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Emotions Run High at Forum to Discuss Milpas Street Safety in Wake of Romero Death

Members of the public and Neighborhood Advisory Council call for the installation of traffic signals, but Santa Barbara officials say such a move isn't so simple

Last month’s death of 15-year-old Sergio Romero as he walked across Milpas Street was heavy on the minds of Santa Barbara’s Neighborhood Advisory Council and the public Wednesday night as they asked a critical question of police and public works officials: What can be done to prevent another death?

As it turns out, not much — at least for now.

The intersection at Milpas and Ortega streets, where Romero was struck and killed by a truck the night of Oct. 7, was studied several years ago by city staff, who found that it didn’t warrant a traffic light. Federal and state thresholds are high for putting in traffic lights, with one criteria saying that five crashes that would have been corrected by the presence of a light must occur before a light is warranted.

One member of the Neighborhood Advisory Council all but volunteered to crash her own car five times to meet the criteria, which drew laughs but also reflected a more sobering truth: The community is desperate for a change at the intersection.

According to the rules, the severity of the crash doesn’t matter, or even whether it’s a fatality, according to Derek Bailey, who supervises a traffic engineering group with the city of Santa Barbara. His unit evaluates the hot spots among the 1,000 or so crashes that occur in Santa Barbara every year.

A recent transplant from Arizona, Bailey lives in the Lower Eastside neighborhood and admitted that he won’t cross the street at the Yanonali and Milpas intersection.

“I don’t feel comfortable crossing there,” he said, adding that he would go to a signalized light to cross.

The neighborhood has been asking for years for a light at those intersections, ever since an elderly woman was struck and killed while crossing at Yanonali and Milpas.

Out of the scant numbers in the audience, only a half-dozen people chose to speak. Aaron Mendoza talked on behalf of the Romero family.

“This family is torn apart,” he said. “Financially, emotionally, they are completely broken.”

Mendoza held up a picture of a smiling Romero.

“This truly was a good man,” he told the advisory council. “(The family) just wants their voices heard. Think about Sergio and what we can do to avoid this.”

City of Santa Barbara traffic engineer Derek Bailey, left, and assistant public works director Pat Kelley explain the process required to put in a traffic light.
City of Santa Barbara traffic engineer Derek Bailey, left, and assistant public works director Pat Kelley explain the process required to put in a traffic light. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Police Sgt. Mike McGrew said that the driver, 19-year-old Manuel Flores Jr., was traveling at “a minimum of 49 miles an hour” when he struck Romero.

“It’s a tragic incident,” McGrew said. “It’s very sad for us to have to investigate.”

He said police are about a week away from wrapping up the investigation.

Advisory council member Teresa Pena, who has lived in the neighborhood for two decades, said many residents there don’t have the luxury of a car and must walk.

“That in itself warrants stoplights on all the crossings on Milpas Street,” she said. “You engineers are not hearing about the near misses.”

More education for drivers, speed bumps on Milpas Street and pedestrian flashing lights were among the myriad ideas put forward by the advisory council.

Assistant public works director Pat Kelley, also a city planner, was on hand to answer questions, and said the thresholds for a new light are high but for a reason.

“A traffic signal that is not installed appropriately can be more dangerous than one that is not,” he said. “That’s the challenge.”

The city is working on an analysis of the intersections and waiting on the police investigation to close. Kelley said a plan most likely will be ready by January. Even if new signals were approved, the delivery of the equipment could take up to nine months, he said.

For council member Cesar Trujillo, that answer wasn’t good enough.

“I don’t accept three or four months (for a plan),” he told Kelley. “What if this had been your kid?”

Trujillo eventually became so frustrated by the dialogue that he walked out of the meeting.

Several times, various council members said that if a fatality such as Romero’s had occurred on State Street, action would have been taken immediately.

Eastside resident Maria Ibarra went a step further: “What if this had been a Caucasian child?” she exclaimed to Noozhawk after the meeting. “This problem would have been fixed right away. What is it going to take for the city to do something?”

While Bailey said that small changes, such as repainting the crosswalk, could begin, the study will reveal what else can be changed.

Mayor Helene Schneider showed up to listen to the dialogue. She said the City Council will want to know the results of the traffic studies done by the Public Works Department.

“There are things the council can do should it be warranted,” she said. “If it’s not warranted, we can’t just do nothing.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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