Palo Alto's bicyclists, pedestrians and nature lovers had much to celebrate Tuesday after the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors awarded $10 million to the city and Stanford University for a new bike bridge that would span U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek and for a host of improvements to trails around the university.
The board voted unanimously to spend $10.4 million in funds allocated for recreation on most of the projects that Palo Alto and Stanford asked for in a joint application in September and to allocate another $400,000 for the Dumbarton Link in the Bay Trail, a project requested by the Midpeninsula Open Space District. The bridge project would receive $4 million, while Stanford perimeter trails would get $4.5 million in county funds. Another $1.5 million would pay for a new Matadero Creek Trail.
The board reached a consensus despite major reservations from supervisors Liz Kniss and Dave Cortese, who supported the bike bridge but wanted to provide about half of the funding that Stanford requested for its proposed network of perimeter trails. After her proposal was rejected 3-2 (with Cortese supporting it), the board voted to entirely fund Stanford's $4.5 request, which includes a new path on the block of Stanford Avenue between Raimundo Street and Junipero Serra Boulevard.
The Stanford Avenue block dead-ends at the Stanford Dish, a popular hiking spot that attracts about half a million visits annually. The existing Stanford Avenue path, which stretches from El Camino Real to the Dish, ends at Raimundo, requiring visitors to the Dish to either walk on the road or cross the street to take the path on the south side. The proposal to modify Stanford Avenue would eliminate about 20 parking spaces on that block, according to the county's traffic engineers. Kniss argued that the county should hold a series of meetings before approving the potentially controversial modifications to the heavily used street. The board ultimately directed Stanford to conduct the necessary outreach before getting the funds.
The money was transferred to the county from Stanford University as part of Stanford's agreement to mitigate the recreational impacts of campus development. In 2000, the county granted the university a "general use permit" allowing Stanford to build up to 5 million square feet of new development. To compensate the community for the loss of potential recreational opportunities caused by the new developments, Stanford was required to build two trails, one in Santa Clara County and another in San Mateo County. The latter was ultimately rejected by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors -- a decision that remitted the $10.4 million in "recreation funds" back to Santa Clara County earlier this year.
The board considered 15 projects from six agencies. Two of these -- Palo Alto and Stanford -- came out as the clear winners with the county covering most of the items on their collective wish list. There were a few exceptions. Palo Alto had hoped to get some funding for bicycle improvements, including "sharrows" (road marking reminding drivers to share the road with cyclists) and other traffic-calming features, at Park Boulevard. It also hoped the county would help fund improvements to the Arastradero Road trail. The county had determined that neither of these projects meet the criteria for the mitigation funds because they would merely be upgrading existing facilities, not creating new ones.
The board also rejected bids for funding from Menlo Park, Los Altos Hills, Portola Valley and the open space district for a host of other improvements, most of them dealing with open-space improvements.
The Tuesday vote was a huge boost for Palo Alto's bid to build a new pedestrian and bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek. The bike project, among the most ambitious and expensive in the city's recently approved Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan, aims to provide a new link in the south part of the city for residents and employees looking to reach the Baylands.
In addition to the bike bridge and the Stanford perimeter trails, the board approved funding for a new Matadero Creek trail in Palo Alto -- a 1.3-mile east-west trail that would cut through the center of the city and link to Stanford through Park Boulevard. The board agreed to fund $1.5 million for the trail, which would follow Matadero Creek from Alma Street to West Bayshore Road.
Palo Alto Councilman Sid Espinosa was one of many city residents who urged the board to support this project, along with others in the city's joint application with Stanford.
"This proposal would greatly expand the recreational opportunities to Stanford residents and campus users and Palo Alto residents as a whole," Espinosa said.
He also said that the city is committed to seeking other funding sources and spending its own money to supplement the county's contributions. The city's Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez praised Stanford's trail proposal and called the Stanford Avenue trail "the single most important element of the trail program because of its nexus to Stanford residents." The bike bridge, meanwhile, could cost up to $10 million, though Rodriguez said the city is now in the midst of preliminary design work and should have a better idea of the price tag within six months.
Stanford officials and campus residents argued that the projects in the applications would create a pristine trail network for area cyclists and employees while, at the same time, greatly enhancing recreational opportunities for the university's population. James Sweeney, president of the Stanford Campus Residential Leaseholders -- an elected board representing the campus population -- urged the board to support the "perimeter trail" proposal in the joint application from the city and the school. The enhanced 3.4-mile trail would stretch along Junipero Serra, Stanford Avenue and El Camino Real.
"The Stanford perimeter trail will give opportunities to people of ages -- and I want to emphasize all ages -- for adequate recreation suitable to their physical capabilities," Sweeney said, noting that campus residents include seniors and parents with children.
"It's part of an integrated set of trails in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so I urge you to support the whole Stanford-Palo Alto proposal," Sweeney said.
Penny Ellson, Palo Alto's leading advocate for bike improvements along school corridors, said the proposals from Stanford and Palo Alto would greatly enhance commuter's abilities to shift from cars to other means of transportation.
"The complete proposal would create new trails and significantly upgrade older trails that have become less functional as our community turns to more active modes like walking and biking for transportation and recreation," Ellson said.
The Palo Alto Unified School District also voted to back the city's and Stanford's proposal. Dana Tom, vice president of the school board, attended the Tuesday meeting and urged the board to support the application.
"It would improve connections to a number of our schools, from elementary to high schools," Tom said. "This is particularly important for our elementary students as our enrollment continues to grow, increasing traffic levels."
The biggest disagreement among the board was over the Dumbarton Link in the Ravenswood Open Space Preserve. Kniss said the proposed Ravenswood trail would provide recreational opportunities for East Palo Alto, a city that she said currently has a shortage of parks.
"This would considerably add to that community's ability to have more access, especially to the environment along the bay," Kniss said.
She and Cortese both supported giving the project $2 million. It would have built the last 0.6-mile segment in the South Bay portion of the San Francisco Bay Trail, connecting Redwood City to Alviso. When their proposal failed, they grudgingly voted along with the board majority to give the project $400,000.
"It's all good, but it's a classic case of the rich get richer and the poor stay where they're at," Cortese said.
Kniss, who is about to conclude her term on the board and return to her former position on the Palo Alto City Council, agreed and said it's "very regrettable that we didn't fund more of the Bay Trail connection.
The list of projects that the board ultimately approved was proposed by Supervisor Ken Yeager and immediately endorsed by board President George Shirakawa. Supervisor Mike Wasserman was the swing vote, while Kniss and Cortese voted along with their colleagues when it became clear the Yeager proposal would pass.
Supporters of funding the entire perimeter-trails proposal were swayed by the fact that the university had agreed to designate the existing trails for public use. Sylvia Gallegos, the county's deputy county executive, noted that the trails are currently used thanks to the permission from the private owner. Now, they would be officially designated for public use. Yeager found this persuasive and called the perimeter-trails project "unique."
"I think its really important that Stanford would dedicate it for public use," Yeager said. "I think that's immeasurable."