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Caltrans and Chevron Conspire to Perpetuate Death Trap

Today’s West County Times carries an account of a serious accident that killed one bicyclist and seriously injured another on the westbound shoulder of I-580 on September 24 just east of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge toll plaza. This stretch of the freeway is shared by an unprotected bicycle route that was constructed years ago by Caltrans.

Local trail advocates, including TRAC have been meeting with Caltrans for years to try and get it reconstructed at a safer location, but Chevron has dug its heels in and refused to discuss it, and Caltrans has been no help.

Following the accident, no one could believe that there is actually a bike trail on the freeway, and the assumption was that the riders were somewhere they should not have been. Even the Richmond Fire Department did not know about it. On September 25, the Marin Independent Journal reported, “The crash happened when the two bicyclists were attempting to cross the freeway on their way to Point Molate, according to Richmond Fire Department Battalion Chief Erik Newman.”

A story in the San Jose Mercury News quoted a California Highway patrol officer as stating that there are no bicycle routes on freeways.

In fact, the riders were on a little known and little used bicycle route that is clearly marked as such and remains so marked and open today.

For some 15 years beginning in the early 1990s, my firm, Interactive Resources, sponsored a freeway cleanup east of the toll plaza. Caltrans gave us explicit instructions not to go in the areas of the bicycle route because they considered it too dangerous.

As far as I am concerned, both Chevron and Caltrans have blood on their hands and are responsible for this accident. Caltran’s stupidity and Chevron’s arrogance have resulted in an unnecessary death and a serious injury. The only good thing that could come of this is if they both see the light and cooperate in constructing a safe trail to the Point San Pablo Peninsula along what has been designated as a spur of the Bay Trail.

During a hometown visit with his wife and two girls last month, software engineer Dan Weinstein went for a bike ride with a childhood friend.

It was supposed to be a quick trip out to scenic Point Molate before settling in for a family barbecue. But the ride ended abruptly in a tangle of twisted metal and shattered lives on what may be the most dangerous bicycle path in the Bay Area.

The accident, which killed Weinstein and severely injured friend Dan Doellstedt, has raised serious questions about the path, which runs along a narrow shoulder of westbound Interstate 580 near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge tollbooth. An attorney for the Weinstein and Doellstedt families is blaming Caltrans for creating a "death trap" by providing bicyclists with little more protection than a painted white line to separate them from speeding trucks and cars.

Bay Trail activists say Chevron -- which owns property on both sides of that section of freeway -- indirectly contributed to the accident by refusing five years ago to allow a separated bicycle and pedestrian path to be built on its land, claiming security issues.

"We've been trying for years to get that bike path off the freeway, but Chevron has refused to cooperate" says Bruce Beyaert, chairman of Trails for Richmond Action Committee. "This accident was completely unnecessary."

A tragic homecoming

Weinstein, 42, who moved to Australia 15 years ago, recently sold his software engineering business to a multinational company. The sale allowed him to enjoy some special time with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, Micala, 8 and Emma, 4, on a six-week trip to Europe and Mexico.

They were spending the last leg of the trip with family and friends in Point Richmond, where Weinstein grew up.

On Sept. 24, Weinstein, Doellstedt and Richmond resident Michael Meyer decided to go for a 40-minute ride to Point Molate before the barbecue at Doellstedt's apartment.

"Out at Point Molate, we stopped at an overlook, talked for a while and enjoyed the view before heading back." Meyer said. "I was a couple of hundred feet ahead of the two Dans, near the end of the freeway bike path. I slowed down to wait, and at that moment, I heard brakes."

Meyer turned and saw a Toyota Camry veer across the bicycle lane, collide with the freeway's outer concrete barrier, then bounce back into the bicycle lane and crash head on into Weinstein and Doellstedt at an estimated 65 mph.

