Both in terms of geography and significance, the proposed bike path along Matadero Creek was supposed to be the centerpiece of Palo Alto's bike-improvement boom.
Conceived as part of the city's bike and pedestrian master plan, the new trail was supposed to stretch for about 1.3 miles along the creek's levees between Alma Street and Bayshore Road. The goal was to address a problem that unites cyclists in the north, south and central Palo Alto: the lack of quality east-west routes.
The Matadero Creek project got off to a solid start, winning a $1.5 million grant from Santa Clara County and earning widespread support from the prior City Council, which unanimously approved the bike plan in 2012. In addition to creating a new pathway, officials also hoped to build bike crossings at the Caltrain tracks and at U.S. Highway 101.
In promoting the project, the city's bike master plan notes that the 1.3-mile distance between the Caltrain undercrossing at California Avenue and the street-level East Meadow crossings represents the longest stretch of track barrier in Palo Alto. The lack of east-west connectivity in this area, the plan states, is "a major issue for the Cal-Ventura area, a mixed-use neighborhood with potential for new residential and mixed-use development near the Fry's Electronics site and along El Camino Real." The plan recommends that the city conduct a feasibility study to determine the specific alignment for the path.
Now, however, the project is taking an unexpected turn thanks to obstacles both physical and political in nature. Since the bike plan was adopted, dozens of Midtown residents have come out against the project, arguing that the creekside trail would pose a safety hazard and bring down property values in the area. A group of concerned Midtown residents (that, fittingly, called itself Concerned Midtown Residents) urged the council to go back to the drawing board and consider other options for improving east-west connections near the city's center. In addition, a preliminary analysis by the city indicated that the trail project would be more costly and complex than initially thought because of flood-protection measures that are being implemented by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which has jurisdiction over the creek.
These complexities have prompted the city to pursue a new direction for the project, one that shifts the new east-west bike route away from the creek and to one of the streets in the Midtown area. Reflecting the change in thinking, the project that was formerly known as the Matadero Creek Trail is now referred to as the Midtown Connector.
Over the past two months, staff has discussed the change with the specially appointed Citizen Advisory Committee that was tasked with evaluating this project and with the city's Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee (PABAC), a panel that reviews all bike-related endeavors.
Sarah Syed, the city's senior transportation planner, highlighted the new challenges in her September report to the Citizen Advisory Committee. The effort by the water district to improve flood-control, she said, includes construction of access-closure structures, which are installed across the existing maintenance road annually, from October to April at Middlefield, Louis and Greer Roads, Syed wrote in her report. The structures are required for flood control during high water events, she wrote. The creek trail, she noted, "was not a priority for either agency during the planning process for the flood control project, when trail infrastructure might have been designed in harmony with the project."
Another point of concern is access ramps that would need to be installed along the creek for maintenance vehicles. The preliminary concepts for these ramps indicate that the trail would ramp steeply up and down at four locations along the creek, with the ramps splitting off at the low points and leading to the channel.
The 5 percent grade at these locations, she wrote, "are not comfortable for many people who walk and bicycle."
"Due to existing block lengths, trail users would experience few flat segments of trail," Syed wrote. "Other area trails that ramp up and down typically do so to provide benefits to users, such as grade separated crossings of intersections. Coupled with at-grade crossings of intersections, the ramp configuration required for maintenance access would likely discourage many potential trail users."
These constraints were enough to convince both advisory committees, each of which went along with staff's recommendation to halt the feasibility study and pursue other options.Robert Neff, who serves on both PABAC and the citizen committee, said the Midtown project faced significant opposition from the get-go among some members of the citizen group. Opponents cited privacy and security concerns, as well as inadequate safety at street crossings. There was an air, he said, that "these are really bad problems and we just shouldn't do this."
Yet it was the flood-control work and its impacts on the trail that posed the greater problem from the city's perspective, he said. It became quickly apparent that the project would be far more expensive than the projected $2 million price tag. Furthermore, it became clear that even if the trail were built, concerns about flooding would keep it from being a year-round facility. According to Syed's report, the water district stipulated that if the city were to pursue the trail on the levees, it would have to take "full responsibility to close trail to public and install access closure structure in advance of significant rain event and to remove them following a significant rain event." In addition, the city would be obligated to keep the trail closed during the rainy season, why typically stretches from October to April.
"There were all these changes that were made to the channel where the places you thought were accessible were not easily accessible year-round without leaving the city liable for flooding in the neighborhoods if they did it wrong," Neff said.
Both advisory boards went along with staff's suggestion to halt the feasibility study and to evaluate new alternatives. These include new bike amenities along Loma Verde Avenue, Colorado Avenue or East Meadow Drive.
One consequence of abandoning the Matadero Creek project is that the city may have to return the $1.5 million to Santa Clara County for reallocation to other projects. According to a new report from planning staff, the city would coordinate with the county to advance other local bikeway projects to compete for funding.