With work scheduled to begin later this year, the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, an agency made up of the local cities and counties through which the creek flows, will move forward on the first in a series of projects to alleviate the current flood dangers that force residents to pay millions of dollars annually in expensive flood insurance.
Last month's intense rain storm, in which Palo Alto was largely spared from damage but which led to a breach in a levee in East Palo Alto that resulted in localized flooding and the evacuation of some residents for several days, was a timely reminder of the importance of moving forward with these planned projects.
The December storm pushed water under the Chaucer Street bridge at the third highest rate since records have been kept, dating back to 1930. Water rose to flood stage at both the Chaucer and Newell street bridges, which both create dangerous blockages of creek waters and can cause flooding even though the creek itself can handle the flow.
The San Francisquito Creek authority has adopted a plan to begin improvements at the tidelands and work its way upstream, ultimately replacing both the Chaucer and Newell street crossings. The first phase will include constructing more than 2,000 feet of floodwall east of Highway 101, including adjacent to the Palo Alto golf course.
But the city of Palo Alto's plan to replace the 101-year old substandard Newell Road bridge with a modern, two-lane bridge has run into a buzz saw of concern among nearby residents in both Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.
A public outreach meeting at the Children's Theatre Tuesday night attracted an overflow audience and a wide range of opinion, including a vocal group advocating that the bridge be taken down and not replaced.
City officials have wisely decided to step back and take time to conduct environmental and traffic studies and to explore several options, including a full replacement, no replacement, and replacement with only a pedestrian/bike bridge.
The issue is sensitive for many reasons. The current narrow bridge, barely wide enough to permit two cars to pass at once, was not designed as an arterial, but has increasingly been used as a way to avoid traffic back-ups on University Avenue. This traffic, and the potential of more traffic if the bridge were widened, justifiably concerns the residents living on both sides. Neighborhood streets on the East Palo Alto side especially are not capable of handling additional traffic.
Because the bridge connects Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, neither community can justifiably act unilaterally, regardless of the fact that Palo Alto constructed the original bridge in 1911. Both cities have plenty of incentive to solve the flood hazard created by the bridge, and both have reason to limit, not expand or encourage, increases in the number of cars (currently about 3,000 trips a day) utilizing the bridge.
But the small East Palo Alto neighborhood located between San Francisquito Creek and 101 is already extremely constricted and the Newell bridge is an important access route for those residents to reach their jobs, schools and shopping destinations.
Prior to the organizing efforts of Palo Alto residents living in the area, the city of Palo Alto's plan was to use grant funds to replace the current bridge with a much wider and longer structure that would not require supporting abutments in the creek's waterway, and which would provide for safer passage for cars, bikes and pedestrians.
Pretty much everyone agrees on the need to remove the current bridge as an essential flood control measure. Similarly, we think it is also pretty obvious that at least a pedestrian and bike bridge must replace it, so that the neighborhood east of the creek is not further isolated.
So the real question is whether a new bridge should accommodate cars, and if so, what design and/or traffic measures can be utilized to prevent an increase in traffic from what exists today.
We are concerned that a bridge closed to traffic will result in debilitating shifted traffic impacts to University Avenue, but that can only be determined through traffic studies that will soon be conducted.
As the planned studies proceed, however, it is important that the public debate not lose sight of the urgent flood control needs, nor be polluted by the few who want to discuss closing off an access point to Palo Alto in order to keep criminals out.
There is a great opportunity for residents on both sides of this bridge to work together to explore solutions acceptable to each. If they can do that, we are confident that both city councils will be happy to endorse their consensus.