I-580 was shut down in both directions while a helicopter landed to take the two men to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. Weinstein died two days later of major head injuries. Doellstedt, 41, remains on a respirator with two metal rods along a crushed section of his spine. Physically, he can respond to simple commands such as squeezing a hand, although he has not been able to move his legs voluntarily.

The accident is still under investigation, but according to the California Highway Patrol's preliminary interviews, 54-year-old Albany resident Fayez El Giheny either swerved into the bicycle lane to avoid another car that had cut him off or became distracted and missed the freeway's sloping left turn.

A perilous path

That particular stretch of freeway is on the approach to the tollbooth, and there are plenty of opportunities for distraction, Richmond Councilman Tom Butt said. Butt's architectural firm, Interactive Resources, adopted that portion of freeway from 1991 until earlier this year.

"The conditions there are terrible for drivers, let alone bicyclists," Butt said. "Trucks and cars are still driving 60 or 70 mph as they get in position for the FasTrak lane or jockey for a spot in the tollbooth lines. And at the same time, some drivers are frantically digging in their pockets for the $3 toll."

There are no signs warning bicyclists of the dangers. Perhaps more importantly, as El Giheny drove toward the tollbooth, he would not have seen any signs alerting him to the possible presence of bicyclists on the narrow shoulder.

The bike lane, which remains open, was designed according to regulations, Caltrans spokesman Jeff Weiss said.

"We followed all regulations on all aspects of this bicycle lane, though that can only provide cold comfort when there's been a tragedy such as this accident," Weiss said. "The only requirement is that we put signs at the bicycle lane's on-ramp and off-ramp. That's regulation."

But Caltrans is trying to cover a colossal blunder, said San Francisco-based attorney Chris Dolan, who represents the Weinstein and Doellstedt families.

"Caltrans knows better. They failed to protect bicyclists by not establishing barriers between them and the freeway," he said. "Caltrans didn't even bother to place proper signage for both motorists and bicyclists, nor did they install rumble strips to warn drivers when they were drifting into the bike lane."

The lack of rumble strips creates a particularly hazardous condition. In the area where the two cyclists were run down, the freeway's outer concrete wall is marked with the gouges and scrapes of vehicles that careened through the bike lane after missing the left turn.

Caltrans has left the freeway bike path open and there are as yet no plans to add any additional safety features.

Chevron role

Bay Trail activists have been working for safe access to the San Pablo peninsula for years. Chevron, the city of Richmond and the Association of Bay Area Governments funded a path feasibility study five years ago.

The 65-page study concluded that a $7 million bicycle and pedestrian path with a cantilevered section over Chevron's Long Wharf pipes would have been the best solution to the dangerous freeway bike lane.

But Chevron backed away from the plan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, claiming security concerns. The Long Wharf pipes pump about 250,000 barrels of crude oil into the refinery daily, Chevron Security Manager Mark Ayers said. If those pipes were somehow sabotaged, the effects would be felt throughout California and the Pacific Northwest.

"The bicycle path would have gone over a major operations area, and we can't have that," Ayers said. "Any increase in public access softens us as a target, and we need to remain a hard target."

That's a dodge, said Beyaert, the Richmond trails committee chairman: About 75,000 vehicles pass over those pipes each day on I-580, and the Long Wharf pipes are easily accessible from the existing eastbound bicycle lane and a parking area where truckers frequently pull over for short naps.

"A hundred or so bicyclists and pedestrians in an enclosed path each day would not make any difference." Beyaert said. "Chevron doesn't identify with the Bay Trail or providing safe access to Point Molate, and they're searching for reasons to say 'no.'"

Michelle Weinstein has returned to Australia and is doing her best to create a sense of normalcy for her two daughters. Micala and Emma are in school and are spending a lot of time with her close-knit family, said Michelle's brother, Peter Macisaac.

"The most important thing for us," Macisaac said, "is that a needless accident like this one doesn't happen to anyone else."

Karl Fischer contributed to this story. Reach John Geluardi at 510-262-2787 or jgeluardi@cctimes.com.



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