A crowd of community members from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto jammed into the theater at the Lucie Stern Community Center to voice their opinions on the proposed replacement Newell Road bridge on Tuesday night, Jan. 8.
Residents at the public meeting, some of whom were forced to stand in the theater's aisles for lack of room, brought the issues of traffic, pedestrian safety and flood control to the forefront of the discussion of replacing or removing the 102-year-old bridge that spans the San Francisquito Creek.
The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority and the cities of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto plan to replace the bridge as part of a larger effort to reduce the flood risk to neighboring residential areas. The bridge's abutments currently constrict water flow and will not accommodate a major flood event like the one that occurred in Palo Alto in 1998, according to Joe Teresi, senior engineer for the City of Palo Alto.
The group's recommendation was to complete an environmental-impact report to assess the effectiveness and consequences of a series of alternatives to the bridge. Detractors and supporters from nearly every side spoke about these alternatives during the meeting. The bridge lies at the East Palo Alto-Palo Alto border, where Newell crosses the creek.
The 40-foot-long bridge is 18 feet wide, which barely allows two vehicles to pass at the same time and slows traffic significantly.
Many meeting attendees opposed building a newer, 75-foot-long bridge that would be 32 feet wide and better situated to allow cars to pass more easily and whose design would ease the risk of flooding at the site. The detractors said a larger bridge would increase traffic in the neighborhood and make the area less safe for pedestrians, especially for school children during the hurried morning commute.
Several residents supported the idea of removing the bridge altogether, their suggestion receiving boisterous applause and cheers. One suggested it would reduce the flood risk and be much cheaper than rebuilding the bridge, which City Manager James Keene said would cost around $3 million.
The proposal to rebuild the bridge on a much smaller scale to allow only pedestrians and bicyclists to cross was also popular among attendees. They said such a bridge would allow for children who bike or walk to school to use it without increasing traffic in the area.
"I'd like to know why (the city) is searching for a gold-plated solution to a flood problem when it seems relatively clear that a pedestrian bridge or no bridge at all would solve it," one Palo Alto resident said.
Jaime Rodriguez, chief transportation official for the City of Palo Alto, said these options were possible but the project would lose significant state funds designated for the bridge's replacement. Some residents worried that removing the bridge would make it more difficult for emergency vehicles such as ambulances to reach the area between the bridge and U.S. Highway 101.
One resident urged neighbors not to be selfish concerning the proposal to remove the bridge, saying the 3,000 cars that cross it each day would be displaced to nearby roads, some which are already traffic bottlenecks.
Helen Fitzgerald, who lives on the Palo Alto side of the creek, said mixing the problems of traffic and flood control was an example of what she called "scope creep."
"Are we addressing flooding? Traffic? Traffic and flooding? We need to focus on the primary concern: flooding and flood insurance."
Len Materman, the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority's executive director, said 5,400 homes in the creek's floodplain currently pay about $6 million per year in federally mandated flood insurance. He said the comprehensive plan to reduce flood risk in the area might allow residents to avoid paying flood insurance.
Fitzgerald said she appreciated officials for "taking a step back" to look at the issue more closely with the environmental-impact reports, but another Palo Alto resident, who identified himself as Mike, worried it might mean flood-prevention improvements might not happen soon enough. He said he lost two cars in the 1998 flood and was unable to live in his house for two months.
"My main concern is not to have analysis paralysis," he said. "I want that bridge gone so that we can have the Chaucer street bridge gone so I don't have to worry about my house flooding."
Staff at the meeting said the environmental-impact study of the possible bridge alternatives could take a year to complete.
Margaret Trujillo, a resident of East Palo Alto, spoke against removing the bridge, saying that it would further isolate commuters and school children from East Palo Alto, where there are already few options for reaching Palo Alto.
"I don't think it's right to categorically disenfranchise an entire community by saying, 'We don't want a bridge,'" she said.
Anna Turner, a resident of East Palo Alto, said removing the bridge would not be a good option for her community.
"The Bay Area is growing -- it's not separate from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto," she said. "Tearing down a bridge and separating a community is not going to solve anything. East Palo Alto has accepted a lot of burdens; maybe it's time to spread it out."
Keene closed the meeting after former 49ers quarterback Steve Young, a resident of Palo Alto, spoke to the crowd, encouraging them not to support a bridge design that would significantly change how traffic moves through the area now.
"It seems to me the bridge has been there (102) years. Maybe on both sides of the bridge we could gather enough consensus amongst each other to not change the scope of the bridge that we've gotten so used to," he said.