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The new ‘Blood Alley:’ Petaluma road among deadliest

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All Frank Gonzalez saw was searing white lights. Then everything went dark.

When he regained consciousness, he was mid-sentence, yelling his way back to reality.

“Breathe, Frank! Breathe!” he shouted. Once he confirmed he could, in fact, breathe, Gonzalez, 31, became aware of the nightmarish scene beyond the windshield of his white Dodge Ram truck.

He had just been in a head-on collision along Lakeville Highway, an infamous road southeast of Petaluma that’s so prone to violent and deadly crashes that many have dubbed it the new “Blood Alley.” That nickname once belonged to neighboring Highway 37 until a median divider was installed, increasing safety.

The brutal nature of Lakeville’s most recent string of accidents has garnered attention from politicians and officials throughout the region, and prompted pressing discussions on what safety measures can be put in place quickly before the death toll rises higher.

Gonzalez, however, was one of the lucky ones.

Just before 4 a.m. on July 26, a few hundred feet past Sleepy Hollow Dairy on the way to his ironworking job in San Francisco, Gonzalez was drilled by an 18-year-old – coincidentally also driving a white Dodge Ram – who had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Astonishingly, aside from a few scrapes on his hands and a bruise on his left shin, both men were OK.

“I’ve been through a lot of stuff,” Gonzalez said. “The hard times, it just (went) out the window when that happened. I’ve been in a few car crashes, but that one was just unreal.”

Gonzalez said he first noticed the car was steadily drifting left over the double-solid line that splits the two-lane corridor. From his own experience living off Stage Gulch Road, the thoroughfare that joins Lakeville Road on Highway 116 at Ernie’s Tin Bar, he could tell the driver closing toward him was dozing off.

“He wasn’t all over the road,” Gonzalez said. “He was just drifting off. So I had just passed Sleepy Hollow and, either he woke up or he just bounced (off) the K-rail, and he shot this way towards me.”

Suddenly, the truck did a hard cut to the right and briefly went off-road into one of the ranches beside the highway, Gonzalez said. Hoping that would be the end of it, he instinctively veered right to distance himself from the out-of-control driver.

Then, he did what exactly Gonzalez was worried he might do, and the driver overcorrected again — this time to the left — dead center into his truck.

All of this happened in a matter of seconds on a highway with speed limits as high as 55 mph.

Warriors for change

Thankfully Gonzalez and his partner, Tara Lanatti, live on the same ranch as her mother. For Lanatti, 26, to be able to pick him up from the wreckage, someone needed to look after their four-month-old daughter Maia, who was born two months early and some days requires extra attention.

Her name means “warrior,” Lanatti said.

“As soon as I came home, I picked up Maia and cried with her and Tara was holding me,” Gonzalez recalled. “This could have been it. It was the real deal. It was a lot of just sitting there (the next day) pondering bills, money and all this just means nothing compared to what could have been. It really hit hard.”

For Lanatti, who recently moved her young family back onto the 389 acres of southeast Petaluma farmland where she was raised, that morning made one of her greatest fears nearly come true.

When she was 12 years old, her father died from a brain aneurysm. There was little warning, leaving the family without the person that provided the backbone for the ranch. After he died, the family struggled to operate it.

But most important of all, his death left Lanatti and her siblings without their father. More than a decade later, those anxieties returned after Maia was born.

“I think I’m always freaked out that something’s going to happen to him (Gonzalez) just because I lost my dad,” Lanatti said. “For that to be so close to happening for our family was devastating, even though it didn’t happen.”

Ever since the accident, Lanatti has devoted much of her free time to advocating for major safety enhancements on Lakeville Highway — specifically the construction of a median barrier. When she’s not in class at Santa Rosa Junior College or tending to her infant daughter, she’s online and on her phone, rallying support from fellow Petaluma residents and local officials with oversight.

Lanatti said she’s been inspired by Jim Poulos, the father-turned-activist who lost his son in 1993 to a crash on the old Blood Alley. It was his relentless energy, aided by then state Senator Mike Thompson, that helped push Caltrans to green-light a barricade for Highway 37 in 1995.

“I feel like he (Gonzalez) survived and was totally fine for a lot of reasons,” Lanatti said. “Obviously, first for Maia. But I think one of those reasons is because we’re meant to do something about it. We’re meant to create change. I really do believe that.”

Roadway ripe for carnage

To walk away from an early-morning crash, when traffic is minimal and cars are driving higher than the legal limit, is rare for the notorious motorway, which spans about 11 miles.

Lakeville Highway begins in Petaluma as one of the main crosstown connectors managed by the city. Starting at the intersection of Lakeville Street and Highway 101, State Route 116 gets heavy use from commercial trucks and commuters traveling west for northern Sonoma and Mendocino counties, or — in the other direction — those headed to neighboring counties in the northeast corner of the Bay Area.

