Officials struggle to make changes to fatal intersection



It may be impossible to put a price on safety, but residents living near the intersection of Suey Creek Road and Highway 166 would feel a lot better if somebody was willing to cough up $1.4 million for road improvement.

Trouble is, nobody has the money.

According to Caltrans, $1.4 million is what it would cost to install a left-turn lane at the T-intersection of the high-speed highway and Suey Creek Road.

Residents of the rural area that lies just east of Santa Maria at the southern end of San Luis Obispo County have been fighting for the turn lane for years, but a recent fatality has given their message added urgency.

On Jan. 14, 33-year-old Nipomo resident Donnie Rodrigues was killed when he was rear-ended while waiting in the eastbound lane to make a left turn onto Suey Creek Road. The collision sent his vehicle into oncoming traffic, where it struck the side of a westbound vehicle and was eventually hit by an oncoming van.

Rodrigues' death has prompted a number of Suey Creek residents to speak out louder than ever before. More than 20 residents attended the monthly meeting of the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) in March, and the issue is scheduled to be discussed further at SLOCOG's upcoming April 4 meeting.

"The intersection is essentially a death trap," Suey Creek resident Suzanne Wells said. "We think the fatality was unnecessary. This is a fairly simple fix."

But according to Caltrans, making the alteration isn't all that easy. A SLOCOG-approved, five-point Highway 166 improvement project that would include the installation of the left-turn lane likely won't be funded until 2008 due to the tightening of transportation funds at the state level, with construction slated for 2011 at the earliest.

That project is expected to cost between $3 and $4 million, according to a SLOCOG staff report.

At its March 2 meeting, SLOCOG asked Caltrans to figure out what it would cost to only install the turn lane in an attempt to speed the improvement process. On March 23, Caltrans answered: $1.4 million for construction capital alone - still a pretty high figure.

"Because there's an embankment on one side of the intersection, working around it would actually be pretty involved," said Caltrans District 5 spokeswoman Marta Bortner, explaining the high dollar amount. "It involves a lot of earthwork."

Authorities can request statewide safety improvement funding for sections of highway that suffer from high fatality rates. While Caltrans officials agree that installing a left-turn lane is the preferred solution in this case, they say it's unlikely that this stretch of highway, with one death in the past 10 years and no reported accidents in the past two, will even be considered for such funding.

"It sounds bad to say it, but this intersection just doesn't compete well," Bortner said. "It will not happen that way."

The next safety improvement fund estimate is expected to arrive in August, according to SLOCOG Executive Director Ron DeCarli.

"The news we're hearing on funding is not very good right now, so there'd have to be a substantial amount of funding to make it happen," he said.

In the meantime, Caltrans said there are some measures that can be taken to improve the intersection.

Suey Creek residents say vehicles passing on the left of drivers waiting to make left turns have been a problem, so plans are in the works to add yellow, retroreflective material to an intersection warning sign, and to extend the no-passing zone on that stretch of highway, drawing the double-yellow lines out an extra 200 feet.

DeCarli said SLOCOG will ask Caltrans at the April 4 meeting to consider some other interim improvements, and report back on their feasibility in June.

According to the staff report, those improvements include an eastbound shoulder to allow vehicles to wait for a break in traffic; the installation of Intelligent Transportation System elements, such as a flashing yellow light or pavement warning lights; and raised pavement markers, rumble strips, or "no passing" signs to discourage passing.

In the meantime, Suey Creek residents are doing everything in their power to attract attention to the problem, including writing congress, state senate, and assembly members, Wells said.

Their county representatives are doing the same. SLO County 4th District Supervisor Katcho Achadjian, a SLOCOG delegate, said the group has made finding a workable solution a priority.

"What we're gonna do is reach out to the state to see what can be done," he said. "If other projects that aren't as important are being funded, perhaps we can put the money where it's needed most. We have made this a priority on our list to have it done."

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