Editorial: The only thing iconic about this bridge will be its price tag | News | Palo Alto Online |


Editorial: The only thing iconic about this bridge will be its price tag

Palo Alto bike bridge over 101 now set to cost $20 million, $7 million more than East Palo Alto's new bridge down the road

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It won't be a bridge to nowhere, as an often maligned federally funded bridge in Alaska has been described. But it may go down as the most poorly implemented capital project in Palo Alto history.

And it has shown us why we should perhaps adopt an "avoid the iconic" principle of municipal governance.

With good intentions but no self-restraint, the Palo Alto City Council decided back in 2011 that a simple bicycle/pedestrian highway overcrossing connecting south Palo Alto with the Baylands and the Googleplex — the kind that one drives under on freeways everywhere — would not be good enough for Palo Alto.

A consultant's feasibility study and city planners envisioned a "signature piece of community infrastructure that connects the general community, the Baylands Nature Preserve and technology/business campuses with a safe and convenient pedestrian/bicycle pathway." The cost was estimated at $9 million. In a surprise twist, the council unanimously decided to add a complication — a design contest.

The contest idea, suggested by then-Councilwoman Karen Holman, included the caveat that if funding wouldn't allow for a "really stellar design," the fallback should be a "good utilitarian design" rather than an "underfunded artistic endeavor." With no idea of what a "stellar" design might cost, nor how it would be funded, the city began searching for grant funding while figuring out how to conduct the desired design contest.

Almost three years later, in September 2014, the contest was finally rolled out. Then-Mayor Nancy Shepherd said the council was seeking a bridge that "balances engineering with art, efficiency and beauty, while recognizing the integration with our Baylands."

"We hope the architects and engineers submitting will be inspired by the beauty and innovation in Palo Alto when creating their designs, and we look forward to seeing what they come up with," Shepherd's statement said. She was joined by her eight colleagues, including Holman, who was responsible for coining the much-maligned "iconic" descriptor for what the council was seeking in a bridge that would be seen by every vehicle traveling on 101.

The contest was expected to take just three months and result in the selection of a winning concept in December 2014. At that time, the estimated cost had risen to $10 million and was expected to be funded primarily by grants. The plan was to have it built by 2018.

But in March 2015, facing public pushback on the concept of a showy and expensive design, a defensive council surprised everyone by rejecting the dazzling design that won the competition in favor of the more subtle and restrained design of the runner-up. As current Mayor Eric Filseth said at the time, "Our natural landscape will be more dramatic and iconic than anything you can make out of glass and steel."

To the shock of everyone, within six months the selected design firm had revised its cost estimate to almost $17 million due to increased construction costs. After the city staff warned that the price tag could go even higher due to site complexities, the council voted to abandon the design and start over with a simpler and cheaper bridge — nothing like what had been originally envisioned.

In November 2017, the environmental assessment for the scaled-back bridge was approved amid great frustration about a process that had wasted six years in search of an "iconic" design. And this week, still talking about the ever-increasing costs — now $20 million — the council quietly approved the construction and management contracts for a bridge that will get bicyclists and pedestrians across the highway but won't attract any attention as an architectural achievement.

The history of this project is emblematic of what often happens in Palo Alto with major infrastructure projects. With ambitious and complicated ideas, the process drags on so long that it loses continuity and momentum, leading to changes that further prolong decisions and implementation. This not only drives up costs, it is deflating to everyone involved, including the public, city staff and consultants.

Palo Alto needs this bridge, and it will get enormous use. It should be a permanent reminder of how in Palo Alto we too often become mired in ideas that seek to solve a simple problem in complex and "iconic" ways that are not worth the time, money and frustration.


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18 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 22, 2019 at 8:15 am

Palo Alto could have had an iconic bridge for $17 million, instead we get a cookie-cutter generic piece of concrete for $20 million. Additionally the underpass will need to be closed for the next 18 months due to bridge construction. People will legitimately get injured or die from having to take San Antonio to cross the freeway for the next 18 months. Did the city council take that into account before approving this project?

It's amazing that two simple requirements weren't met:

1) Iconic architecture.
2) Don't close the underpass until the bridge is finished.

