Trolley Trap Nails Drivers

— Leihua Smith figured that the man who volunteered to be a witness for her in court must have been an angel. "I gave him a kiss on the cheek after the hearing," she says, "but when I later tried calling his number to thank him, I couldn't get through anymore." Indeed, the number Eugene McCullough gave Smith is no longer in service, and the phone company's directory assistance says he requests his current number to remain private.

Smith says that on the afternoon of April 1 of this year, she was driving her car eastbound on Massachusetts Avenue in Lemon Grove. She stopped for a red light before the street crosses the trolley tracks to the left of the Massachusetts Avenue Orange Line station. When the light turned green, she says, she crossed the tracks first and then Lemon Grove Avenue, which runs parallel to the trolley line only a few yards away. In the succeeding few moments, the southbound trolley crossed Massachusetts and pulled into the trolley station. Smith did not get far before a motorcycle cop pulled her over.

After the officer finished his work and left, according to Smith, Eugene McCullough pulled his car up next to hers and said, "Did that cop write you a ticket?" Smith acknowledged that he had. "That's a $350 ticket," said McCullough. "You did not deserve it. I saw what happened. I've lived in this neighborhood for a long time, and I've seen that before."

McCullough encouraged Smith to fight her ticket before a judge and promised he would appear as a witness in her defense. On May 19 Smith pleaded not guilty to the charge of running a red light. She called McCullough to inform him that the court had set her hearing date for June 28.

"He was already in the [El Cajon] courtroom by the time I got there," says Smith of McCullough. "When [San Diego sheriff's officer A. Bier] testified to the judge that I ran a red light," she continues, "Mr. McCullough raised his hand from the courtroom seats like he was a kid in school. The judge asked him what he wanted after the officer finished speaking. Mr. McCullough said, 'She did not go through a red light.' "

Smith says that McCullough also testified that the bell announcing the trolley's arrival did not ring until after she had crossed the tracks. The bell did start ringing, and the red-and-white crossing bar started to come down, right after she drove on. McCullough said that he had to wait for the trolley to pass, according to Smith, before following her and then stopping to talk with her.

Smith feels that McCullough came across as "a very honest witness." After listening to both of their statements, the judge overturned Smith's ticket.

Nine or ten other people appeared in court that day to fight the same ticket from the same officer. One of the last to be heard was Ellen Arcadi. Also on April 1, Officer Bier ticketed Arcadi for running a red light as she drove east on Broadway Avenue and crossed the tracks next to the Lemon Grove trolley station.

In court, says Arcadi, Officer Bier hesitated when the judge asked him whether he had heard the trolley bell ring by the time he saw the defendant go through the intersection. Arcadi remembers the officer replying, "I still might have had my helmet on." But the judge allowed the ticket to stand.

On the day he issued her ticket, exclaims Arcadi, "The officer started to write me up even before I had my window rolled down." She was upset that, when he did speak, Bier would say only that she ran a red light; he would not explain how she did it. "No bell rang," Arcadi continues, "and all I saw was the light [across the street] turn from red to green. So I drove across the tracks and turned right on Lemon Grove Avenue. But the cop was saying I ran a red light."

Several hours after the incident, Arcadi went back to the intersection to observe the traffic lights' behavior. "There is no consistency in what they do," she tells me. "Sometimes, when the trolley is coming, the light turns green, sometimes amber, and sometimes it doesn't do anything."

When I went to look for myself, I noticed some inconsistencies that Arcadi describes. But most of the time the traffic light on eastbound Broadway turns green for almost 6 seconds 30 seconds before the trolley rolls into the station. It comes on after the red and white crossing bar drops close to two feet and the trolley bell starts ringing.

Arcadi charges that the ticketing next to the Lemon Grove trolley station results from "entrapment" and that the purpose of the $350 tickets is for the city of Lemon Grove to make money. James Sutic thinks so, too. Sutic routinely gets on and off the trolley at the station. He says that in the middle of most weekdays, he sees a sheriff's officer sit on his motorcycle at the northwest corner of Broadway and Lemon Grove Avenues. The officer occasionally darts diagonally across the intersection to follow a car. "It's a bad trap they've got going there," says Sutic.

I ask Majid Al Ghafry, Lemon Grove's city engineer, if citizens have complained to him about the way the traffic lights at his town's two trolley stops are orchestrated. First of all, he tells me, the city does not control the way the lights operate. "The preemption of the trolley triggers what happens in the intersections," he says. "And if people get tickets there, it's 100 percent motorist error. The green light they see is not for them."

San Diego County sheriff's officer Bier explains to me the purpose of the green traffic lights at the trolley intersections. "The green is to allow people who have already driven onto the tracks to get out of no man's land. Otherwise an oncoming trolley could hit them." Bier goes on to say that the trolley system's bell, crossing bar, and blinking red lights in front of the train tracks are what should tell drivers to stay put.

But drivers who are first in line at the intersection may only detect the blinking red lights to their left and right out of the corners of their eyes, if they detect them at all. Because they are so close to the tracks, the drivers may not see the crossing bar starting to come down either. Their focus, as they look straight ahead, is likely to be on the city's traffic signal across Lemon Grove Avenue. In that case, the first thing they see will be the green light that comes on as the trolley approaches the station.

As a result of her ticket, Arcadi signed up for La Mesa Traffic School. She says her instructor, Ken Seguine, asked her to tell her story to the class. He then commented, according to Arcadi, on how the short-duration green lights at the intersections of automobile traffic with trolley tracks pose a great danger to motorists. Over the phone, however, Seguine acknowledges that the Lemon Grove station crossing does have a warning sign next to its right-hand lane that should stop drivers from going across the tracks, even when the light turns green across the street. The green light poses a greater danger for people in the middle- or left-turn lanes, Seguine says.

Seguine once owned the La Mesa Traffic School. The school's current owner, Buck Matoushek, has a different perspective on the green lights at trolley intersections. "People who get stranded on the tracks might end up dead if it weren't for those green lights," he says. "If drivers at the intersections are so close to the tracks that they can't see the trolley's flashing red lights or its crossing bars, then they are too close."

Matoushek thinks that though the first drivers in line at the tracks see a green light ahead that seems to tell them to go, the ringing bell, the crossing bar, and the flashing red lights clearly tell them not to go. Although drivers get a mixed message, "It's three against one," concludes Matoushek.

To verify her recollections, Arcadi took a camera to the same position she was in right before being ticketed and took a picture through her windshield at the moment the green light came on. The camera did not detect the crossing bar coming down in front of her car. Arcadi did hear the bell on this subsequent visit, but she's sure that it had not started ringing before she drove the few feet that got her the $350 ticket on April 1. She remains convinced that inconsistencies plague Broadway Avenue's intersection with the trolley. Ellen Arcadi plans to appeal the decision in her case.

Kathy Feilen, a traffic engineer with the city of La Mesa, says she knows of no serious accidents that the computerized trolley intersection system has caused. And in her city, where La Mesa Boulevard crosses both the trolley tracks and Spring Street, there is a peculiarity that looks especially dangerous. A driver approaching from the southwest on La Mesa Boulevard has the option of going over the trolley tracks and waiting in a space beyond them for a chance to cross Spring. But the space is so small that the rear end of a vehicle can stick out over the trolley's path. The green light that allows such a car to get out of the trolley's way is crucial.

Feilen admits that the La Mesa Avenue intersection is not ideal. It resulted, she says, from the city of La Mesa's negotiations with the trolley system at the time the line first came through. "Santee did better at negotiating by the time the trolley was built that far out," Feilen says. "They got the trolley to stop for traffic at the last road before coming to a dead end."

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