Residents on either side of the Newell Road Bridge, a 102-year-old structure that links Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, agree that it needs to be fixed to decrease the risk of flooding in the area, but that's about where the agreements stop.
After a Jan. 8 community meeting brought concerned parties from all sides of the debate, city staff decided to order an environmental-impact report to determine the feasibility of each of eight proposed alternatives. The purpose of Thursday night's meeting was to present the community with a set of criteria upon which to rate each of the options, with the hope of weeding out some of them to lessen the complexity and burden of the environmental analysis.
But few of the residents at the meeting were as concerned with the city's screening process as they were with the larger question of what to do with the aging bridge, an issue that has been fraught with controversy. The bridge connects the two communities, and to some Palo Alto residents, that's not a good thing.
Parking shortages and related issues in the Crescent Park neighborhood, which lies on the Palo Alto side of the bridge, got so severe that the city passed a ban on overnight parking in the area to stop East Palo Alto residents crossing the bridge to park their vehicles in Palo Alto. But to many East Palo Alto residents, the bridge represents a vital artery to get to work, public services, shopping areas, restaurants and transit. Residents on both sides of the bridge are concerned that a larger bridge would mean increased traffic and more dangerous conditions for pedestrians.
The need for the project's timely completion adds to the turmoil. Like several other aging bridges crossing San Francisquito Creek, Newell Road Bridge's ancient abutments constrict water flow, creating a bottleneck that makes flooding more likely. Work on all these bridges must be done, but bridges upstream from Newell can't be fixed before Newell because the increased water flow would worsen the flood risk downstream.
The alternatives for Newell include keeping it as is, removing it completely, installing a larger two-lane bridge in its place with variations regarding its alignment or a smaller bridge with space only for pedestrians and bicyclists and/or for emergency vehicles, and a new one-lane bridge for cars. The city asked residents to judge the alternatives based on four criteria -- whether they would accommodate a so-called 100-year flood in San Francisquito Creek, how they would affect traffic in the area, how the perception of changes in traffic would affect residents' lifestyles, and the impact they would have on using different modes of transportation.
Some of the people at the meeting expressed dissatisfaction with these criteria, calling them difficult to understand or too narrow in scope.
Oneta Proctor, who has used the bridge to get to and from work for the past six years, said the criteria don't address what she believes could be one of the most serious problems with destroying the bridge or not allowing vehicles on it -- access to emergency services. She said East Palo Alto residents are "blocked" by Embarcadero Road and University Avenue and worried that they could be trapped in the event of a large-scale disaster. Proctor wanted to see a comparison of how each option would affect response time from emergency service vehicles.
Another resident wanted to know exactly how each alternative would affect a grant by Caltrans and the Santa Clara Valley Water District that could fund the project. The grant will only fund the bridge construction if one of the alternatives that includes two driving lanes is chosen.
Jane Kerschner, a Palo Alto resident, said that whatever the cities decide to do with the bridge, the decision should be made based on need, not funding.
"We should decide what we want and then how to pay for it," she said. "Money doesn't have to drive the solution."
Art Stauffer, also a Palo Alto resident, urged residents to be realistic -- saying that finding ways for the two cities to pay for bridge construction could be extremely difficult.
"There's a lot of talk about money not being an issue here," he said. "We have a blue bird with this Caltrans funding and I'd rather see us do something because we've got the money rather than do nothing because we don't."
One attendee said he thought that using the criteria process would only further muddle the issue, saying that he saw consensus for a smaller pedestrian and emergency vehicle bridge.
Palo Alto City Manager James Keene said it was important for residents not at the meeting to weigh each of the options as well, particularly when considering those alternatives whose costs would be born by residents.
To many residents the narrow bridge, which barely allows room for two cars to pass at once, is at best the cause of traffic logjams and at worst a dangerous intersection with a sizable blind spot on its East Palo Alto side. But some, like East Palo Alto resident Arnold Hart, see it as a good thing.
Hart said that the narrow bridge, while decrepit, serves as a natural traffic-calming measure.
"I'll bet there's never been an accident there," he said. "When people come across that bridge they do it as community members -- with common courtesy. If you widen it, everyone and their cousin will be coming across."
Fred Johnson who has lived on the Palo Alto side of the bridge for 26 years, said he doubted a larger, two-lane bridge would create a safety concern. He said that before traffic-calming measures were enacted in 1998, "Channing Avenue was a racetrack, with people driving 55 miles per hour." The measures, he said, helped significantly.
Some of the people at the meeting, like Alester Avenue resident Kevin Fisher, worried that another flood could happen at any time and wanted to cut to the chase.
"Time is of the essence," he said. "We want flood control soon, and we want this bridge to never be replaced again."
With guidance from the screening process, the city hopes to have a narrowed-down list of alternatives to present at another community meeting in January. After that, it will embark on the environmental review with the hope of construction beginning in early 2016, after approval by both city councils.
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