Spurred by a popular outcry over planned traffic signals at the busy interchange of Interstate 280 and Page Mill Road, Los Altos Hills officials on Thursday challenged the logic behind the proposal and vowed to bring residents' concerns to Caltrans, which is spearheading the project.
"We certainly have not approved any plan on behalf of Caltrans," Mayor John Radford said near the conclusion of an emotional meeting that brought more than 70 people to the Los Altos Town Hall. "This council is not supporting Caltrans putting in lights right now. We're waiting to see the plans and we all have major reservations about that."
The discussion came days after residents submitted a petition with hundreds of signatures calling for the city to take a firm stance with Caltrans and demand other alternatives to the signals, which they argue will shift traffic to local streets. About a dozen residents stepped up to the mic during Thursday's meeting to sound off on a project that they claimed was inadequately analyzed. Some said the signals would encourage more drivers and threaten the town's rural character. Others fretted about high level of development activity in nearby Palo Alto, particularly in the sprawling campuses of Stanford Research Park, a central destination for Silicon Valley's high-tech workers and one that will likely get busier once VMWare completes the expansion of its Hillview Avenue campus.
At the same time, Palo Alto is encouraging density and mixed-use developments in the California Avenue Business District, an area that planners had designated as particularly ripe for growth. On Monday, the city officially broke ground on a $6.9-million streetscape project that aims to turn California Avenue into a corridor more like University Avenue or Mountain View's Castro Street. A cluster of large developments have recently been approved near the commercial strip, including dense mixed-use projects on Park Avenue, Birch Street and El Camino Real (around Portage Avenue).
All this growth doesn't sit will with the residents of Los Altos Hills, who are getting increasingly anxious about the traffic impacts of Palo Alto's new developments. The Page Mill Road exit on southbound 280 is already the thinnest of bottlenecks during peak commute hours, with lines of nearly stationary cars frequently spilling from the offramp and on to the freeway. The waiting time between pulling over toward the exit and actually reaching the stop sign on Page Mill Road can stretch beyond 10 minutes.
The Caltrans project purports to reduce this backup and to improve safety near the intersection of Page Mill and Arastradero, according to agency officials. In response to requests from residents, Caltrans provided data showing five accidents in the area during a 12-month span between August 2007 and May 2008. According to a letter from Bijan Sartipi, district director for Caltrans, the project will address accidents and also benefit the area by "facilitating difficult turning movements currently uncontrolled, safe pedestrian crossings, orderly flow of bicycle traffic, as well as reduced queuing on the exit ramps."
"The new signals will be traffic actuated and interconnected, and will operate in a manner so as to not create excessive or disproportionate traffic delays and vehicular queuing on Page Mill and Arastradero Roads," Sartipi wrote in response to Garo Kiremidjian, a Los Altos Hills resident whose petition raising concerns about the project had received 511 signatures as of Thursday, March 20, including more than 30 from Palo Alto.
"We fully expect that you, as our elected officials, will stand up to Caltrans and Santa Clara County to protect the safety, rural character and property values of our neighborhoods and not rush into a decision without having the data and analysis required to make a reasoned decision," the petition states. "We also urge you to ask the Town staff to work with these agencies on alternative approaches."
Kiremidjian was one of about a dozen speakers to press this point at a meeting where much of the angst and anger was directed at Palo Alto. Edwina Cioffi argued that the traffic-signal project will allow Palo Alto and Stanford University to gain approval for new high-density projects along the corridor. This is great for Palo Alto and Stanford, she said, but bad for residents in her town.
Others panned Caltrans' accident data and claimed that the agency's only objective is to get cars off the congested ramp. Tim Warner challenged the logic behind the project and said it's important for Los Altos Hills residents to protect the rural feel of their town.
"We need to stand up and the council needs to be our advocate," Warner said. "For us -- not for Caltrans, not for Palo Alto, not for Stanford. Us."
Council members shared the public's anxiety about development and Caltrans' motivations.
Radford affiliated himself with residents who challenged the Caltrans data and argued that safety is a "red herring" for a project whose true aim is to reduce waiting times for commuters stuck on the offramp. Vice Mayor Courtenay Corrigan added her voice to those who argued that the rural character of the town should be preserved.
"We picked this place because of its rural nature," Corrigan said. "We picked our homes because of the way it looked and felt. Our expectation is that the infrastructure that is put in around us should not deter from rural beauty that we call home."
She said that what she wants Caltrans to hear and "respect our choices of where we live." This means striking a balance and making sure that while Caltrain fixes one problem, it doesn't create another one "for the people who live here 24 hours a day and not those who drive here for 10, 15, 20 minutes."
There was, however, some confusion during the hearing about Los Altos Hills' role in the traffic-signal project. Public Works Director Richard Chiu told the council that "there was no comment or input from the town staff or the town's Traffic Safety Committee regarding any of the signals Caltrans is proposing, neither the northbound nor the southbound offramp."
But council members acknowledged that they have been hearing about the project from Caltrans since 2012 and had requested revisions to the project -- changes that Caltrans had agreed to add. These include more bike and pedestrian amenities to complement the new traffic signals.
Dan Collen, deputy director for infrastructure development at the Santa Clara Roads and Airports Department (a partner agency in this project), noted in a September 2013 report that Caltrans had modified the project based on input from Los Altos Hills. The changes include a green lane for bicyclists and reduction of lanes turning onto southbound 280 from two to one.
"At the urging of Los Altos Hills (LAH), Caltrans agreed to expand their project to improve safer pedestrian, equestrian, and bicycle travel through the interchange," Collen wrote. "The proposed enhancements do dramatically improve provisions for pedestrians particularly."
Council members didn't dispute this. While they dismissed Caltrans assertion that the traffic-signal proposal is driven by safety concerns, they also acknowledged that they had asked the agency for additional safety features. Councilman Rich Larsen, a member of the city's Traffic Safety Committee, said the state agency had presented the traffic signals to the city in 2012 as "a done deal."
"Our thought was, as Traffic Safety Committee, let's take advantage of a done deal and make sure we're protecting our town by doing things like pedestrian- and bicycle-safety measures," Larsen said.
Radford, meanwhile, characterized the city's simultaneous rejection of Caltrans' argument about safety and the town's request for more safety improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians as an attempt to "take lemons and make lemonade."
Council members also agreed with the public that the area is growing too fast for comfort and that Los Altos Hills may end up suffering the traffic impacts of the new development while its neighbors reap the benefits.
"This whole area is growing massively, I think," Larsen said. "I've seen the plans that Palo Alto and others have and the development is scary that's happening in Palo Alto. Unfortunately, Los Altos Hills is a throughway to get to the built-out area."
Near the conclusion of the meeting, Radford vowed to bring residents' concerns to a meeting that city officials plan to hold with Caltrans next week. Radford told those in attendance that he "thoroughly approve(s) all the comments tonight."
Councilmen Gary Waldeck and John Harpootlian both stressed that the signals will not solve the traffic problem and argued that Caltrans needs to look at more substantive fixes involving the entire Page Mill/Oregon Expressway corridor.
"We need to look at a longer-term solution so Page Mill Expressway will be able to handle the expected traffic flow without it dribbling off to secondary roads -- Arastradero and so forth -- which is looking like a shortcut to a lot of people," Harpootlian said. "I think when we meet with Caltrans we can have an effective conversation about a long-term solution because it's going to get much worse very fast."