Once the roadway exits the city, Highway 116 falls under Caltrans jurisdiction. The state route continues along the highway for less than four miles until it turns left onto Stage Gulch Road toward Sonoma, giving way to the county’s jurisdiction as Lakeville Highway continues south another seven miles until it ends at the intersection with Highway 37.

Lakeville is as beautiful as it is deadly. Rolling hills, vineyards and sprawling ranches line the highway as it bends toward Sears Point. Gusting winds that define the local wine region whip across the roadway causing cars to sometimes waver from side to side.

Shoulder lanes are slender. There are no turnouts for passing.

Public safety and transportation officials said the majority of violent crashes are caused by impaired, distracted or aggressive drivers. Despite limited visibility, motorists frequently make risky or illegal passes over the double-solid line to get in front of trucks or slower vehicles.

Lakeville Fire Chief Nick Silva, the volunteer department’s senior official since 2005, has lived off the highway for most of his life. He estimated car accidents account for 80 percent of his agency’s calls for service. Petaluma Fire, Petaluma Police and CHP also respond to incidents on the motorway.

“Most of what I’ve seen are inattentive collisions,” Silva said. “Lakeville, in that regard, is really an unforgiving highway. There’s no room (for error).”

The consensus from officials interviewed for this story is that traffic on Lakeville is getting worse. According to Sonoma County traffic data, it’s one of the busiest roads in the region with approximately 18,000 vehicles per day, and the number of accidents, deaths, injuries, commuters — every measurable statistic — is going up.

Since 2013, the total number of crashes has increased annually. There were 56 collisions resulting in three deaths and 24 injuries in 2017, CHP officer Jonathan Sloat said. As of last week, the number of accidents for 2018 were on pace with last year, with 34 crashes, two fatalities and nine injuries so far.

Sloat attributes the surge to drivers avoiding the congestion on Highway 101 when it reaches the construction zone in the Sonoma-Marin Narrows, and the high number of fire victims that were forced to relocate outside of the county due to the chronic shortage of housing.

Demographic shifts are also forcing a higher percentage of workers to commute from outside the county. According to the 2018 Unabridged Sonoma County Indicators report, the ratio of workers to retired residents has been shrinking over the last decade. In 2010, there were nearly five working-age residents for every person 65 and older. In 2017, the ratio was less than 4 to 1, and is expected to be 3 to 1 by 2022.

According to the county’s 2016 economic and demographic profile, in 2014, over one-third of the workforce was commuting in while 66 percent of it was commuting out. County-to-county commuting estimates show most of those labor exchanges are happening with neighboring counties like Napa, Solano and Contra Costa, and the overall commuter population is increasing each year.

That means more drivers moving across the North Bay on Highway 37, which, in turn, is stressing rural connectors like Lakeville and Highway 121 to Sonoma.

“This rises to the top,” said State Sen. Bill Dodd. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be getting things done there to help alleviate the horrible record on this road.”

As the number of annual crashes increased, fatalities and injuries were relatively consistent from 2013 to 2016, averaging less than 16 injuries per year and one total death over that span.

Silva pointed out that the increase in traffic has a pacifying effect on drivers since cars are forced to move at slower speeds. He also cited better safety features in newer model cars for the decline in injuries.

However, the last two years have also seen an alarming spike in the frequency and severity of accidents, even with the increased volume.

In early August, three serious collisions over an eight-day span seemed to be a final straw for many advocates of a median barrier. The first incident, on Aug. 1, involved two semi-trucks and an SUV. A week later, there was a two-car collision that required firefighters to extricate at least one person.

The third, the very next night, involved three cars and sent eight people to the hospital. One of the victims was an 8-month-old girl, who was one of four children strapped into the back of a Ford Explorer that went off the road and hit a tree. She was pronounced dead at Petaluma Valley Hospital.

“It’s clear from the seriousness of recent accidents that we need to take a look at the safety of Lakeville Highway for motorists,” said Thompson, now a U.S. Congressman serving California’s 5th district. “These recent deaths are unacceptable, and I am working with local and state officials to see what safety improvements can be made – whether it is dividers like I advocated for on Highway 37 or another solution. We must make this a safer thoroughfare and keep our constituents safer from these deadly accidents.”

Making a safer highway

When it comes to road improvements, governing bodies usually defer to traffic engineers for studies and analyses to ensure a project is absolutely warranted. Multiple officials interviewed emphasized their input, specifically, for getting projects in the pipeline.

Depending on the jurisdiction, funds are typically secured from taxes, ballot measures, a government’s General Fund, or through grants from state and federal agencies. Since a city, county and state all share ownership of Lakeville, the path to safety improvements can be complicated.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, representative of the southern district that includes a large portion of the San Pablo Bay frontage, said Lakeville Highway has been an issue since he began his first term in January 2011.

