Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 4, 2014

County looks to revamp Palo Alto's expressways

New plan to consider grade separation on Foothill, add lanes on Page Mill

by Gennady Sheyner

Some of Palo Alto's most congested thoroughfares could see dramatic modifications, including added lanes, advanced traffic signals and grade separations, under an ambitious, long-term plan spearheaded by Santa Clara County.

The County of Santa Clara Expressway Plan 2040 focuses on improving traffic flow on some of the busiest stretches in the county, from Almaden Expressway in the southern part of the county to Oregon Expressway in the northern. In addition to Oregon, Palo Alto roads that can see major changes include Foothill Expressway and the Page Mill Road segment between El Camino Real and Interstate 280. County and local officials will also explore possible changes to Central Expressway in Mountain View, which becomes Alma Street when it hits Palo Alto, though specific proposals have not yet been formulated.

The plan's purpose is to take a "fresh look" at expressways throughout the county based on "city land use plans, projected 2040 traffic growth and Complete Streets planning." According to the county's website, the plan will also "identify new challenges and positive developments or opportunities, recommend any necessary policy changes, and revise funding requirements and implementation strategies."

In some cases, the changes would be costly and dramatic. One proposal, which is summarized in a new report from Palo Alto's planning staff, would grade separate Palo Alto's busy intersection of Foothill Expressway and Arastradero Road. The proposal would leave Arastradero at its current grade and place Foothill underneath. Existing traffic signals at Foothill and Miranda Avenue would be removed and replaced with roundabouts, according to a new report form Palo Alto's Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez.

The Foothill Expressway proposal would also extend the existing path along the north side of Arastradero to Miranda Avenue, creating better pedestrian and bicycle connections to Gunn High School, according to the new report.

Another project proposed in the county's long-term plan is adding lanes on the busy stretch of Page Mill Road between El Camino Real and Interstate 280, raising the number from four to six. Yet another would grade separate Page Mill at Foothill Expressway, which is one of the busiest intersections in Palo Alto. The county is also considering installing an eight-phase traffic-signal system on Page Mill and Hanover Street, in Stanford Research Park, to address an expected influx of cars in 2025.

The county identified these road segments both because of existing congestion levels and projected ones. The Page Mill Road-Oregon Expressway roadway is particularly busy, accommodating an estimated 134,000 daily vehicle trips, which makes it the sixth busiest expressway in the county.

The stretch of Page Mill Road between Foothill Expressway and Interstate 280 is particularly irksome for drivers. According to county studies, it currently operates at Level E (which, in traffic speak, connotes "major delays") during the morning rush hour and at Level F ("severe delays," the lowest possible score) during the evening rush hour. The intersection of Page Mill and Foothill, which is one of the most congested in Palo Alto, currently operates at Level F during both peak-traffic periods. Meanwhile, the stretch of Page Mill between Foothill and El Camino Real operates at the slightly less onerous Level E.

Rodriguez said the county proposals for improving the situation are in the very early stages and have yet to undergo full analysis, which he said will include input from cities. The proposals emerged after numerous meetings and workshops involving policy makers and traffic experts from cities and transportation agencies along the traffic corridors. A Policy Advisory Group, which consists of elected officials from each city (including Palo Alto Councilman Greg Scharff), the county's Board of Supervisors and the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), has met twice since the update of the Expressway Plan kicked off in August 2013. So has the Technical Working Group, which includes public works directors and transportation officials from each city (Rodriguez is part of this group).

City and county officials aren't the only ones planning major changes along Page Mill. The state Department of Transportation has recently agreed to install traffic signals at the interchange of Page Mill Road and Interstate 280, where long caravans of southbound cars often spill over beyond the ramp and onto the highway during peak-commute hours. The Caltrans project includes new traffic signals on both northbound and southbound ramps and new sidewalk and bicycle improvements near the interchange.

Rodriguez told the Weekly that Palo Alto was one of the first agencies to request the new traffic signals at the busy interchange. Then-Mayor Sid Espinosa had asked Caltrans in 2011 to consider installing the new signals after receiving numerous complaints from companies in Stanford Research Park about increasing delays at the southbound ramp of Interstate 280. Caltrans then conducted its own "warrant study" and concluded that the busy intersection meets its criteria for traffic signals.

In recent weeks, however, this proposal has generated intense opposition in Los Altos Hills, where the interchange is located and where more than 500 residents have signed a petition opposing the Caltrans project. At a March 20 meeting of the City Council, council members acknowledged that they have been discussing the project with Caltrans for the past two years and that they have convinced the state agency to add pedestrian and bicycle improvements to the busy area around Page Mill and Arastradero roads. But after hearing from more than a dozen residents, council members also emphasized that they haven't formally approved any plans to add traffic signals.

"This council is not supporting Caltrans putting in lights right now," Mayor John Radford said at that meeting. "We're waiting to see the plans and we all have major reservations about that."

Other council members stressed the need to consider improvements for the entire stretch of Page Mill and Oregon Expressway, rather than just the highway interchange. According to Rodriguez, the county's new expressway plan will do exactly that. In addition to exploring the specific segments, Expressway 2040 will also include a focused study on the interchange, which will evaluate significant, long-term improvements.

Palo Alto residents and city officials will have plenty of opportunities to opine on the county proposals. The proposed expressway improvements will be included in the county's new General Plan, which will have to undergo a detailed environmental analysis. The county plans to release its "notice of preparation" for the plan next month and the Palo Alto council is scheduled to hold its first discussion on the projects in Expressway Plan 2040 on May 12.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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