The head and the heart.
It was a comparison drawn multiple times Tuesday night as the Santa Barbara City Council tackled whether to install traffic lights at two intersections on Milpas Street.
At one of those intersections, Milpas and Ortega streets, 15-year-old Sergio Romero was killed last fall after a driver speeding southbound hit the boy while he was walking across the street.
Since that incident, Romero’s family and neighborhood residents have implored the city to slow traffic by installing a light at the intersection. But city staff have responded that certain criteria must first be met to install a light.
On Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously to install pedestrian-activated rapid flashing lights at the intersection of Milpas and Ortega streets, as well as restriping the road to allow for a raised median.
At Milpas and Yanonali streets, another area of concern, the council approved the installation of overhead mounted pedestrian-activated flashers that would extend over the roadway. The southbound bus stop at Yanonali Street also will be removed so that pedestrians and eastbound stopped vehicles will be better able to see.
The council made that decision after a three-hour meeting during which nearly all of the public commenters pleaded with city officials to install traffic signals at the intersections.
The most poignant of those pleas came from Romero’s mother, Lupe Ramirez, who spoke through a translator. Ramirez has been at the half-dozen meetings held by the city to discuss what to do with the intersection, each time speaking on behalf of her son and people who walk the area.
“I don’t want to move your feelings,” she told the council. “I just want you to think, ‘What is it worth?’”
Ramirez implored the council to think about the families who live and work on Milpas Street.
The city looked at several alternatives for those intersections, and city traffic engineer Derek Bailey walked the council through all of them. One alternative included completely removing the crosswalk and bus stop, encouraging people to cross elsewhere.
“This didn’t get a very good reaction from the community,” Bailey said.
The council ultimately approved a rapid flashing beacon, one that Bailey said has shown significant success in getting drivers to yield. It’s more of a strobe light than the slower blinking lights that exist in Old Town Goleta.
Because Milpas Street is 64 feet wide, a third device would be necessary to catch the attention of drivers.
Bailey said there’s no room for a median island right now, and parking spaces would have to be removed. However, he said, many business owners in the area opposed the idea.
The decision was a loss to those on the Neighborhood Advisory Council, who had advocated for lights in the area.
Javier Limon, a member of the advisory council, said a flashing light would be “a gamble” as to whether people would stop or not. “A red light and people know to stop,” he said, adding he’d rather have 100 collisions a year than one death.
“Eight out of the 10 stoplights above the highway have them,” he said. “Let’s be honest, drivers are trained to stop at red lights.”
Silvia Uribe of the group LatiDems said lights were also unwarranted on Cabrillo Boulevard but were put in to protect tourists.
“Why not protect Santa Barbara residents?” she said.
Abel Maldonado also came out to speak. He recently opened an office on Milpas Street and said people had been coming in and asking him to do something about the speed at both intersections.
“I know that cost is an issue, but public safety is more important,” he told the council. “You can put a traffic signal there if you want. ... The people want it.”
But City Attorney Steve Wiley said the city could be liable for future accidents if it doesn’t act in accordance with traffic safety standards.
“If you ignore those standards, you do so at your own risk, and you could be liable,” he said.
Bailey said the city will keep a close eye on the device for up to a year to see how it’s working.
“For decades, really, this has been an issue,” Councilman Bendy White said to Bailey. “You’re making a recommendation that goes against the common wisdom of a lot of people in this room.”
Bailey said there’s a likelihood that vehicle-on-vehicle crashes could increase if traffic lights were installed.
“What we’re trying to do is find a solution that focuses on pedestrian safety,” he said.
Councilman Dale Francisco commended Bailey for his work, and also acknowledged how horrible accidents can be. Francisco mentioned Maria August, a pedestrian who was hit earlier this month and nearly lost her life.
“The issue is, what is the absolute best in terms of public safety?” he said, adding that he supported Bailey’s solution.
Councilwoman Cathy Murillo also seemed to struggle with the emotional weight of the decision.
“For the sake of Lupe, I wish I could put in the traffic signal for you if it would relieve your pain,” Murillo lamented to Romero’s mother, but added that she had to rely on the expertise of city staff.
Murillo also admonished staff to communicate with the Eastside about the Milpas corridor.
“Why didn’t we communicate with them five years ago about the complicated nature of all this?” she asked, adding that the residents might not have felt as ignored.
Mayor Helene Schneider also commended Ramirez for speaking, and offered condolences for the loss of her son.
“Thank you for being here,” she said.
Schneider also acknowledged the head and heart working in the discussion, and pledged, along with other members of the council, to continue to look at Milpas-related traffic issues during city planning discussions.