On Deadline blog: 'Cal Ave' cost overruns may echo past, present and future city projects | Off Deadline | Jay Thorwaldson | Palo Alto Online |


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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: 'Cal Ave' cost overruns may echo past, present and future city projects

Uploaded: Jan 31, 2013

The news that the California Avenue beautification project is exploding in its costs should not be a surprise to anyone even a bit familiar with Palo Alto projects -- of the past, present or future.

The overall cost has nearly tripled, from an initial $1.7 million in early 2011 (when the City Council approved the project) to an estimated $4.5 million today. The cost increases have followed a series of city decisions to redesign and add to the project, with wider sidewalks and -- currently proposed -- new street lights estimated to cost about $1 million.

But it wasn't the controversies that have plagued the project that have driven up costs -- such as the wholesale removal of the 63 or so former street trees on the commercial stretch between El Camino Real and the Caltrain tracks. Numerous merchants and residents also have expressed deep concern about the plan to narrow the lanes from four to two to allow wider sidewalks and landscape areas.

As with other cost-ballooning projects, the California Avenue project is being funded by a significant level of non-city funds, specifically a $1.2 million grant from Santa Clara County's Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). The city's share was to be about $500,000. It is not completely clear why the short, essentially dead-end street qualifies as a major VTA "transportation" project, other than the Caltrain stop at its eastern end.

Historically, one project stands out as an example of a grant-inspired city investment. It is known simply as "The Homer Tunnel." The bike/pedestrian tunnel (where Homer Avenue runs into Alma Street in downtown Palo Alto) more than quintupled in cost from initial estimates to its final cost of $5.4 million.

In addition to serious concerns about the design, especially for bicycles exiting onto narrow Alma or one-way-head-on Homer, the Weekly and others marveled unbelievingly at the cost explosion.

"Just as distressing is the $5.4 million latest cost estimates for the tunnel, several times the initial estimates of less than $1 million, or even the $2.2 million envisioned after the first design/engineering study," the Palo Alto Weekly commented in an editorial Sept. 22, 2004. It noted that the tunnel was "initially presented as costing local taxpayers virtually nothing due to potential grant funding and a $250,000 contribution from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

"But the price tag swelled past any rational limit due to a combination of state requirements coupled with add-ons from several city commissions and boards, plus an added track for "Baby Bullet" trains, and contingency costs of tunneling under a working railroad and relocating underground utilities," the editorial noted.

Sound familiar?

At the time, the Homer Tunnel on a small scale rivaled the cost increases plaguing the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, increases that almost caused Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to cancel that project, now nearing its final stages as a world-class structure.

The late former Councilman and Mayor Gary Fazzino just shook his head as he drove past the new Homer Tunnel -- questioning its worth in the big picture of city investment in infrastructure. Its defenders cited its contribution to the economics of downtown Palo Alto by linking it more closely with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and large hotels adjacent to it.

On a trip to southern New Zealand I took a photo of a "Homer Tunnel" through a mountain and sent it back to Weekly staffers, wondering if it cost as much as the Palo Alto version.

Downtown parking structures also have carried high price tags. At a luncheon meeting with Weekly editors, Stanford University President John Hennessy informally quipped that Palo Alto's then-new structure on Alma Street cost about twice what a similar-sized parking structure cost Stanford.

I was not surprised: On a walking tour of the Alma Street structure I was impressed by the thin stainless-steel cables enclosing the stairwells. I had once replaced a couple of stainless-steel stays on an old sailboat and knew their solid-gold cost, even many years earlier.

And we're not done yet, it seems.

Other projects seemingly on their way over the top include a major bicycle/pedestrian bridge over state Highway 101 to the city's expansive natural baylands, and a new plan for a pedestrian/bicycle trail along Matadero Creek in Midtown Palo Alto.

The 1.3-mile creekside trail is still in a conceptual phase, but the bridge is moving along through city approvals.

The bridge is estimated to cost about $10 million, of which so far $4 million would come from a grant from Santa Clara County. Early design concepts show a sweeping overpass structure creating an architecturally impressive gateway to the baylands for south Palo Alto residents and others. It would avoid the inherently dangerous San Antonio Road vehicular overpass and supplant the Adobe Creek bike/pedestrian underpass that is flooded out for half the year -- for all year this year, in fact.

There is still discussion about the eastern alignment and its impact on the baylands, both during construction and visually. Planning Commission member Arthur Keller in December suggested straightening the eastside alignment to aim it more directly at entrances to trails in the baylands and create a more cohesive appearance.

The bridge is scheduled to open by 2017. Its ultimate real-world cost has not yet been guesstimated, beyond the initial $10 million estimate. Will it follow what former city Chief Transportation Official Joe Kott once termed the "Palo Alto cost" pattern? There certainly are many opportunities in this one. Stay tuned.

Finally, the Weekly this week is reporting on a relatively new plan to construct a bicycle/pedestrian trail along Matadero Creek in Midtown Palo Alto.

Like the baylands bridge, it also ties into the Stanford and Palo Alto Trails Program, which would expand or create more than eight miles of recreational corridors. The program would eventually link San Francisco Bay trails to Stanford University and city's Enid Pearson Arastradero Preserve. The trail is considered a key element of the city's 2012 Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan (adopted by the City Council last July) and would link with future bike boulevards along Ross, Greer and Louis roads.

As outlined so far, most of the trail would follow an existing county water-district maintenance road along the north side of Matadero Creek, except from Middlefield to Ross roads where it would shift to the south side.

But planning and assessment of the trail, and its alignment, won't even start until after the new city budget year begins in July, with a feasibility study scheduled to start in the fall. Some residents already are expressing concerns that the trail comes too close to their back yards, one woman saying it would be just six feet from her house. Privacy and safety will be issues, and even the necessity for any trail compared to side streets.

Palo Alto has received a $1.5 million grant for the trail from Santa Clara County, and the city could contribute about $500,000 from its 2014 Capital Improvement Program budget, according to city Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez.

So we have a $2 million estimate on the table. Do I hear three?

NOTE: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] with a copy to [email protected] He writes regular print columns for the Weekly and blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).