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State denies Lakeville Highway barrier

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The infamous Lakeville Highway that connects Petaluma to Highway 37 is primed for long-awaited safety improvements this year, but a median barrier will not be one of them.

Caltrans denied a Sonoma County funding request submitted last fall after a string of violent crashes in August became a tipping point for barrier advocates, and prompted local leaders to act.

The Highway Safety Improvement Program proposal was for a three-mile divider in accident prone areas that included openings for left turns and some of the more narrow bridges and bends. It was one of 351 applications requesting $418 million in the program’s most recent funding cycle. Of that total, 221 were approved, totaling $182 million.

Caltrans representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Sonoma County Transportation and Public Works spokesman Dan Virkstis said the state agency wanted to see the completion of previous countermeasures that have been funded before Lakeville gets evaluated for another project.

In 2016, the county was approved for $912,000 in the previous HSIP funding cycle to install edge and center line rumble strips, and to upgrade the existing striping to enhance wet night visibility.

County officials made efforts to expedite the paperwork so Caltrans could authorize the funds and construction could begin sooner, said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt. The county was awarded $806,900 for the project in November.

“We’re in the final stage of the process and expect the work to take place during the summer,” Virkstis said.

Rabbitt said the state doesn’t include “avoidable” accidents in its data when determining whether a road requires upgrades.

The consensus amongst public safety officials is that the majority of crashes on Lakeville Highway are caused by impaired, distracted or aggressive drivers. Despite limited visibility, motorists often make risky or illegal passes over the double-solid line to get in front of trucks or slower vehicles.

“Unfortunately, the road itself is not inherently not safe,” Rabbitt said. “It’s usually the fault of drivers unfortunately. But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop going after different (safety measures).”

The 11-mile roadway has become notorious for violent and sometimes deadly collisions in recent years.

Since 2013, the total number of accidents on Lakeville Highway has increased annually, from 31 crashes, 15 injuries and no fatalities to 56 crashes, 24 injuries and three deaths in 2017, according to the CHP.

By August 2018, CHP said there had been 34 crashes, nine injuries and two fatalities up to that point in the year. Data from the last five months was not readily available.

The combination of shifting commuter trends, a growing economy and a housing crisis that was made worse by the 2017 wildfires and forced thousands out of the area has increased traffic volume on the two-lane thoroughfare.

According to the most recent traffic surveys available, the rural connector is used by more than 18,000 drivers each day, and is one of the busiest roads in the county.

Jurisdiction of the motorway is shared between Petaluma, the state and Sonoma County, which owns the final seven miles, beginning at the intersection with Stage Gulch Road.

County traffic engineers are constantly evaluating Lakeville, and recently deployed speed display radars to help actively monitor driving habits and traffic counts, Virkstis said. Transportation officials are also considering signage that keeps an active tally of recent accidents to help encourage safer driving — similar to Bennett Valley Road, southeast of Santa Rosa.

Once the rumble strip project has been completed and county officials have had time to evaluate its impact, Rabbitt expects to revisit the next steps for pursuing a median barrier.

“We’re going to continue to do what we can to advocate for it,” he said.

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