County looks to revamp Palo Alto's expressways | News | Palo Alto Online |


County looks to revamp Palo Alto's expressways

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

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.

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Like this comment
Posted by A neighbor
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 3, 2014 at 10:39 am

I am very glad to hear that the city is looking into the problems at the intersection of Arastradero and Foothill Expwy. As a biker(or pedestrian) coming from the bike path behind Gunn and continuing into the bike/pedestrian path on the side of Arastradero it is really difficult to do it right. The light at Miranda and Arastradero takes forever to change. And even though I think it should favor pedestrians/bikers I don't know how that could be possible given the proximity of Miranda and Foothill's lights. So I confess that I often cross Miranda by j-walking.

I think if Foothill is routed to become an underpass it would be just fantastic.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 3, 2014 at 10:46 am

I thought we were presently undergoing a revamp of Oregon (which is taking as long as the Mitchell Park library). Why talk about another revamp when this one isn't finished?

Does someone somewhere have too much money to spend?

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 3, 2014 at 10:59 am

Why are they adding lanes here .. and talking about taking them out of El Camino Real--which is clearly a much busier road?

And why are they pushing bicycles as an alternative to cars and buses?

Wonder if these planners are even listening to themselves?

Like this comment
Posted by Ellie
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 3, 2014 at 11:08 am

Added lanes??? NOOOOO. It has been understood for more than a decade that adding lanes does not solve traffic problems. It simply attracts even more cars, fills up again, and guess what - even more lanes are called for. Liz Kniss even articulated this - hardly the most forward looking member on the city council. She was once all for adding lanes, voted to do so, then years later stated that she had learned that is not a solution.

So do the other things, but don't add lanes - a lot of money for little return. And - notice that some of these proposed lane widenings just happen to be in areas that are pretty undeveloped. Or houses are nest to the road (Oregon) with only a stand of very tall bushes shielding them from the enormous traffic.

Like this comment
Posted by Getting Smart
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 3, 2014 at 11:13 am

Anyone remember the Sand Hill Road widening debate? Adding more lanes only supported more development and the traffic along this road is now as bad as it ever was. If you build it, they will come.

Like this comment
Posted by Rotophile
a resident of another community
on Apr 3, 2014 at 11:55 am

Traffic circles can work very nicely in some situations. Since they are relatively unusual here, they would probably work best if they were used at every intersection on a particular stretch of expressway. And, this is important, each of the traffic circles work the same.

It's important to avoid letting unknowledgeable transportation departments retrofit traffic lights in the main flow. Some of the traffic circles in Washington DC have these, not only defeating the purpose of the traffic circle, but also confusing drivers who don't know what to expect when they get there.

I would be interested in seeing and knowledgeable traffic engineer's proposal for such a stretch.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 3, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Yes let's make all traffic circles standard. They are not supposed to have stop signs as at least one in Palo Alto does.

Like this comment
Posted by Lois Fowkes
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 3, 2014 at 1:27 pm

Please, please, please when all this work is done, add a signal tripper for bikes coming south on Miranda across Hillview. As it is now, a bicyclist has to get off the bike and take a convoluted route pretending to be a pedestrian to get across Hillview legally unless a car comes along to do the tripping.


Like this comment
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 3, 2014 at 1:52 pm

6 lanes from 101 to 280 on Oregon Expy would be nice. Even better would be to eliminate some stoplights and intersections. Imminent domain some buildings at the El Camino Pagemill intersection and build underpass would that would be tits.

Like this comment
Posted by Floyd
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 3, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Traffic circles work. I've encountered them in Europe and especially England plus Washington, D.C., Massachsetts and many more places on the East coast.
Let's try it.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Altain
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 3, 2014 at 7:38 pm

I agree with a some other posts: no more lanes. What I do not know is if the county government can mandate expansion of roadways without consent of a city council or its people? If each city council has to approve county upgrades - then there is a process to prevent further development in Palo Alto.

I am a preservationist. I do not want to expand more employers in Palo Alto beyond what we already have. I want Palo Alto to be a place to live - primarily: not a place to live and work. Future Start-ups, Law Firms, Venture Capitalists, and High Tech Firms need to seek office space South of us (Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Los Gatos, San Jose, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Monterey). Or better yet - in the East Bay and in particular - East Palo Alto (which should also change their name to something like Oasis Tech - so as not to be confused with Palo Alto or San Mateo County).

EPA should become a new mecca of a high tech industrial park combined with expensive stack and pack condos and apartments for those 20s-30s something beginning their careers.

