Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 17, 2014

Plans unveiled for new Pope-Chaucer bridge

Water officials weigh two alternatives for new bridge between Palo Alto and Menlo Park

by Gennady Sheyner

Even during a prolonged drought, the threat of flooding rarely strays far from the minds of residents around the fickle San Francisquito Creek, which 16 years ago washed over several Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto neighborhoods and inflicted about $28 million in damage.

On Wednesday, more than 100 residents who live near the most flood-prone bridge learned that help is finally on the way. Officials from the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority and the Santa Clara Valley Water District unveiled two possible alternatives for rebuilding the Pope-Chaucer Street Bridge, which allows the least water to flow underneath out of all the bridges connecting Palo Alto and Menlo Park. If things go as planned, upgrades could begin as early as next summer.

For residents in the most vulnerable neighborhoods, including Crescent Park and Duveneck/St. Francis in Palo Alto and Willow Oaks in Menlo Park, the help can't come soon enough. Numerous residents at Wednesday's meeting at the East Palo Alto Academy in Menlo Park cited the damage their homes suffered in February 1998, when they were pummeled by the largest flood on record and water overflowed. Either of the alternatives unveiled this week would protect the area from floods of this sort, called a "100-year flood," which by definition has a 1 percent chance of occurring during any given year.

One option would raise the bridge and portions of streets leading up to the bridge by 4 feet, a design that would increase water capacity but would also require the construction of retaining walls in front of four corner properties near the bridge to accommodate the grading. The other option would leave the bridge at its current grade and avoid the retaining walls, but would require higher floodwalls.

Keven Sibley, civil engineer with the Santa Clara Valley Water District, called the "raised bridge" alternative the "standard engineer design." The water district is the main funding source for the Pope-Chaucer project, with most of the money coming from Measure B, a bond voters passed in 2012. Sibley said this design would raise both the bridge and portions of Palo Alto Avenue and Woodland Avenue.

Another improvement would be construction of flood walls, ranging from 2 to 6 feet (the height varies because of the shifting road alignment). Once all these improvements are in place, the residents around the bridge would no longer be required to purchase federal flood insurance.

The big drawback for this design, he said, would be the retaining walls built in front of the four corner properties.

Because of this, Sibley said, the water district is also considering the alternative, which would rebuild the bridge at a slightly higher elevation than exists now. Because this would not provide the same level of flood protection as a raised bridge, it would ultimately require officials to build higher flood walls — about 7 feet tall.

The creek authority, which includes elected officials from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and the water districts from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, is also looking at rebuilding the Newell Road bridge between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto and, ultimately, the bridges at Middlefield Road and University Avenue.

Unlike last year's meeting on the Newell Road bridge, which attracted widespread criticism and a wide range of opinions about the design of the new bridge, the public hearing on the Pope-Chaucer bridge was a relatively subdued affair despite a standing-room-only crowd. Most people welcomed the fact that something is finally getting done, though a few asked questions about the project's impact on trees and area aesthetics.

Len Materman, executive director of the creek authority, said the authority has the funding to perform flood-control work between the Bay and U.S. Highway 101 and to widen channels and rebuild numerous bridges, including the Pope-Chaucer Bridge. Other measures that would be necessary to provide 100-year-flood protection — including flood walls near the Pope-Chaucer Bridge — would need to rely on future funding sources. The creek authority, he said, is now evaluating possible tax measures that it can send to the voters in 2016 or 2017 to pay for these improvements.

Officials from the water district and the creek authority plan to hold another meeting on Jan. 29 to solicit more input about the design of the new Pope-Chaucer Bridge. If all goes as planned, Materman said, all the environmental analyses will be completed by May 2015, paving the way for construction to begin. Barring unforeseen complications, it would take about a year to reconstruct the bridge, he said.

A longer version of this article, and renderings of the bridge plans, have been posted on PaloAltoOnline.com.

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