BY: Elizabeth Larson
OFF THE WIRE
The safety of Lake County’s roadways is a matter of great concern not just for drivers but for officials and agencies across a broad spectrum – from health to planning, public works to law enforcement.
Health studies, planning efforts and safety projects all play a part in making roads and highways safer, as well as understanding the key factors that create dangerous conditions.
Studies about Lake County's rate of motor vehicle collisions often draw a similar conclusion, linking those incidents to a high prevalence of drug and alcohol use in the county.
The 2010 Lake County Health Needs Assessment made that finding, based not just on the hard numbers tracked by public health agencies but also because of input from community members who took part in an interview process. Those respondents cited “prevalence of illegal drugs” and impacts including vehicle crashes.
Just what can be done about those health concerns is something that public health officials like Dr. Karen Tait, are trying to address.
Tait, Lake County's health officer, leads a small division that – like most public health departments in rural counties – is tasked with providing information, awareness and some health services, like flu clinics.
But because of its small size, the department doesn't have funding for an epidemiologist – someone who closely studies public health trends in an effort to provide information to policymakers, Tait said.
Tait, who has some epidemiological training, said she tries to do that kind of analysis when she can, but says not having such resources results in a big gap for the county.
Increasingly Tait is finding her public health resources called on to address larger sociological matters and their influence on public health.
“We really have had very little to do with this in the past,” she said. “We really have no resources to dedicate to it.”
While previously safety planning hasn't been a part of public health's tasks, Tait calls it “an emerging area.”
Public health often has focused on communicable diseases, but the trends today are to look more at chronic illness, Tait said. “It's a big subject of discussion but there's been no funding for it.”
Planners consider the challenges
Tait said she's worked with the Lake County/City Area Planning Council – a regional planning agency that works with the cities of Lakeport and Clearlake and the county of Lake on projects to improve transportation, infrastructure and community development – and found the council a willing and interested partner in considering the intersection of health and planning.
The council’s work is connected to health mainly through outcomes, including improving safety, although its reports include health considerations.
The Area Planning Council’s Lake County 2030 Blueprint, completed last year, included poor road conditions and drug use as top countywide challenges.
The council is working with the city of Clearlake on a transportation planning study, funded by a $160,000 state grant, to look at how to improve the city’s Lakeshore Drive corridor, according to Bob Galusha, the city’s engineer. The project starts in January.
“It will look at safety issues from the standpoint of pedestrians, intersections that may need to be reconfigured or eliminated,” as well as channelization and other issues, said Galusha.
Lisa Davey-Bates, the Area Planning Council’s executive director, said the group just provided funding to the city of Lakeport so it can develop its own vehicle collision database to study hot spots.
Davey-Bates pointed to Lake County’s unique terrain as a particularly challenging factor when it comes to transportation issues – from planning to collisions, an observation Tait also has made.
The area’s natural terrain makes it difficult to build wide roads in many places, especially on Highway 20 along the Northshore. “There's just not a whole lot you can do so you try to find ways to get around it,” Davey-Bates said.
For that reason, the Area Planning Council is working on the Lake 29 Expressway project, which runs along an eight-mile portion of Highway 29, on the other side of the lake. “We’re trying to get people away from Highway 20,” Davey-Bates said.
While building the entire four-lane expressway along eight miles would have cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $160 million – making it unfeasible for Lake County, especially in light of current economic tough times – Davey-Bates said the Area Planning Council still wants to pursue up to 10 small projects along that corridor.
Those projects will include passing lanes, which she said the council made a priority, and which she suggested should help address crashes.
However, that work won’t be done in the near future. Davey-Bates said the environmental study on that project isn’t expected to be completed until 2015.
Cities, county pursue safety projects
Safety is on the mind of county and city officials, who are looking for ways to maintain and improve roadways while finding the competition for state and federal grants increasingly tough.
Area Planning Council pavement condition indexes completed for the cities and county in 2008 showed an average rating of poor for pavement countywide, but in new reports now being finalized, “It appears our pavement condition index is going to go up,” said Scott De Leon, Lake County’s Public Works director.
De Leon’s department oversees 622 miles of road in the county’s unincorporated area.
“This summer our crews really focused on preventive maintenance, which is something that has been lacking over the last few years,” he said.
The department has a small maintenance budget of about $300,000 annually, which covers materials only, said De Leon, who added that his department attempts to do many projects with its own staff to stretch its dollars farther.
He said it normally takes about $30,000 per mile to complete a chip seal project, the most basic road overlay that uses asphalt and small aggregate. His department only has about $5,000 per mile available for maintenance.
De Leon said Public Works bases its maintenance decisions on a number of factors, including road classifications, with arterial and collector streets being the top priorities.
Between last fiscal year and the current one, the Board of Supervisors set aside a total of about $1 million to purchase materials to upgrade local roadways, De Leon said.
He said that will allow his road crew to complete about 50 miles of chip seal next summer. “We're already planning for next summer's construction projects.”
Because many of Lake County’s roads lack streetlights, De Leon said increased emphasis has been placed on working to make roads safer at night. They also aggressively work to remove right-of-way obstructions.
“Nighttime safety is very important to us,” he said. Nighttime safety projects include having signs, paint and markers that are highly reflective.
“We try to make our roads as safe as possible,” he said.
He said his department has had moderate success in applying for safety grants to improve area roadways. They apply yearly, but competition has been heightened because of the financial challenges in all areas. “We’re all in the same boat in that budgets are tight.”
