Eight alternatives for replacing the 102-year-old Newell Road Bridge, which connects Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, will be discussed at a community meeting in Palo Alto on Oct. 17.
What to do with the narrow, aged concrete bridge has been controversial. It spans San Francisquito Creek and allows people to travel between the two cities, but some Palo Alto residents are pushing to completely remove the bridge and close off the access point.
Palo Alto officials have said the decision on the bridge's future must include input from citizens in both cities.
The city must complete an environmental-impact report with traffic and parking studies for each of the eight alternatives. But at Thursday's meeting, officials hope to whittle down the list to the truly feasible options, and they plan to ask residents for criteria that would help eliminate plans that would not be included in the environmental review, according to Brad Eggleston, assistant director of public works.
Newell Road Bridge is part of a complex puzzle of flood control along San Francisquito Creek. Several aged bridges along the creek create bottlenecks: Newell, University Avenue, Pope-Chaucer and Middlefield, and in years of heavy rainfall with high tides, the creek has breached its banks, flooding neighborhoods in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
Parts of all three cities were inundated in 1998 after the creek crested. A rising torrent of water on Dec. 23, 2012, worried city officials after it flowed up through storm drains to flood some Palo Alto streets and overflowed the banks in East Palo Alto, including near the Newell bridge.
The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (JPA) has been working to solve flooding problems along the creek, and rebuilding the bridges by 2015 is part of an overarching flood-control plan. A Caltrans-funded project will also restructure the bridges on both east and west sides of U.S. Highway 101.
By December 2015, the work should result in protection against a flood almost equal to that of 1998, at any tide. The Middlefield and University bridge projects would then be constructed to accommodate a larger, so-called 100-year flood. The new bridges could also reduce the need for insurance, Joint Power Authority officials said in a report.
Fixing the Newell bridge must occur before completing work upstream, Eggleston said. If the Pope-Chaucer bridge were expanded first, the increased water flow during heavy rain would cause flooding downstream into Palo Alto and East Palo Alto neighborhoods.
The Newell bridge is also obsolete when it comes to handling traffic. It was built in 1911, and two cars can barely fit passing in opposite directions. If large vehicles are crossing, only one can pass at a time. A blind curve on the East Palo Alto side creates a hazard, as evidenced by the many scrapes on the concrete of the bridge's northeast corner. The bridge also does not have a dedicated lane for pedestrians and bicyclists.
But replacing the bridge, which was supposed to start in 2014, has been delayed by a year in part because of neighborhood protests. Residents calling themselves Palo Alto for Responsible Bridge Development conducted a survey last November that showed many in the neighborhood did not believe the bridge contributes to flooding.
Early renditions proposed by engineers envisioned a 75-foot-long, 32-foot-wide span to replace the 18-foot-wide bridge. Two designs aligned the bridge with Newell Road in East Palo Alto, which currently jogs north. Residents thought the alignment would create a roadway that would add to speeding and endanger pedestrians, bicyclists and others.
More than 200 people attended a January community meeting, and residents signed a petition to slow down the process.
As a result, City Manager James Keene paused work by the project's consultant, and a full environmental-impact report was ordered.
The traffic analysis will examine 14 intersections, including two in East Palo Alto, and nine residential streets during peak traffic hours. The analysis will include scenarios for 2013, estimates for 2020 and traffic projections for 2035. The analysis will study potential use by bicyclists and pedestrians.
The environmental report will add an estimated $200,000 to $250,000 to the $539,000 already earmarked for a consultant's design and environmental assessment, according to city estimates. Four alternatives will be analyzed equally, according to a March 11 report.
Caltrans agreed in late May to cover the costs of the environmental review with additional funds in proportion to its 89 percent share of project costs. Santa Clara Valley Water District, which is paying 11 percent of the project costs, will cover the remaining amount, city officials said.
Thursday's meeting will take place at 7 p.m. at Lucie Stern Community Center, Children's Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
The alternatives, as outlined by the city, include:
No project: The old bridge would remain in place. Flooding would remain a risk, particularly if bridges are widened upstream. Continued unsafe pedestrian and bike access. The blind curve and narrow access remain.
Removal of existing bridge without replacement: Eliminates car access and could increase traffic on University Avenue and Embarcadero Road. Emergency vehicles would no longer have access. Loss of state funding.
A new bicycle/pedestrian bridge, but without vehicle access: Eliminates car access and could increase traffic on University Avenue and Embarcadero Road. Emergency vehicles would not have access. Loss of state funding. Potentially a 16-foot-wide roadbed for bikes that includes a pedestrian path separated from the bike lane.
A new bicycle/pedestrian bridge with limited emergency-vehicle access: The same as the previous option, except that emergency vehicles would be able to cross the bridge.
New two-lane vehicle bridge using the existing bridge alignment: Potential 28-foot-wide bridge, vegetation removal along the creek to accommodate the expanded bridge. Could change some roadway aspects on Woodland Avenue. Accommodates bicyclists and pedestrians. Potential changes to bridge length and height.
New two-lane vehicle bridge that lines up with Newell Road in East Palo Alto: Potential 28-foot-wide bridge, vegetation removal along the creek. Traffic-calming devices to keep cars from speeding along the straightened road. Bike and pedestrian access. Potential changes to bridge length and height.
New two-vehicle bridge with a partial realignment: Potential 28-foot-wide bridge, vegetation removal along the creek. Traffic-calming devices added. Potential changes to bridge length and height.
New two-directional, one-lane vehicle bridge with traffic signal control Presumed to be the same as for the other bridge constructions. Traffic changes due to stop light.
More information and city reports are available online at www.cityofpaloalto.org/newell.