The project would have been funded through a grant program known as the Vehicle Emissions Reductions Based at Schools (VERBS), which focuses on prominent school corridors. The segment in south Palo Alto includes JLS Middle School and Fairmeadow and Herbert Hoover elementary schools and Kehillah High School.
Despite initial enthusiasm among city staff and the council, the project never took off. Residents along East Meadow raised alarms about the prospect of losing about 80 parking spots east of Middlefield Road to make way for a protected bikeway, which they claimed is not needed in this area. Facing opposition, the council agreed in August to revise the proposal and settle for narrowing car lanes and adding green paint and road markings to designate the roads as a bike route.
On Monday, the council dealt the project a major blow when it voted 5-1, with Greg Tanaka dissenting and Tom DuBois absent, to relinquish the grant funding, which was awarded by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) through the One Bay Area Grant 2 program (VERBS is a program within the OBAG grant). The $919,000 grant stipulated that the city must initiate construction by January 2023.
The city's Office of Transportation argued in a report that the deadline cannot be met thanks to a combination of staffing shortages and the council's shifting priorities. The VTA advised the city that it would need to complete its outreach, design and environmental review by Oct. 1, the deadline for submitting the design package to the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for processing.
The effort to prepare the documents was further complicated by the departure of the senior transportation planner who spearheaded the project in July 2021 and by the city's inability to hire contractors to help manage the project. The city finally hired a new staff member last month.
City staff were also advised by the VTA that even if Palo Alto were to submit the documents to Caltrans by early October, there is a strong chance that the Caltrans would take too long to process the application, thus jeopardizing the city's ability to meet its deadline.
"Not meeting the deadline will be marked as a project delivery failure by regional and state funders and will count against the city in future funding applications, whereas returning the funds does not jeopardize the city's future grant prospects," the report states.
City staff plans to reapply for the grant in the next round of the OBAG program, which is scheduled for this May. In the meantime, transportation staff plans to shift its focus to planning for bike and pedestrian improvements on California Avenue and a segment of Ramona Street near Hamilton Avenue. Both streets were closed to cars during the pandemic, and the council expressed a preference last month to keep them car-free for the foreseeable future, though it has yet to put this decision to a formal vote.
Some bike advocates expressed disappointment about the loss of grant funding. Art Liberman, vice chair of the Palo Alto Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, lamented the city's move to relinquish the grant. Speaking for himself and not as a representative of the committee, Liberman argued that the city is giving up a figurative "bird in hand" for a speculative "two in the bush" that it may never catch.
"Will the city obtain a grant to do the south Palo Alto bikeway project in the future? Maybe, maybe not," Liberman said. "Maybe Palo Alto will never have the south Palo Alto bikeway."
Arnout Boelens, who advocates for bike improvements, also lamented the loss of funding. Why, he asked in a letter, was the council not previously notified that the California Avenue and Ramona Street projects would jeopardize the city's efforts in south Palo Alto?
"Both city staff and volunteers have put a lot of work into this project already, and a lot of this work will have to be redone in order to reapply for funding in May: a large and expensive waste of resources," his letter states.
The council action to relinquish the funds took place on its "consent calendar," a list of items that get approved by a single vote without any debate. The only dissenter was Tanaka, who said he was "puzzled" by the proposal to give up the grant funding and suggested that the city could have done a better job scheduling the bikeway project.
"Giving up $1 million when we're short on cash doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to me," Tanaka said.
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