To Palo Alto's drivers, U.S. Highway 101 is a crucial -- if often patience-testing -- artery connecting the city to San Francisco and San Jose. But to local bicyclists, hikers and nature lovers the eight-lane highway is an impenetrable barrier separating them from the vistas and wildlife of the Palo Alto Baylands.
Now, Palo Alto officials are working to change that. City planners and consultants last month unveiled a plan to build a wide overpass that would span 101 at Adobe Creek in south Palo Alto -- an ambitious project that has been on the city's agenda for the past eight years and is just now starting to gain traction.
In recent months, the city and its consultants have gathered data, held public hearings and narrowed down options for a new 101 crossing from 12 designs to five to three and, finally, to one. On July 26, city officials presented to the community its preferred alternative -- an "enhanced overcrossing" at Adobe Creek.
The project is a major piece of the city's effort to boost biking and pedestrian connections between the residential neighborhoods southwest of 101 and the recreational opportunities across the highway to the northeast. Officials also view the proposed pedestrian bridge as a major improvement over the dilapidated underpass currently in place at Adobe Creek. The underpass is typically open between mid-April and mid-October but is currently closed because the creek has spilled over onto the path.
City officials and consultants weighed a wide variety of options for helping people crossing, including improving the existing underpasses and creating new overpasses at other locations. Options included building a 48-inch "stem wall" to stave off flooding or creating a waterproof concrete "tube" at the Adobe Creek undercrossing. Consultants also considered making improvements to the undercrossing at Matadero Creek. But none of these extensive projects would guarantee year-round access.
Elizabeth Ames, a senior engineer at the Public Works Department, said giving residents the ability to cross the highway at any time of the year was a main goal of the design team and a major reason why the overpass alternative was ultimately chosen.
"That was really the charge -- to try to develop a crossing that wouldn't have to close down and that we'd then have to keep opening and closing and cleaning up," Ames told the Weekly.
"A crossing that allows you to go during night time or day time without any worry of flooding -- that was a big consideration."
Officials see the new crossing as more than just a pathway over the highway. The city released a feasibility study last month calling the proposed overpass "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."
Though the design has yet to be refined, preliminary plans call for a 14-foot-wide travelway, mesh fencing, motion-activated LED lighting and a gathering area with a "signature viewpoint" overlooking the Baylands on the east side of the structure.
"The overall design would be respectful of and incorporate design methods and techniques that strike a balance of beauty, durability, performance and cost efficiency," the study states.
Casey Hildreth, a consultant at the firm Alta Planning + Design, said Palo Alto has been eyeing a new 101 crossing in south Palo Alto since at least 2003, when the city released its last bicycle master plan (the document is in the process of being updated; the draft of the new plan was released last month). The new study, Hildreth said at a July 26 community meeting, takes this project to a "new level of feasibility."
Money, however, remains a major wildcard. The overpass, particularly an "enhanced" one with wide bicycle lanes, has an estimated price tag of $3.9 million to $5.5 million for construction alone. When the costs of design, project development, right-of-way acquisitions are thrown into the mix, the project could cost more than $9 million, according to the feasibility study.
The city hopes to eventually land federal and state grants to help pay for the project. In the meantime, officials are pressing ahead with the environmental analysis and design work that would raise their chances of landing such grants. The hope is to have all the environmental and design work completed within the next three years and to have the new overcrossing in place about five years from now, Ames said.
The new crossing is also part of the city's vision for transforming the neighborhood around East Meadow Circle and Fabian Way. The feasibility study notes that the concept plan for the East Meadow neighborhood identifies the "over/undercrossing as a key transportation project to connect residential areas to Baylands Nature Preserve."
The city's Planning and Transportation Commission is scheduled to review the feasibility study for the Adobe Creek overcrossing on Aug. 31, and the city is requesting that comments on the plan, which is located at www.cityofpaloalto.org/101, be submitted to the commission by Aug. 19. The City Council would then consider the project in the fall.