Palo Alto's dream of a spacious, elegant bike bridge spanning U.S. Highway 101 and connecting residents to the Baylands should be scaled back or deferred, members of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission said Wednesday night.
The commission was reviewing a staff proposal to build an "enhanced overpass" across 101 at Adobe Creek -- a structure that would give south Palo Alto a major new artery into the Baylands. Residents currently rely on an underpass that typically stays open six months a year and that occasionally has to be closed down because of flooding.
The latest proposal calls for a curvy overpass with a 14-foot-wide travelway with arching fences, a viewpoint area and motion-activated LED lights. The goal is to provide a year-round connection between the residential and commercial areas south and west of 101 and the open space northeast of the highway, city Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez told the commission.
As always, the biggest wildcard is funding. Staff estimates that the enhanced bridge could cost as much as $9.4 million, far more than some of the other alternatives staff was previously considering. These included improving the existing Adobe Creek underpass and building new overcrossings at either Loma Verde Avenue or Matadero Creek.
Staff ultimately decided that the "enhanced overpass" is the alternative most consistent with the city's pro-bicycling values and policies. The city's 2003 Bicycle Master Plan had recommended the new crossing, as does the updated plan the city released earlier this year.
"We know this has ranked high on the city's list for years, and it has also been in city and regional planning for a long time," said Casey Hildreth, a consultant at Alta Planning and Design, who worked with staff to develop the proposal.
The commission voted 4-2, with Samir Tuma and Greg Tanaka dissenting, to support the staff proposal for an "enhanced overpass," but even the supporters of the plan urged staff to think smaller. Commission Chair Eduardo Martinez said the proposed structure is a bit too conspicuous.
"It's a huge structure," Martinez said. "It's creating an identity in a place where we don't want an identity.
"It's not a gateway. It's just a place where we need an overcrossing."
Commissioner Daniel Garber agreed and said the design, while nice looking, is perhaps more than the city needs to meet its mission of connecting residents to nature.
"It's beautiful," Garber said of the proposed structure. "If I wanted to take my bike and hang out some place and look at something – that's where I'd go. It's like a Disney ride. There's a little elbow; it's forcing you to look over the Bay -- that's pretty cool.
"However, if all we want to do is get from one side to another, I don't know why we need to do all that."
Commissioners Susan Fineberg and Arthur Keller both said they support building a new overpass, with Fineberg saying she is "very pleased" to see the project advance.
"It's wonderful to see that we're actually working on something that most if not all of us would like to see move forward," Fineberg said.
Keller also supported the project but suggested that staff reconsider the location of the bridge's ramps to improve access to the residential streets around East Meadow Drive.
Others were less pleased. Commissioner Samir Tuma said he was "very troubled" about the project and proposed shelving it. Staff is hoping to get a grant that would pay for about 80 percent of the project's cost, leaving the city with about $1.5 million in expenditures. But even this cost is too high, Tuma argued.
"I'd rather see us take this $1.5 million and do something that enhances bike network throughout the city in a sure, positive way that's going to happen," Tuma said. "Use it for another project that will give us something that's 100 percent certain."
Tuma's proposal to table the plan failed by a 3-3 vote, with only Garber and Tanaka joining him. Garber then sided with Fineberg, Keller and Martinez in supporting the staff recommendation but urging further analysis of the overpass design. Staff plans to present the new feasibility study to the City Council in October.