The city should go back to the drawing board with this bridge, but I fear it is too late.

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 22, 2019 at 8:26 am

There is a big problem with the fact that the underpass will be closed without access across 101 apart from San Antonio for 18 months - and that is provided there are no delays.

The long awaited bridge and its delays and costs are unfortunately water under the bridge now. However, the inconvenience caused could prove deadly.

20 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 22, 2019 at 8:48 am

The city can reduce the danger of the underpass closure by adding bike lanes to the San Antonio Road overpass during the construction. Remove one car lane if necessary. Cars can easily use the Rengstorff or Oregon Expressway overpasses instead.

2 people like this
Posted by Remodel
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 22, 2019 at 9:03 am

The problem with crossing over the San Antonio bridge is only that cars come off the 101 exit at 60 miles an hour. Once when I was crossing there, a car was being really nice by slowing down to 35 and almost got rear-ended by the car behind it.

If cars could somehow be caused to slow down to like 35, it would be much safer.

15 people like this
Posted by She knows what is best
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 22, 2019 at 9:26 am

This project should be known as holmans folly. It was her grandiose pipe dreams that led us to this situation. However the council as a whole is not without blame- they went along with holmans scheme, instead of letting common sense rule. But as pointed out, this is another in a long line of Palo Alto fiascos- where the city thinks that they need to show everyone how to do things.
[Portion removed.]

37 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Nov 22, 2019 at 9:45 am

Actually the council voted unanimously to hold the bridge competition which is a perfectly normal process for a city council to take.
I wonder how long it took to settle on a design fir the Mitchell park library?
I don’t know the answer but I know we didn’t build the cheapest most utilitarian structure we could.

The editorial to misses the role of senior staff in the delay. once the council, our elected officials, made a decision senior staff held it up for three years and then, the city manager at the time, keene, came back with a different bridge and wouldn’t let the council make any changes. Keene claimed the original bridge was to expensive, but his solution ends up being more expensive then the original!
It was clear that Keene didn’t care for the councils original choice and didnt bring it back to council until the price of construction (across the board ) had gone up considerably.

Perhaps we need to examine the balance of power between the council, elected by the people, and the city manager who is hired to serve the council and manage the employees

10 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 22, 2019 at 10:39 am

Once again, a boutique project that will cost us $Millions. Just wait until the powers that be in Palo Alto get hold of those 'excess' funds in the current budget...oh yippy, they can demand and design even more boutiques...instead of banking it for our unfunded obligations, like CalPers funding. Sick!

32 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Nov 22, 2019 at 11:47 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Sadly a renewable resource laminated wooden bridge would have been:
- cheaper
- more attractive
- had a main span that could be put in place in a single weekend
- completed in three months of on site work with fabrication done off site

15 people like this
Posted by Dishonest
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 22, 2019 at 4:05 pm

Tax and spend, tax and spend, someone else's money. Why does the weekly endorse these people?

Why aren't they taking the budget surplus and applying it to the unfunded pensions? So they can give union employees big raises, again?

5 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 22, 2019 at 5:17 pm

I am very happy this project is finally moving forward. Maybe everyone should review how poorly we performed in getting to this point, and realize we are doing the same thing for the rail crossings.....with the same outcome. Years (lifetimes?) will go by, costs will skyrocket, and in the end, we have a result that any decent project manager could have determined rather quickly.

5 people like this
Posted by Garden Gnome
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 22, 2019 at 5:46 pm

Wake me up when the price tag hits $30 million.

6 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 22, 2019 at 7:50 pm

no worries; already paased a couple of hotel taxes, and the council is preparing for another tax, so plenty of money for the increase in cost. And look at the big budget surplus. Maybe the city will think again about doing another design. As long as no one gets held accountable, and pay inceases keep coming, every body is happy!

7 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Nov 23, 2019 at 4:25 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

Buckle up, editorial writers!

The seemingly interminable ongoing grade separation “Palo Alto Process” will make this Hwy 101 over-crossing fiasco seem relatively small, brisk, and quite inexpensive!

