Palo Alto's plan to reduce lanes on California Avenue and to bring a host of streetscape improvements to the vibrant commercial strip hit an unexpected speedbump this week when a group of local merchants convinced the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to put the project on hold.
Despite the setback, the City Council plans to vote on the environmental documents for the streetscape project Monday night. City officials say the streetscape changes would create more parking while also making California Avenue more attractive to pedestrians and bicyclists.
The MTC, which distributes funds for transportation projects to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) (which, in turns, directs it to member cities), heard the business owners' complaints and pulled the California Avenue project out of a package of transportation projects it approved at its Wednesday meeting. The $1.7 million project is banking on a $1.2 million grant from the VTA.
The commission's approval is usually a perfunctory matter once a transportation project has the VTA's endorsement. The package of projects was listed on the MTC's "consent calendar," which lists items that are automatically approved without discussion.
But the commission decided to exclude the California Avenue project after attorney William Ross and several business owners complained that Palo Alto officials ignored their concerns. The group specifically opposes a plan to reduce lanes -- a plan that it says would create congestion on the busy street.
Ross told the commission that the city assumed, at the time it was approving the streetscape plan, that transit services would expand around California Avenue in the coming years. Since then, however, Caltrain has announced severe budget shortfalls and service reductions.
Ross had made similar complaints at various public hearings on the California Avenue complaints.
"Are we building a bridge to nowhere?" Ross asked the commission. "Are we authorizing a project for transit capability that doesn't exist?
"Quite honestly, the issue is we need somebody to listen. That's it."
The commission agreed to discuss the project at an upcoming committee meeting, after discussing the merchants' concerns with the VTA.
Palo Alto had already conducted a traffic analysis on the lane-reduction plan and found that the proposal would have no significant impact on traffic levels. A new report by the city's Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez states "there would be negligible impacts due to lane reductions." He notes that California Avenue has considerably less traffic than other major two-lane streets such as University Avenue, Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park and Castro Street in Mountain View.
The report states that the "intent of the project is to provide for place-making design, traffic calming and safety enhancements, and retail vitality and other economic benefits."