Constructing a median barrier has been the popular choice among local residents, but officials said it would be challenging, time-consuming and costly, and it might not solve the issue, which is why it hasn’t been seriously pursued yet.

Since shoulder access is limited, the narrow road leaves little leeway for drivers to adjust if a barricade is installed. Cars would be forced off the road to the right, which could be just as dangerous, Rabbitt said.

Perhaps the biggest question would also be where to place the barrier since there are numerous residences and businesses that directly feed off of Lakeville. High traffic volume already forces drivers to sit for long periods as they try to exit onto the road, and adding a median could complicate traffic even further.

“It’s not always cut and dry,” Rabbitt said. “There’s a lot of little nuances, and … if you’re spending millions of dollars (you’ve got to make sure) you’re setting out to solve the problem.”

Since the county has jurisdiction over the longest stretch of Lakeville, the regional body has often led the charge on safety enhancements in the past.

In 2006, the county’s Transportation & Public Works Department did a full repaving of the seven-mile stretch. A slurry seal was applied last year to preserve the underlying pavement.

At the end of 2016, TPW secured $912,100 through the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program, or HSIP, to install edge line and centerline rumble strips along the road. The grant application cited a five-year crash history and was supported by local public safety agencies, including the Petaluma Fire Department.

The project also includes striping replacements to enhance wet night visibility, and is scheduled for construction in 2019.

Additionally, despite all the challenges with constructing a barrier, multiple officials said late last week that the department would be revising its application for Thursday’s HSIP Cycle 9 deadline to request funding for 3.5 miles of a concrete median divider.

The county is working with W-Trans to finalize the application, which will include information on the types of collisions that have been happening most recently, Rabbitt said.

Transportation officials are confident that it’s a “well-qualified” application, and are hopeful the necessary resources will be available. A pending study will determine where those 3.5 miles will be constructed.

Petaluma officials have also taken steps to improve safety in their own jurisdiction. On Aug. 6, the city council approved a $239,141 project that would add merging lanes to the intersection of Pine View Way, near the city’s Kaiser Permanente medical campus.

As one of the last urban areas before Lakeville reaches its rural corridor, drivers often speed up to make last-second passes before the road slims from four lanes to two. That puts vehicles headed toward the city in harm’s way, and the city’s engineers are hopeful that assisting with exits will reduce the number of broadside collisions.

The project is expected to get completed this fall.

“I’ve been involved in politics long enough to know that what needs to be done often takes longer than it should,” said Petaluma Mayor David Glass. “Anything that can be done to expedite safety for the future is a good thing.”

Caltrans representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

CHP, which is a state-run agency, does speed enforcement daily, although it can be challenging to execute sometimes since it might not be feasible or safe to make an immediate U-turn, Sloat said. Sometimes officers will employ a lidar speed reader and report to officers waiting up ahead which vehicles to stop.

In May, a few weeks removed from the head-on crash that killed renowned marine biologist Susan Williams, highway patrol issued 45 citations over a four-hour span one Tuesday morning, indicating just how often Lakeville speed limits are ignored.

One driver was clocked going 88 mph that day, CHP said.

Grassroots activism

While a median divider might be the most desirable outcome for most drivers, some officials aren’t convinced it’s the best solution.

The Lakeville Fire Chief, who said he moved to Petaluma for a few years just so his children wouldn’t have to drive on Lakeville, said a barrier could lead to higher speeds, or cause traffic increases on another road.

“There isn’t one solution to all the problems that we see out there,” Silva said. “We talk to engineers for guidance for what makes road safety better, but a lot of it is inattention, and that literally takes that one second. One solution here might affect somewhere else.”

Jeff Schach, assistant chief for Petaluma Fire, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s not the road’s fault. It’s people not driving appropriately,” he said. “But if there’s any way we can fix that with rumble strips or dividers – boy, we have to do that.”

Thanks to social media, over the past month, concerned citizens have been organizing to help end the violent trend on the rural thoroughfare. A group called “Make Lakeville Hwy Safe” has formed on Facebook, and gained over 500 members in a three-week span.

Lanatti is an admin of the group, and said she plans on getting together with some of the founding members to formalize a strategy and figure out roles as the movement pushes forward. She said some local candidates running for office are backing her efforts, and envisions a public event of some kind to rally for support.

Right now, there’s no guarantee that the county will secure the federal funds for a barrier and, even if they do, the planning process and allotment of money can take multiple years, evidenced by the pace of the rumble strip project – or any transportation venture.

That means the onus is still on operators behind the steering wheel, and that doesn’t do much for Lanatti and her family who still have to drive the lethal road every single day.

“I keep telling myself that I’m going to be told ‘no’ a lot of times by many public officials,” she said. “But I don’t care. I’m going to keep going. My goal is – if it takes 16 years – by the time (Maia) is driving, I’ve done my job. I’m not going to stop until it’s done.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)