Caltrans Working Hard to Speed Up Local Streets

6_30_09_zelzah_ave.jpgZelzah Avenue had it's speed limits raised last month, despite an intense lobbying effort by the Neighborhood Council and cyclists. Photo: Daily News

Tomorrow, new rules governing how municipalities evaluate speed limits on local roads will go into effect.  Unfortunately, these rules allow municipalities even less room than before to resist speed limit changes.  The new rules maintain the backbone of the bad law, speed limits are set based on how fast the "eighty-fifth" percentile of drivers are speeding but still manage to make it harder for municipalities to resist faster streets for pesky reasons like pedestrians or cyclists want to use the street.

Why does Caltrans continue to push rules that sacrifice the safety and livability of communities to speeding cars?  In short, state law directs them to encourage roads efficient only when they are moving as many cars as possible.  A road with a slower than "necessary" speed limit is considered inefficient.  Those people walking or biking aren't considered at all in these engineering surveys, mistakenly referred to as science by car-loving politicians.

The new language requires that speed limits be set at the closest five mile interval to the "eighty-fifth percentile."  Thus, if fifteen percent of all drivers are speeding by 6 miles per hour over the speed limit, the new limit would be ten miles per hour higher than the current one.  Thus, unsafe driving is it's own reward.  The faster and more unsafe people drive, the higher the speed limit will be on their local streets. 

When the "eighty-fifth percentile" rule was first put in place in the 1996 Manual, the rule asked municipalities to set the limit at the first speed limit below the "eighty-fifth percentile."  Thus, even if a driver were going thirty-nine miles per hour, they could set the limit at thirty-five.  Today, that would not be the case.

There is still flexibility for local DOT's to repress the speed limit by five miles per hour off the new speed; but under the new rules there is a new series of hoops that local officials will have to jump through to keep the speed limits lower.  So if the LADOT is willing to do the work, these new rules will have little impact on our streets as speed limit raises roll through the city in the coming years.

Unfortunately, legislative efforts to amend the laws that create the guides for organizations such as Caltrans; haven't gone very well.  When Valley Assemblyman Paul Krekorian introduced and pushed legislation that would have given communities more leeway; it was stalled in committee thanks to the lobbying efforts of the auto lobby and Transportation Committee Chair Mike Eng (D-Pasadena).  Eng promised that he was very concerned about speed limits going up and vowed to hold hearings to find the best way to ammend the law requiring the eighty-fifth percentile; but that was on May 11 and Eng has yet to act on his promise.