More than 20 years after the worst flood in recorded history in Palo Alto and after numerous estimated completion dates have come and gone for a replacement bridge where Newell Road crosses San Francisquito Creek, this long-delayed project will soon be back again.
Within the next few weeks, a long-awaited draft Environmental Impact Report will be released and trigger a renewed discussion over which of four options is most agreeable to the cities of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, which must both approve the project.
The current 100-year-old bridge has been declared "obsolete" by the state because it is too narrow for two cars to pass safely and doesn't come close to meeting today's standards for accommodating bikes and pedestrians.
But the more critical problem is that the bridge's foundation is in the creek bed and constricts the flow of water during major storm runoff. It is one of two major choke points where the creek has historically breached its banks and caused substantial flooding in Crescent Park, Duveneck and neighborhoods south of Embarcadero Road, even past Oregon Expressway. (The other is at the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, connecting Menlo Park and Palo Alto, which blocks the flow of the creek when waters rise to flood stage.)
After the 1998 flood, which damaged about 1,700 homes, a multi-agency group was formed to develop long-term solutions. Studies concluded that improvements could only be done by starting at the bay, where San Francisquito Creek ends, and move upstream with a variety of flood-control measures. If changes were made to increase the creek's capacity upstream first, it would result in worse flooding at vulnerable downstream locations such as at the Newell bridge.
Last fall work was finally completed under and east of the freeway to build new levees and flood walls and a new marsh flood plain. These improvements are estimated to be able to handle water flow from a 100-year storm even when tide levels are 10 feet above the average high tide.
With that work complete, it is time to rebuild the Newell and Pope-Chaucer bridges. Both are on a similar track, with the draft EIR for the Pope-Chaucer Bridge just released. Little controversy is expected regarding the replacement of that bridge, but in earlier iterations of the Newell bridge discussion there have been sharp differences of opinion on the best solution.
Some Crescent Park neighbors of the bridge have previously advocated for the most minimal new bridge possible (a one-lane bridge with traffic controls) or even the permanent removal of the bridge. They are concerned that a new, modern bridge will only attract more traffic to the neighborhood. Others have supported a new bridge but have different views on whether it should be shifted to fix the misalignment of Newell Road between the two sides of the creek to correct a dangerous jog on the East Palo Alto side.
The Newell EIR looked at the one-lane option and three two-lane bridge options— one using the existing alignment, another fully aligning the roads by shifting the bridge, and a third that only partially aligns the roads. As required by law, the EIR also examined the impact of leaving the bridge as it is, although this would have the effect of halting all other upstream flood-control measures and is not viewed as a viable alternative.
The process of replacing the short Newell bridge has, like other Palo Alto infrastructure projects, dragged on for far too long. In July 2012, city public-works staff estimated design and review of a new bridge would be done by summer 2013 and construction would be complete by September 2014. Then in February 2014, the staff estimated the EIR would be certified in spring 2015 and construction would occur in the summer of 2016. But the city didn't even begin the EIR process until September 2015, and it took a ridiculous two-and-a-half years for consultants to prepare the technical reports for the EIR analysis of this relatively simple project. While some delay was due to the staff not employing an effective community-outreach strategy, most was due to delays in completing the studies.
We are hopeful that community discussion will now focus on which of the three two-lane bridge alignment options is best, rather than re-debate the merits of a having a bridge at all, and that the Planning and Transportation Commission and the City Council move quickly to finally approve the replacement.
The bridge is an important connection between the two cities, and with the recent completion of the new pedestrian and bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 near the Newell bridge, it will be more important than ever to provide a safe way for cars, bikes and pedestrians to cross the creek.
• Crescent Park neighborhood resident Rom Rindfleisch discusses the efforts to prevent San Francisquito Creek from flooding on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on YouTube.com/paweekly/videos, or our podcast page at PaloAltoOnline.com/podcasts.