Residents calling themselves Palo Alto for Responsible Bridge Development conducted a survey in November of 254 residents and received 145 responses by Dec. 10. The results show that many neighbors do not believe the bridge contributes to flooding, and at any rate, that concern ranks fifth, behind safety for school-aged children, speeding, crime and the need to reduce traffic.
The 40-foot-long Newell Bridge, built in 1911 across San Francisquito Creek at Woodland Avenue and Newell, is considered functionally obsolete and is targeted for replacement as part of a bigger plan to keep San Francisquito Creek from causing a flood, according to city officials. The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority flood-management plan is intended to improve creek flow from El Camino Real to U.S. Highway 101.
The future upstream work would cause "more water than that bridge has ever seen" to rush down toward residences on both sides of the creek, City of Palo Alto Senior Engineer Joe Teresi said in June.
Engineers propose replacing the 18-foot-wide Newell bridge with a 75-foot-long bridge that would have a 32-foot-wide roadbed and two 5-foot-wide sidewalks. New flood walls would be added along the creek, and new retaining walls would be added at the Newell and Woodland intersection.
The existing roadway barely lets two vehicles in opposite directions pass, Teresi said. Drivers face a blind turn when traveling east to west and bump awkwardly over the raised pavement. Pedestrians and bicyclists also face danger as they compete with vehicles. There is no dedicated lane for bikes or walkers.
One of two proposed designs for a replacement would shift the bridge to align with the East Palo Alto continuation of Newell, which currently jogs to the west. The alignment would make a straight, four-way intersection with four-way stop signs.
But survey leaders Andrew Vought and Ben Ball said residents on the Palo Alto side are concerned that change would turn Newell Road into a kind of highway, with vehicles rocketing unimpeded from Embarcadero Road through to West Bayshore Road. The current funky bridge and its cockeyed alignment causes drivers to drive cautiously and slowly. No accidents have occurred on the bridge as a result, Teresi said in June.
The survey found that 47.4 percent of respondents think even small amounts of traffic increases — 10 percent — would create more safety problems. Sixty-two percent expect a traffic increase to come from a new, two-lane Newell bridge.
Survey respondents were given seven scenarios to choose from related to the bridge: 40.7 percent ranked removing the existing bridge entirely as their first choice. The aligned bridge was ranked as the least desirable by 60.3 percent of respondents.
Other scenarios included constructing a 15-foot-wide bike and pedestrian bridge that would eliminate vehicle traffic (33.3 percent of total responses ranked this No. 2); doing nothing and leaving the current bridge (23.1 percent ranked this third); constructing a 27-foot-wide bridge with one shared car lane and dedicated two-way bike and pedestrian lanes (41.7 percent ranked this fourth); constructing a 27-foot-wide bridge with two car lanes and no dedicated bike or pedestrian lanes (ranked fifth by 46.9 percent); and constructing a 35-foot-wide bridges with two car lanes and a dedicated bike and pedestrian lane.
Ninety-one percent of respondents said the current bridge configuration limits speeding; 93.8 percent believe the proposed aligned bridge would increase speeding. Given a choice, 82.1 percent of respondents said they would maintain the current alignment.
About 3,500 cars utilize the current bridge each day, Teresi said in June. When it comes to safety, one-third of respondents (36.1 percent) viewed the current level of traffic as "unsafe" for children who cross or use Newell to get to Palo Alto public schools.
Residents who viewed traffic levels as "safe" numbered 19.4 percent; and 24.3 percent said they were neutral. Nearly 15 percent considered the traffic "very unsafe."
Vought, who has lived next to the bridge since 1994, said he personally does not think the bridge should be removed entirely. But an attractive solution could be to link it up with the proposed bike-pedestrian bridge that would cross U.S. Highway 101 from East Palo Alto. Rebuilding Newell as a bike-and-pedestrian bridge would enable users to "not have to relive the chaos of University Avenue," he said.
Ball said he favors a bike/pedestrian bridge that would solve the flooding concerns while preserving public access and addressing neighborhood safety concerns.
"I will personally heavily resist any two-full-lane bridge for car traffic," he said.
The city has ruled out a bridge solely for pedestrians and bicyclists, however, noting that the thousands of cars that normally use the bridge would cause traffic problems on side streets and University Avenue.
A Caltrans grant is paying for 88.5 percent of the design and environmental-review costs, and Santa Clara Valley Water District will pay the remaining 11.5 percent, according to Teresi.
Vought and Ball said a concern is that the city is rushing judgment on the bridge design because of the free money.
"It feels as though there are hooks that come from the grants," Ball said, noting that other proposals seem categorically dismissed.
"Take the funding out of the equation and find out what works best for the community," Ball said.
The survey results have not yet been given to city officials, but Vought and Ball said they plan to do that as soon as Friday.
The survey does not include responses from East Palo Alto residents living on the other side of the bridge, they said.
The current plan calls for the old bridge to be completely torn down and the crossing closed for four to six months, Teresi said. Construction is expected to last from April to September 2014.
A community meeting about the Newell Bridge alternative design concepts has been scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, at 7 p.m. at the Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.