New 19th Avenue turf war

The seven miles of 19th Avenue and Park Presidio connecting the Peninsula and western San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge are among The City’s most dangerous thoroughfares — especially for pedestrians trying to cross the six lanes of fast-moving traffic. There were 786 collisions on 19th Avenue between 2000 and 2005, with 1,205 injuries and 12 deaths, and seven of the fatalities were pedestrians.

Attempts to make the corridor safer have encountered seemingly endless frustrations. Although 19th Avenue’s only traffic law enforcement comes from the San Francisco police, the avenue is officially state Highway 1 and controlled by the California Department of Transportation, which must constantly balance conflicting statewide demands.

Only last week The Examiner sounded a warning that pending legislation to impose a double-fine zone on state Highway Route 12 in the North Bay — where five people died in March alone — would also permanently bar 19th Avenue from ever getting its own double-fine zone. So if it is not amended, it must unfortunately be opposed.

Now already another tug of war over making 19th Avenue less of a deathtrap appears imminent. This week the San Francisco County Transportation Authority scheduled two west side meetings to introduce its latest multipronged safety plan. (A Thursday session will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Richmond Police Station, 461 Sixth Ave.)

The City program includes making the crosswalks much more visible, installing pedestrian countdown displays and adjusting traffic signal timing. San Francisco transit officials also hope that adding more lighting and greenery will encourage motorists to realize they driving are on a city street, not an open highway.

Naturally all this comes at a price — up to $500,000 per intersection, for a total of 26 eligible major intersections. The City would prioritize which intersections are funded first, and which improvements are most needed. As it happens, Caltrans has already agreed to launch a multiyear project to modernize the 19th Avenue traffic lights. The work would cost some $20 million and is to be partially financed by San Francisco.

The problem with these hopeful programs is their overdependence on the often-fickle edicts of state government. Whatever San Francisco transit decides to do could be overridden by Caltrans, which has previously resisted measures it deems would excessively slow 19th Avenue’s traffic flow. Similarly, Gov. Schwarzenegger already vetoed two of state Sen. Leland Yee’s bills to make 19th Avenue a double-fine zone, saying he disapproves of local exemptions to state policies.

SFCTA officials freely admit they are pushing hard to focus local public attention on 19th Avenue safety improvements and keep the work from slipping to the state’s back burner. Caltrans budgets are subject to unpredictable reductions, so we have no intention of lightening the pressure.

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