Santa Cruz rejects claims in Boardwalk rail crossing bike crashes
- Published Tuesday, January 11, 2011, by the Santa Cruz Sentinel
Council rejects cyclist's claim but wants safety study: another injured rider intends to file suit
By J.M. Brown
SANTA CRUZ -- The City Council on Tuesday rejected a $100,000 claim from a Capitola woman who fell off her bicycle at what she calls a dangerous intersection of a bike lane and railroad tracks in front of the Boardwalk.
The unanimous vote to deny 46-year-old Patricia Cross's claim comes four months after the council rejected a similar claim, but for a smaller amount, from Carly LaFont. LaFont of Santa Cruz crashed at the same site and intends to file a lawsuit.
Although the city has rejected both claims, the council agreed Tuesday to ask the county Regional Transportation Commission to study the safety at all intersections of bike lanes and railroad tracks. A state panel will vote next week on whether to release $14 million for the commission to buy the rail line from Union Pacific railroad for future transportation projects.
"We do take that seriously that there is a situation there that could be unsafe," Vice Mayor Don Lane said.
Attorney Laura Walther, who represents LaFont, said the council's response Tuesday was "too casual." Walther said she intends to file a lawsuit to pressure the city to improve the site immediately.
"It's not about the money as much as it is trying to prevent someone from getting injured," Walther said. "The city does have knowledge that this is dangerous, that there is liability there."
STAFF DENIES PROBLEM
Several city staff members insist the intersection poses no significant problem, and some bicyclists agree.
In an interview last week, Cheryl Schmitt, the city's transportation coordinator, said the number of bike accidents on Beach Street has gone down in recent years since the city installed the bike lanes. She said she doesn't know how many people have fallen on the railroad tracks in front of the Boardwalk but acknowledged, "It's not uncommon."
Still, she and other two other key officials said they believe the city has done what it should to make the intersection safe. They warned bicyclists to take greater caution because of heavy pedestrian and vehicle traffic in front of the landmark amusement park and because the metal tracks are slippery during wet conditions.
"We redesigned that intersection to make the crossing of the tracks meet the state highway design manual, and now the bikeway crosses the tracks at a 45-degree angle," Schmitt said. "If you are following signs and markings and you cross at a 45-degree angle, you'll be fine. Short of removing the rails, there is not really more we can do."
The city's public works director, Mark Dettle, said making the bike lane cross the tracks at a 90-degree angle, as the injured riders have suggested, would require cyclists to get off their bikes and place them too close to vehicle traffic.
"We think we have designed it the best we could with what we have to work with," Dettle said.
The city's risk manager, Barbara Choi, agreed the city has taken sufficient safety measures and is immune under state law for potential problems stemming from the design of a public facility. Choi said Monday she would not recommend any improvements, but stressed that such a decision rests with the council.
"From a legal standpoint, that is not a dangerous spot," Choi said.
David Casterson, an avid cyclist, said the signs and road markings at the Boardwalk site are "sufficient for an experienced rider, but there is a wide range of abilities and conditions change with the weather.
"Anytime you have a bicyclist cross railroad tracks, it's a problem," he added.
RIDERS DEMAND CHANGE
Cross and LaFont, the riders whose claims were rejected by the city, want new signs recommending riders walk their bike through the intersection. Cross also suggests repainting the white bike lane stripes more brightly to draw attention to the intersection. LaFont's lawyer has recommended redesigning the intersection to make it a 90-degree turn, encouraging cyclists to get off their bikes.
"People don't know unless we inform or alert people of hazardous areas," Cross said in an interview last week. "Santa Cruz has done the minimal."
Schmitt, the city's transportation coordinator, said additional measures may not solve the problem.
"We can add more signs and markings, but any traffic engineer will tell you that more signs and markings don't necessarily mean traffic safety," she said.
Cross, 46, who conducts child development programs for Live Oak School District, was riding with her husband on Valentine's Day when she fell on the tracks after her bike slipped out from under her, fracturing her humerus.
She said she and her husband have lost nearly $40,000 in wages, and she has or is expected to incur $14,000 for medical bills.
Although she has ridden through the intersection other times and hasn't fallen, she said the site needs improvement regardless.
"If I were the only person injured there, wouldn't it still be worth investigating what we can do?" she said.
LaFont, a 31-year-old mother of twins, fell at the intersection May 22 when she and her husband were returning from a ride on the Westside. She broke the same bone as Cross.
LaFont filed a $5,000 claim before she had an idea her medical bills could exceed that. The council denied her claim without discussion in July. She said she currently receives cortisone shots as treatment and likely faces surgery.