In its most recent large grants, in 2008 the county received a $1.2 million Safe Routes to Schools grant to construct curb, gutter and sidewalk along Highway 20. That same year the county received $783,000 for an overlay skid resistance project on Bottle Rock Road at Harrington Flat, the latter funded through a Hazard Elimination Safety/Highway Safety Improvement Program.
Highway Safety Improvement Program funding also is funding an upcoming safety project along Lakeshore Boulevard in Lakeport, according to City Engineer Scott Harter.
Based on a collision history for that area, Harter said the project will seek to slow traffic through a traffic circle – not a full roundabout – at Jones Street and Lakeshore Boulevard, and bike lanes painted with contrasting colors to make them more noticeable. Construction is expected to take place in the summer of 2013.
Like the county, the city of Lakeport aggressively seeks out grants to support road improvements, Harter said.
Because of Lakeport’s limited resources, Harter said the Lakeport City Council established a policy to focus most of the city’s maintenance efforts on its mostly highly traveled roads, including Main, High and 11th streets.
Clearlake also has concentrated its rehabilitation efforts on main roadways, including Olympic Drive, Lakeshore Drive and Old Highway 53, said Galusha.
“We’re constantly looking for grants,” Galusha said.
Since 2006, the city has repaved nearly 11 miles, or 57,000 feet, of roadway through a number of federal and state funding sources, including $3.2 million for a 2008 project on Lakeshore, Olympic and Old Highway 53, another $813,000 for collector streets rehabilitation from stimulus funds in 2009 and $600,000 for phase two of the collector rehabilitation in 2010, Galusha said.
The new roadways include thermoplastic striping with reflective markers, improved fog lines and added safety for driving during nighttime and in the rain, Galusha said.
De Leon’s department, which follows crash statistics closely, has found that collisions on county-maintained roadways have been on a downward trend since 2007.
Analyses provided by Todd Mansell, Lake County Public Works’ special projects engineer, found that between 2006 and 2011, the top three causes of collisions on county-maintained roadways included improper turning, driving under the influence and unsafe speed.
Looking for solutions on the highways
While policy makers and health officials consider the trends, addressing the high rates of crashes and deaths on local highways is a primary function for the California Highway Patrol.
“Our job is to save lives,” according to Lt. Greg Baarts, who took over as commander of the CHP's Clear Lake office in May.
Over the past decade, the CHP's Clear Lake Office has worked with Caltrans and other agencies to increase safety and raise awareness of drivers, encourage the use of child safety seats and reduce the number of intersection collisions.
Following the 2002 death of a young Lucerne girl who was hit and killed by a motorist as she was walking to catch the school bus, then-Commander Lt. Dane Hayward worked to secure $500,000 for pedestrian safety along the Northshore in 2003.
Caltrans added $500,000 to the effort, which went toward the addition of a continuous turn lane through Nice, Lucerne and Clearlake Oaks, as well as installing flashing pedestrian safety signs and the “piano key” crosswalks in Northshore communities.
The result was that there were no pedestrian deaths from Clearlake Oaks to Nice in the years 2003 to 2009. The area’s first pedestrian fatality after several years came in 2010, when a man in a motorized wheelchair was hit near Robinson Rancheria.
Hayward's successor, Lt. Mark Loveless – who earlier this year took over as commander of the Trinity River CHP office but worked for nearly three years in Lake County – secured a yearlong “Five Alive” grant funded by the California Office of Traffic Safety through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to attempt to reduce growing numbers of fatal motorcycle- and alcohol-involved crashes.
The Clear Lake CHP Office reported that Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System figures between 2001 and 2008 showed a “troubling upward trend” in fatal and injury crashes.
During that seven-year time span, the CHP's analysis concluded that reportable motorcycle-involved collisions in Lake County were up 144 percent, while reportable alcohol-involved crashes increased 13 percent.
Loveless said earlier this year that the grant was going to use weekend patrols, air support, warrant service operations targeting drivers with multiple DUI offenses, and a public education and awareness campaign to reduce those statistics.
In an October interview, Loveless told Lake County News, said the CHP does extensive analysis on all crashes to get a clear picture of what's happening on the roadways.
They also work to educate young drivers and take into account what they hear from communities, said Loveless. “We combine that with what we're seeing.”
Sgt. Dave Stark, the Clear Lake office's grant writer – who also worked on the Northshore pedestrian grant – said the Five Alive grant began Oct. 1, 2010, and this past ended Sept. 30.
Since the grant started earlier this year, the CHP’s Clear Lake area office had 252 individual DUI saturation patrols, four motorcycle safety operations conducted during motorcycle rallies and eight DUI motorcycle enforcement task force operations. The agency said the enforcement operations were conducted in conjunction with other local law enforcement agencies, warrant service operations targeting drivers with multiple DUI offenses and CHP Air Operations.
Stark said that, in his opinion, the Clear Lake office met its main goals of reducing DUI- and motorcycle-related crashes. He said more specific numbers will not be available until the CHP headquarters office releases finalized data. That may not happen until next year.
Stark, Baarts and Loveless all credited Caltrans as being a great partner with CHP in the goal of making highway safer.
Loveless said Lake County's CHP area commander regularly meets with the district Caltrans chief on highway-related issues.
Stark said he's never seen a Caltrans team that cares as much about the public as the District 1 safety team led by Ralph Martinelli does. He said they've worked to make many life-saving changes.
“Whatever we ask them to do, they work closely with us,” said Stark.
In the next installment, Caltrans discusses analyzing crash corridors and a look at the outcomes from safety projects.
This Lake County News special series was produced as a project for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.