A regional effort to replace and expand the narrow Newell Road Bridge between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto reached a crucial milestone on Monday night when the City Council gave the project its final clearance.
Despite some opposition from the surrounding neighborhood, the council unanimously approved to replace the bridge — which was built in 1911 and which crosses the San Francisquito Creek between Edgewood Drive in Palo Alto and Woodland Avenue in East Palo Alto — with a wider span. The goals of the project are to both upgrade a structure that has been deemed "functionally obsolete" by the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and to advance a broader flood-control plan around the volatile creek.
Once the Newell Road Bridge is replaced, officials will be able to shift their focus on the more flood-prone structure upstream of Newell Road: the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, which famously failed to contain water during the February 1998 flood.
"The Newell Road Bridge has to be replaced so that we can make improvements upstream," said Michel Jeremias, an engineer with the Public Works Department who is managing the project.
"From a hydraulics perspective, we replace the downstream portions first and improve all the channel capacities before making upstream improvements."
While the council agreed that the bridge needs to be replaced, more than a dozen Palo Alto residents implored Monday to think smaller. The current span has 18 feet of space curb to curb, barely enough space for two cars to use it at once. Its narrow alignment is the main reason why it was designated as "functionally obsolete" and thus eligible for state funding. Caltrans is expected to pay for 88.5% of the construction costs for the $9.1 million project, while the Santa Clara Valley Water District would provide the local match.
But while one of the goals is to make traffic safer, some in the neighborhood believe it will have the opposite effect. Rather than build a wider bridge, the city should replace the existing span with a one-lane bridge that would facilitate two-way traffic with signals, they argued.
Rebecca Young, who lives on Dana Avenue, said that while she supports improving flood control, she opposes creating a span that would entice commuters to use the Newell structure as a "main thoroughfare," potentially endangering children on their way to school.
"We don't need Waze and Google Map commuters zipping through our single-lane residential streets, full of young children walking and biking to and from school, just so commuters can shave off a few minutes," Young said.
David Yen, who also lives in the area, advocated for keeping the new bridge narrow to limit traffic. Choosing the one-lane alternative would "preserve our quiet neighborhoods by limiting through traffic, protect our children who ride bicycles along or across Newell Road on their way to school and help to ensure safety of families who use Newell Road," Yen said.
The council, however, saw several major problems with the narrow alternative. Caltrans does not support this design and, as such, would not pay for it. East Palo Alto officials have also signaled that they are against the idea, Jeremias said.
Given these factors, the council agreed to move ahead with the staff proposal for a two-lane bridge. Under the design that the council approved, the bridge would be raised by about 1.5 feet to increase its flow capacity, a process that would require the raising of portions of Woodland Avenue and Newell Road. The curb-to-curb distance would be increased from 18 to 28 feet.
While all council members agreed that the bridge should be replaced and voted unanimously to approve the Environmental Impact Report for the project, they did not fully align on the issue of striping. After some debate, the council voted 5-2, with Councilwoman Lydia Kou and Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting, to go with an alternative that creates 10-foot vehicle lanes and 4-foot shoulders with bicycle lanes in each direction.
The other striping option, which Kou and Tanaka favored, would have increased the curb-to-curb width from 18 to 20 feet to create a bit more space for vehicles. It would also create a raised, 9-foot-wide bicycle and pedestrian path on each side of the bridge.
Tanaka argued that this alternative would be safer because it truly separates bicycles from vehicles, something that road markings don't really achieve. As such, he said he would rather see bicyclists share space with pedestrians rather than with cars.
"Paint on the ground isn't really protection; protected bike lane is," Tanaka said. "You have a 2-ton car against a bike — it's really no competition. But if you have a 30-pound bike against a pedestrian, it's not that bad to have that shared."
The council majority favored the "sharrow" design, with wider lanes shared by vehicles and bicycles. The design was approved by the Planning and Transportation Commission and is favored by East Palo Alto, largely because it connects with the broader network of bike improvements.
"It's a fairly small bridge, it doesn't have enormous traffic volumes and I think there is merit in integrating with other bicycle striping and patterns in the area already," Mayor Adrian Fine said.
Kou, however, said that keeping the vehicle lanes narrow would better address residents' concerns about safety.
"It's more than just having a transportation route — making it more easy for people to come in and out. It's also about safety. That's a big part of it," Kou said.
Despite the disagreement over lanes, the council enthusiastically supported the overall project, which has been in the planning stages for the past eight years. Staff expects the construction project to take about a year-and-a-half to complete.
Some council members also pushed back against the idea that the new bridge would worsen traffic conditions in the area. Councilwoman Liz Kniss said the new alternative will create more room for children to ride their bikes.
"Even though I know the neighborhood is somewhat concerned about it, I think it will end up being far safer for kids," Kniss said.
Norm Beamer, president of the Crescent Park Neighborhood Association, also pushed back against the idea that there would be a significant traffic increase as a result of the bridge replacement. The vast majority of his neighborhood, which was severely flooded in 1998, supports moving ahead with the project as proposed by staff, he said.
"Any further delay is just totally unacceptable," Beamer told the council. "Please approve these environmental documents and let's go full speed ahead to fix the flooding problem."
The council shared his sense of urgency. Councilwoman Alison Cormack said the city has the responsibility to keep people safe and to work with East Palo Alto in improving flood control.
"We also have the responsibility to do the right thing with and for our neighbors," Cormak said. "Because the water in that creek and in the Bay does not respect the borders that we have drawn on the map."
Councilman Eric Filseth concurred.
"Let's get this built before the next flood," Filseth said.