PORTOLA VALLEY -- The unthinkable may be coming to one of America's wealthiest rural enclaves: traffic lights.
Congested and dangerous conditions on Alpine Road have led San Mateo County to consider putting in stoplights at two intersections in Ladera, a village just west of Interstate 280 that's part of the broader Portola Valley community.
For most towns, whether to install traffic lights would be a routine issue. For Portola Valley, which incorporated in 1964 to preserve its bucolic character, it is an existential crisis -- one that pits the interests of the tony town against those of its smaller, less powerful neighbor.
"Portola Valley historically has been opposed to lights and traffic, and it's crossing a Rubicon of sorts if we go in that direction," said Steve Marra, chairman of the town's Bicycle, Pedestrian & Traffic Safety Committee. "It sets a precedent."
Even though the lights on busy Alpine Road would be erected just east of Portola Valley's boundaries, they would affect residents of the bigger town. Alpine is one of the primary routes to the redwood-shaded homes and live oak-spotted horse pastures of Portola Valley. Stoplights would be more than an inconvenience for some of Portola Valley's roughly 4,400 residents -- they would be an encroachment on the town's elegant yet pastoral identity.
"I think we're the only town in San Mateo County that does not have a stoplight," said Nancy Lund, the town's historian,
Just last week, the county was prepared to submit an application for a $500,000 grant to build traffic signals on either side of the Ladera Country Shopper, a strip mall about a quarter-mile west of I-280, but officials failed to notify Portola Valley leaders until the last minute. They cried foul, and the Board of Supervisors pulled the application to allow for further study.
Now the county will work with both Ladera and Portola Valley to see if there are other solutions to the problems on Alpine, which hums with an almost constant flow of traffic that typically exceeds the posted speed limit of 35 mph. The county is responsible for traffic improvements in Ladera, an unincorporated bedroom community of just more than 500 homes. But the county's options are limited, said public works director Jim Porter. There's not enough room for a circular intersection, or roundabout, and stop signs wouldn't be sufficient.
"You really have to look at what's possible," Porter said. "There's very few ways to assign right-of-way."
The county proposed demand-triggered stop lights on Alpine at Le Mesa and La Cuesta drives, the two main roads in and out of Ladera. Currently, according to a recent county study, making left turns from those roads onto Alpine during rush hour typically takes more than three minutes for each car.
In addition, there were 15 collisions at or near these intersections from 2004 to 2011 with 11 injuries, the study found. Bicyclist Lauren Ward was struck and killed by a big rig in 2008 just down Alpine Road at the intersection of I-280. Last week the Board of Supervisors approved a $175,000 grant application for a project to improve bicycle lanes there.
The heavy traffic on Alpine Road stems from the fact that it connects with I-280 and provides quick access to Silicon Valley. After climbing west from Stanford University and crossing I-280, however, the road snakes into the wildest reaches of San Mateo County, where motorists can drive for miles without seeing a traffic light.
But the stretch that runs through Ladera can no longer be considered rural from the perspective of traffic volume, said Shandon Lloyd, vice chairwoman of Portola Valley's Bicycle, Pedestrian & Traffic Safety Committee. It's not only difficult to turn onto that part of Alpine, but also treacherous for pedestrians to cross it.
"The numbers are urban," said Lloyd, who lives in Ladera. "If we continue to pretend that it's a rural area, people are going to get hurt. So we need to figure out a way to prevent some tragedy."
Stepped-up law enforcement against speeders would help in the short-term, Lloyd said. The Sheriff's Office conducts speed enforcement in Portola Valley as part of its public-safety contract with the town, but in Ladera that role falls to the California Highway Patrol. Lloyd and other residents say they rarely see CHP traffic stops in Ladera.
"I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen the CHP in conversation with a motorist, though I see them at the Ladera Shopper at mealtime," cracked Lovinda Beal, who has lived in Ladera since 1994. She would like the county to install a speed table on Alpine.
It may come as no surprise that the idea of traffic lights appears to be more popular in Ladera than in Portola Valley. A survey conducted by the Ladera Community Association found that 47 percent of respondents were in favor of traffic signals, with 41 percent against and the rest undecided. In Portola Valley, according to Marra and Silver, most people who participate in a popular online discussion group are against the lights.
"Folks look at 280 as a bulwark," said Silver, "the Great Wall of China to hold urbanization back."
Nonetheless, Portola Valley leaders acknowledge there is a problem on Alpine, and they seem willing to work with Ladera to solve it. Portola Valley Mayor Maryann Derwin said that, while she would prefer not to see traffic lights on the town's doorstep, it may be inevitable.
"I don't know how long we're going to hold the line," Derwin said. "Things change."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.
Size: 10 square miles
Median household income: $167,227
Percentage of workers 16 and older who commute by car: 75.3 percent
Number of sunny days a year: 265
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau and town of Portola Valley