Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park residents Thursday night aired their views on replacing the 103-year-old, 18-foot-wide Newell Road bridge over San Francisquito Creek after city staff presented three options narrowed down from eight selected for analysis in an Environmental Impact Report.
Last year, staff proposed eight alternatives for revamping the bridge, which crosses over the flood-prone creek, after residents had voiced strong disagreement over what to do about it. On Thursday, Palo Alto's Assistant Director of Public Works Brad Eggleston reviewed staff analysis of the eight options in light of screening criteria developed by staff late last year.
The criteria include the ability to withstand a 100-year flood of the San Francisquito Creek, impact on traffic conditions on nearby streets, and the bridge's capacity or incapacity to accommodate multiple modes of transportation (cars, bikes and pedestrians). Staff's analysis was based on May 2013 traffic counts in 13 intersections as well as projections for future years 2020 and 2035. Staff said an average of 3,000 cars pass over the bridge each day.
Within this criteria, staff recommended that only three designs a one-lane bridge with traffic signals (known as alternative five), a two-lane bridge that maintains the existing alignment of Newell Road (alternative six) and a two-lane bridge with partial realignment of the bridge (alternative seven) move forward to be further analyzed as part of an Environmental Impact Report.
All three options could accommodate the 100-year storm and have minimal or no impact on traffic levels, staff said. Each design was also awarded a number of stars, from zero to three, to represent its capacity to handle cars, bicyclists and pedestrians. Staff gave alternative five two stars, and six and seven, three stars.
Eggleston said that alternative five a one-lane bridge with bi-directional traffic and signals is "unlikely to carry forward" but is "worthy of more study."
It's also standard to carry forward into the Environmental Impact Report the option to keep the bridge as-is, but that route is not being seriously considered, staff said.
Multiple community members voiced disappointment that staff dropped the option to build a two-lane bridge that fully realigns Newell Road on both the Palo Alto and East Palo Alto sides (known as alternative eight).
"I'm disappointed that option eight has been taken off the table," an East Palo Alto resident said. "I don't know why the road has been aligned the way it has ... but it seems to me if were going to do a project, we might as well do it right."
Palo Alto City Manager James Keene responded frankly that Crescent Park residents on the other side of the bridge simply will not accept the increased traffic flow that a fully realigned Newell Road could bring to the neighborhood.
"We dropped off eight and used some criteria to do that," he said. "I'm sorry (but) we have gobs of people in Palo Alto that are just not going to accept that project no matter what, so we just have to be sensible."
Jane Kerschner, who lives five houses from the bridge on Edgewood Drive in Palo Alto, said she's hoping for the city to "recognize the complexity" of the project and work with the public to develop a more unified set of screening criteria.
"My point is, without us agreeing on criteria for determining important elements of the bridge ... without us understanding what goals we have and agreeing on those goals, it's going to be hard for anyone to agree," she said. "I'm appreciative of the process you guys have already gone through ... (but) I'm reluctant to adopt any of the conclusions because I don't think we have a set of criteria we've agreed upon."
She, among many others, also compared the Newell bridge process to current talks underway to replace the nearby Pope-Chaucer Street Bridge.
"I don't know there won't be a phase two down the road," she said, citing designs for Pope-Chaucer that include eventual tall floodwalls, retaining walls, roadway elevations and other controversial elements that many residents raised issue with at a January community meeting.
One man who identified himself as a father with two children at Duveneck Elementary School concurred, saying he was "horrified" at some of the proposed design elements for Pope-Chaucer and warned they have "major ramifications."
Len Materman, executive director of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, which is a partner in the bridge-replacement project, took to the podium to dispel concerns over this comparison.
"We don't have the money for floodwalls; we're not getting into floodwalls," he said. "Please don't get sidetracked by potential future projects down the road that may or may not come to fruition that are not funded. ... Right now we have to focus on what we can do and what we have the money to do."
Eggleston laid out a timeline for the project, with the next step taking the form of environmental-review preparation in March. Staff pegged final EIR certification for spring 2015 and construction to begin in summer 2016.
Staff has not yet scheduled more public meetings, but will do so throughout the environmental review process, they said.
"Ultimately, the jurisdictions are going to have to make some choices and decisions," Keene said. "All we're asking to do today is move forward with essentially three options and the no-project option for much further study and analysis."