5 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 23, 2019 at 7:00 am

Why does the Weekly endorse these people indeed. Both at City Hall and Churchill, we are really bad at this.

14 people like this
Posted by Richard
a resident of Meadow Park
on Nov 23, 2019 at 9:04 am

Meanwhile, East Palo Alto, proposed and constructed a bridge in... 3 years? Ahead of schedule and met the budget. I see people using it all the time now, providing benefits to the community while Palo Altans are still endlessly working on the planning stage, after a decade.

When we moved here in 1997, "fiber to the neighborhoods" could be done "within a few years". Twenty years later, nothing to show for.

Then we had the traffic chief engaging in large scale social engineering of putting bicycle riders in the same lanes as car drivers to force people to "ride bikes more frequently".

These and others clearly demonstrate that our current city governing structures do not work. Time to disband the Council, the City Manager role, and reboot the system.

11 people like this
Posted by I can't wait for this bridge!
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 23, 2019 at 1:15 pm

I can't wait for this bridge! is a registered user.

As a long-time supporter of a pedestrian/bicycle bridge across 101 at this location, I'm glad it is finally moving forward. It is a badly needed--and will provide a wonderful, safe, year-round connection to recreational opportunities in the bay lands and regional off-road bicycle trails that connect to other cities.

The delays have been frustrating and expensive, but I am relieved we are moving forward at last.

6 people like this
Posted by Alfred
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 23, 2019 at 8:47 pm

Holman and her fellow council members, city staff and the city manager, in spite of being charged with the relatively simply task building a bike bridge, could not have screwed it up any more had they tried to. An absolutely pathetic example of the idiotic way our city govt doesn't work.

I realize that different people are steering city govt today, but this city has a long history of dysfunctional gov. How in the world will they manage the complex and far more costly grade separations problem that confronts them now?

Posted by Chris
a resident of University South

on Nov 25, 2019 at 11:06 am

Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.

7 people like this
Posted by Steve Dabrowski
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 25, 2019 at 1:21 pm

A couple of posters here indicate this was all a project of Karen Holman. My recollection was that it was pure Liz Kniss-she brought it to the council as one of her first proposals after being elected-post county supervisor term out. She insisted that it be an iconic structure. The Holman council initiated a beauty contest for the award, but that was a whole council vote. So not sure why Karen gets the blame here-it was Liz who done it!

5 people like this
Posted by It was karen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 25, 2019 at 4:16 pm

Web Link

Steve- kniss secured the funding from Stanford while a county commissioner.

However Holman insisted on a design contest and all the wow factor stuff.
The council shares responsibility for the fiasco, but Holman was the driving Force.

“Council members also supported Councilwoman Karen Holman's suggestion to explore holding a design contest for the new structure.

"A bridge going over 101 to the Baylands -- that structure is going to be how a lot of people see Palo Alto," Holman said. "It's going to be how people identify Palo Alto."

2 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 16, 2020 at 6:32 pm

I have attended more than my fair share of Council Finance Committee meetings. I could be wrong but the process to update construction costs is subpar. This leads to faulty decisions especially lack of urgency and misallocation of resources.

I wonder what projects have been delayed due to poor understanding of inherent cost escalation. I recommend that long-term capital items be listed with cost ranges based on professional estimates. During this economic boom an outdated cost estimate is guaranteed to disappoint everyone.

2 people like this
Posted by GaryB
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 3, 2020 at 6:04 pm

I will NOT pile on about how Palo Alto Planning Process ended up with brutalist steel strutwork across a closed underpass for 2x the cost of the iconic structure and open underpass we could have had if we'd just have gotten our butts in gear 6 years ago. I will NOT harp on it. Not me!

Instead, I will say that I bike over the sidewalk on the San Antonio overpass all the time and have never once been killed by the 60mph traffic that zooms off South 101. Once a kindly car even stopped for me and almost caused a multi-car rearend collision. Brave soul, my hat and cell phone camera feed are off to you, RIP.

Note: the underpass is closed all winter anyhow so the only difference will be warm and agile bodies ready to play frogger with real traffic in the summer. Build the freak'in bridge already!

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