Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 15, 2011

Editorial: Outlook brightens to replace Newell Road bridge

City will seek major grant to pay for a bigger, safer span over flood-prone creek

Helped along with the prospect of a generous grant from the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and funding from the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, the City Council wisely took advantage of a generous opportunity and voted 8-0 Monday to replace the Newell Road bridge that the state has declared obsolete and unsafe.

With little advance notice, the city staff presented the council with a proposal to replace the dangerous bridge with a much safer and efficient structure that would include two traffic lanes, two bike lanes and curbs on either side. Preliminary plans show the new span would be 75 feet, about twice as long as the current rickety bridge that may seem quaint to some in the neighborhood, but has been called "functionally obsolete" by Caltrans inspectors. In addition, a Public Works Department engineer said the bridge's deficiencies include "substandard width, lack of access for bicycle and pedestrian traffic, a harsh vertical profile, unsafe railings and poor sight distances."

The Newell Road and Middlefield Road bridges have both received the "obsolete" designation by Caltrans, a prerequisite to qualifying for the state grant that will pay for 89 percent of the replacement cost with the remainder picked up by the Creek Authority. Officials estimate that it will take $360,000 for the necessary preliminary design work and environmental analysis, which must be done before the project could begin. After qualifying for the grant, the city would have up to 10 years to complete the job, Authority officials say.

Some residents who spoke Monday, particularly those who live near Newell Road, said they were not happy with the size of the proposed bridge, which they said would be out of context for the neighborhood. A smaller structure would be better, they said. One resident who supports replacing the bridge said he and his neighbors were nevertheless concerned that a larger bridge would bring in more traffic and cause safety issues, as well as interfere with wildlife in San Francisquito Creek.

"I strongly urge that the proposed bridge be scaled back to within appropriate size," Andrew Vought told the council.

But most council members appear to believe that the availability of funds and the long timeframe until actual construction would leave plenty of time to work out design and traffic impact issues.

Members Larry Klein said he supports the project but urged staff to consider traffic impacts when designing the new bridge. The rest of the council agreed.

East Palo Alto Mayor Carlos Romero was very supportive of the project, telling the council to back the regional effort to replace the bridges and improve flood control. He said there will be plenty of time to address community issues and the design as the project goes forward.

"This is a huge opportunity that we have as all three cities to really parlay important state and federal money into a bridge that may cost us $2.5 million or $3 million on our own to build if we really want to deal with the flooding issues," Romero said.

Replacement or upgrade of the Newell Road, Middlefield Road, Pope/Chaucer Street and University Avenue bridges is a key part of the Creek Authority's strategy to reduce the threat of a 100-year flood in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. The Chaucer Street and University Avenue bridges may also become eligible for state funding, but only after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes a study to determine the bridges' hydraulic-capacity deficiencies. Grant funding should also be available for the Middlefield Road bridge, which means it could be next in line for replacement.

In our view, the grants from Caltrans and the Creek Authority present a golden opportunity for the city and the authority to begin to deal with an obsolete bridge that just 13 years ago added to the severity of a 100-year flood that devastated a large section of Palo Alto, including Crescent Park. It has long been known that the Newell Road bridge constricts flood waters due to its abutments intruding into the creek flow. A longer bridge will enable engineers to build bridge supports in a way that will give the creek much more room to flow during storm conditions, the most dangerous time on the San Francisquito. The design should provide just enough room to allow safe passage for automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians, but not be a magnet that will attract commuters hoping to skirt University Avenue traffic.

There is much more to be done to guard against catastrophic flooding on the entire watershed, including replacement of the city's other bridges in the area. It is a task that could take many more years, but moving forward now will hopefully get the job done well before the next 100-year flood.

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