President Scott Peters, whose First Council District includes La Jolla, is encouraged by progress being made in La Jolla on improving the community’s road infrastructure. “We know there will be efficiencies to the existing infrastructure synchronizing those lights on Torrey Pines Road,” Peters said. “During my term, we’ve paved most of the major roads in La Jolla, the big collector streets. By combining water and sewer projects, most of Torrey Pines has gotten done. That’s one way to deal with infrastructure improvement: piggyback it on other projects.”

Peters noted the most heavily traveled thoroughfare in La Jolla, the Torrey Pines Road section between UCSD and the Throat, is scheduled for repaving. “It could be any time,” Peters said. “The Council has already authorized half million dollars to pay for that.”

Peters acknowledged road repairs, both large and small, are high on most La Jollans’ lists of things which need to be done to improve the public sector.