Red lights go on at 6 Alabama St. crosswalks in Bellingham

Tyler Kamps, left, and his father Darrin Kamps of Kamps Painting Co. install crosswalk boxes at Ellis and Alabama streets in Bellingham on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2015.
Tyler Kamps, left, and his father Darrin Kamps of Kamps Painting Co. install crosswalk boxes at Ellis and Alabama streets in Bellingham on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2015. The Bellingham Herald

After a $3.8 million makeover, Alabama Street will be easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to navigate. On the other hand, people in vehicles will get up and down Alabama more slowly, especially after new red lights at six crosswalks go live on Monday, Nov. 9.

The crosswalk signals, called “HAWKs” in the industry (High-intensity Activated crossWalKs), are new to Bellingham. Like the green boxes and green sharrows for bicyclists that were affixed to certain city streets this summer, the HAWKs will present a challenge to the uninitiated.

The pedestrian presses the activation button, waits for the “walk” signal, then crosses. From that activation, drivers see the HAWK start to flash yellow. It then shows solid yellow, then red, then flashing red.

At first, this sounds quite complicated for something as simple as a crosswalk. What drivers need to remember is what they learned when they got their drivers’ license, said Eric Johnston, a Bellingham assistant public works director.

“Drivers are pretty well trained,” Johnston said. “Yellow means slow down, red means stop. .... Flashing red means to stop and proceed when it’s safe.”

Public works staff on Oct. 26 showed the Bellingham City Council a 90-second video demonstrating how the signal works.

Among council members who expressed an opinion on the new signal that day, most spoke favorably.

“This is a really good design, I think,” said council member Michael Lilliquist, who said he would like to see the HAWKs replace existing flashing-yellow crosswalks.

The two flashing-yellow signals at crosswalks on Alabama were converted into HAWKs. Other busy, four-lane streets with flashing crosswalks, including Lakeway Drive, will be considered for HAWKs, Johnston said.

HAWKs are a “good middle ground” between the flashing crosswalk and a full traffic signal, city project engineer Freeman Anthony said.

“The flashers may still have a home at certain locations,” he said.

Bicycle friendly

Alabama Street was made more bicycle friendly by this year’s construction project. The six HAWKs were placed at “bicycle boulevards” the city is establishing according to a 20-year bicycle master plan approved in 2014. Bicycle boulevards are low-traffic residential streets with pavement markings meant to tell drivers to watch for cyclists.

But Johnston wanted to be clear that the project was intended not just to benefit bicyclists but to improve safety for everyone who uses the street.

Making Alabama safer for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians meant slowing down cars by using the HAWK signals and reducing the speed limit from 35 mph to 30 mph. Bus stops for Whatcom Transportation Authority buses also were moved to be adjacent to HAWKs.

“The city is not anti-car,” Johnston said. “We spend 10 times the amount of money on vehicular projects than pedestrian projects. But we are allowing an additional delay for vehicles to increase safety for pedestrians.”

Some drivers on Alabama have been frustrated over the past several weeks by the new center-line curbs along certain sections of Alabama. The curbs prevent some left turns off Alabama.

That’s why the 6-inch “C curbs” were installed, Johnston said. Left turns off Alabama were a significant cause of collisions on the street, which had the second-highest crash rate in Whatcom County behind Meridian Street.

In response to objections from residents of the Roosevelt neighborhood, city officials backed off their initial plan for C curbs, deciding not to install them between Pacific and Undine streets.

Neighbors were so upset about the project plan, particularly the C curbs, that they picketed Alabama Street in May 2014.

Teri Hall, one of the residents who organized the picket, said on Wednesday, Nov. 4, that she liked how the project turned out.

“The fact that the city actually listened to concerns regarding blocking access to dead-end streets was very much appreciated,” Hall said in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “I have heard some concern over the fact that it appears left turns into many alleys are now illegal, but for the most part I have only heard positive reaction from the people who actually reside along Alabama Street.”

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com.