Palo Alto's plan for a bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 sped ahead on Monday morning, when city officials formally signed agreements with multiple agencies, paving the way for construction of the long-delayed project to begin next year and conclude in 2020.
At a small, makeshift space off of Adobe Creek trail in south Palo Alto, agency representatives signed agreements that allow the city to go out to bid in January.
Among the 60 people at the event were representatives of organizations involved in the project -- such as the city of Palo Alto, Google, Caltrans and Santa Clara County Valley Water District -- and everyday commuters who have kept a close eye on the bridge's progress.
In their opening remarks, Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada and City Manager Jim Keene praised the milestone in the project, which officials have been discussing for at least six years. The proposed bridge is a key component of both the council's 2014 infrastructure plan, which also includes new garages and a new police headquarters, and the 2012 Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure Plan.
"It's been a really long journey," said Shikada, who will soon become Palo Alto's city manager with Keene's retirement.
Keene proudly reminded the audience that Palo Alto has a 10 percent bike-to-work commute and emphasized the importance of fostering a bike-friendly city.
Once the bridge is completed, the city estimates that about 74,000 trips will be taken across it annually.
State Assemblyman Marc Berman commended the city on infrastructure work that has been done over the past nine years, pointing to the improvements to road quality, the Rinconada fire station replacement project, the recently opened Baylands Golf Links, the Municipal Services Center and animal services center.
"Residents don't realize how much work goes into the infrastructure assets that we have in Palo Alto -- how many nights were spent at the Lucie Stern Center eating cold pizza, pouring over all the details of what are Palo Alto's infrastructure assets, prioritizing what the backlog is and figuring out how to pay for it," he said.
Once built, the new bridge at Adobe Creek will provide year-round Baylands access to south Palo Alto residents, who today rely on a seasonal undercrossing that's typically only open between April and October.
Under the city's agreement with Google, which owns property on West Bayshore Road, the tech giant has donated a permanent easement to the city for the bicycle and pedestrian bridge. The agreement provides to the city both a temporary easement for construction and, once construction is complete, a permanent, non-exclusive easement.
According to a report from the Public Works Department, the permanent easement will allow the city to reconfigure a driveway and parking stalls; install bridge structure and piles; and put up landscaping, lighting and signage.
The landscaped area will also serve as a bioretention area that treats stormwater runoff. According to the city, there will be no net loss or increase of private parking stalls on Google's property, allowing the company to continue use of its private parking lot at the site.
The city's agreement with Caltrans sets the terms of maintenance of the overpass, which is in the state right-of-way. The agreement obliges the city to take pre-eminent responsibility for project maintenance. According to the Public Works report, this will likely require the city to seek a maintenance-service contract for work such as structural repairs and graffiti abatement.
The report also noted that the state has waived any future encroachment-permit fees to support the project.
Gary Kremen, Santa Clara Valley Water District board director, discussed at the ceremony the environmentally beneficial aspects of the project. He said since the overpass will allow commuters to stay on their bikes safely throughout the entire year, it will aid in reducing carbon emissions in the city.
Mark Golan, Google's chief operating officer for real estate investments and development, also pointed out that the area is a "key gap in bike network."
"The bridge will greatly improve the regional bicycle network, enabling thousands of new and safe commuting and recreational bike and walking trips for residents," he said.
For supporters of the project, the new agreements are a welcome bit of news for a bridge project that has been hampered by an extraordinarily long design process and escalating costs. Initially envisioned as an "iconic bridge," the overpass underwent a design contest in 2014 that included evaluation by a panel of independent experts, the city's Architectural Review Board and ultimately the City Council.
After some debate over two design options -- a prominent, red arch and a slender, ribbon-like bridge -- the council opted for the latter, only to abandon the design when the engineer's cost estimates far exceeded the city's expectations. The city then scrapped its plan for a bridge with "Wow!" factor and settled for a more basic, 12-foot-wide structure.
The City Council approved the environmental impact report for the project in November 2017. The new bridge will also include an overlook area with benches and signage as well as lights to illuminate the bike path at night.
Many residents in attendance at the ceremony expressed their enthusiasm for the overpass but said it had taken far too long for the project to start construction.
Peter Allen, a Palo Alto resident since 1985, travels 10-mile loops out on the levees every week. Although he wouldn't need the overpass for his commute, he said he could use it during recreational biking. He described the project as "long overdue."
"It's just a good project for everyone, and it's nice to see this officially moving forward because there have been bumps on the road," he said.
Greg Unangst, a member of the Mountain View Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said he discovered the current undercrossing in the 1980s but said there were no signs. Raising public awareness of the route has been difficult.
"Here we are 40 years later finally getting a bridge," Unangst said.
Sonia Micek, another longtime resident, attended the ceremony with her husband, Eugene Micek. Like Unangst, she didn't know the undercrossing existed for a long time.
"It took us 10 years to even realize we can come this way," she said. "For the last 20 years we've enjoyed it very much. It'll be exciting it'll be available year-round."
She said every year she had been disappointed when an extension had been placed on the project but is now hopeful that it'll finally be built.
"It's a relief that we've come to this point. It took longer than anyone ever anticipated. We live on the other side (of the highway) and it's nice for us to be able to walk here. ... It's very peaceful to see nature close by, to get away from the urban setting, so it'll be exciting to see it finished," she said.
Though the project's cost has increased to $16 million (up from initial estimates of about $10 million), much of the funding will come from state and regional sources. The Santa Clara County Recreation Trails Program has provided a grant of $4 million, while another $4.35 million will come from the One Bay Area grant program.
Mayor Liz Kniss recalled that during her time working at Sun Microsystems her colleagues had told her the commute would be much easier "if only the bridge was open year-round." She lauded the project as an opportunity to cut down the time residents spend on their commutes.
"I think this is truly an example of everybody working together, bringing the money together, bringing the excitement together," she said at the ceremony.