OJAI — City officials are stepping up efforts to put the brakes on a plan to install a stoplight that has sparked a debate over how to improve traffic safety while preserving Ojai's small-town atmosphere.
Despite reluctantly approving the traffic signal at Montgomery Street and Ojai Avenue in April, the Ojai City Council this week agreed to ask state transportation officials to consider reconfiguring the intersection without the stoplight.
The traffic light--which would be Ojai's fourth--has been proposed for at least a decade and seriously debated since last summer, when 375 residents petitioned for one to be installed at the intersection to improve safety.
But an engineer hired by the city contends that his no-signal design for the intersection will improve safety and reduce traffic congestion, while preserving the rural character of downtown.
"We have gone toward adapting the traffic to the city rather than the city to the traffic," said Eugene H. Jud. "The pedestrian becomes the king."
Essentially, Jud's design--known as traffic calming--calls for installing large islands along the center of Ojai Avenue to guide vehicles through the awkward "dog-leg" intersection at Montgomery Street.
Vehicles would be permitted to make U-turns and left turns around the islands to reach Montgomery Street and adjacent businesses. Raised crosswalks would slow traffic and be more pedestrian-friendly.
The council wants to try out the idea, and Caltrans officials have agreed to study it, City Manager Andy Belknap said.
"This is something new, so there are uncertainties," he said. "Traditionally intersections have been controlled with signal lights, so people are more comfortable with it."
Traffic calming is common in Europe, said Jud, who is Swiss. But critics worry that motorists won't be able to adapt to the traffic pattern.
"The things they do in Europe do not necessarily work in the U.S.," said longtime Councilwoman Nina Shelley, who is skeptical of the proposal. "Safety is more important than the ambience of the community to me."
Dena Owens, owner of the Mailboxes Etc. store in Fitzgerald Plaza at the intersection, worries that the design will be more dangerous.
"My concern is that they're talking about letting people right turn, left turn and U-turn going two different directions within a 50- to 75-foot area," she said. "It's going to be twice the madhouse we have already."
Moreover, the traffic pattern would restrict access to her store and others in the strip mall, forcing vehicles through a private parking lot where 20 to 50 day laborers regularly gather to search for work.
Suza Francina, a council candidate and community activist who founded the Ojai Traffic Calming Coalition in response to the signal controversy, contends the proposal would improve safety while maintaining the city's rural flavor.
"Traffic calming gives [motorists] the visual signals to whoa, slow down, this is not a racetrack," said Francina, who introduced Jud to city officials. "Traffic calming is in keeping with the small-town, village atmosphere. You want to have streets that don't look like freeways."