Electing a new slate of city council members (or getting buy in from the existing ones) who will commit to a platform of an across the board moratorium on future commercial building development plus no more condos or apartments in Palo Alto will do the trick. Moreover, let's spread the wealth of this new information age to other communities. We will always have Stanford, existing firms, and best weather in the nation. Lord knows EPA and the East Bay can use a complete revamp and make those communities finally a safe place to be.

Like this comment
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 3, 2014 at 9:11 pm

I'd love to see a better bike path into the tech park than having to climb the hill on Hanover. Climbing Hanover, with cars gunning it and hitting 50+ MPH up the hill is not particularly pleasant.

The terrain is much less steep on Matadero, however there is a patch of someone's yard which blocks access to the TIBCO parking lots. If that was a path, it would attract a lot of cyclists, particularly with Matadero turning into a bicycle boulevard.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 3, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Yup, Patrick, about a 210-foot missing link there. Sounds like we are employed in the same neighborhood. Has anyone investigated possible routes through Bol Park more toward the back of the VA property? Just dreaming, I guess.

Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 3, 2014 at 10:06 pm

Inherent in this report is an acknowledgement that people are not getting out of their cars in favor of alternative modes of transportation.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 3, 2014 at 10:21 pm

Meanwhile, San Francisco removed the Embarcadero Freeway and the Central Freeway on Octavia and those areas blossomed without them. Traffic is slower but the ugly, dividing freeways have been replaced with vibrant rejuvenated communities. It's worked so well, that San Francisco is talking about removing the I-280 extension as well.

So adding more lanes and making elevated freeways seems like quite the step backwards.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous 2
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 3, 2014 at 11:13 pm

I am NOT in favor of a grade separate at Foothill and Arastradero. Arastradero is a neighborhood arterial, and we just went through a dubious "traffic calming" -- now they want to create a highly urbanized grade separation there to speed up traffic? This is on the edge of the Foothills. Forget it. I'm not saying this intersection couldn't use improvement. Grade separation is NOT it.

But then, I live over here, I don't just drive through like those who who keep trying to make this part of town an urban nightmare.

Planning for bikes needs to stop treating bike traffic as second-class citizens, like some kind of afterthought shoehorned in at busy intersections. Treat them like real vehicles. Make the bike lanes wider, but consider new signaling and rules of the road.

The need to create grade separation at Alma and Charleston is far greater. But then, that's going to be difficult now with that new light at that horrible Alma Plaza development that epitomizes the New Palo Alto Planning.

Like this comment
Posted by Ben Lerner
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 4, 2014 at 12:44 am

This is wierd! I thought all this "smart growth" they're doing is supposed to reduce traffic and the number of cars. I think someone isn't telling us the truth.

Like this comment
Posted by boscoli
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 4, 2014 at 6:13 am

Adding lanes is quite the regressive, backward looking approach. All it accomplishes is inviting more traffic, which perpetuates the same problem, only on a larger scale.

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Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 4, 2014 at 9:46 am

Musical, it's a bit of a pain, but you can cut through the fence after the donkey pasture. From there you can wind your way through the VA parking lots, although this hasn't been an option for a few years due to construction. I haven't tried going through there lately, but it may be opened up again.

Regardless, connecting a bike path from Matadero into the tech park would really promote cycling for employees at VMware, TIBCO, Tesla, SAP and others. I've heard complaints from at least a dozen people who didn't want to bike from the Caltrain because they would have to climb Hanover. The turning lane down Hanover makes drivers feel like the road is wide open, so they have a habit of thinking of it as their personal freeway.

I once was turning left on my bicycle from Hanover onto Hillview, and had a person drive up behind me who crossed the double yellow line such that they were driving on the wrong side of the street. All the while honking their horn and yelling "GET OFF THE FSCKING ROAD". When we both turned left, the guy slammed on his brakes in hopes that I would run in to him, and then sped off after showing me his middle finger.

All it takes is a couple of incidents like that to make people not want to ride their bicycles anymore. It's just too crazy when we design and optimize for the flow of cars.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 4, 2014 at 10:19 am

Thanks. I've mostly given up on cycling, sorry to say. Always was good exercise, but at a reduced life expectancy these days. I actually worry less about the hostile drivers than the inattentive ones sailing down the street while fiddling with their navigation systems or other interior bells and whistles. We've got "Bike to Work Week" coming up soon. Good luck to all. I see the situation just continuing to worsen.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 4, 2014 at 1:21 pm

I can see the addition of the lanes on Page Mill (between ECR and Foothill Expy) as a benefit where traffic flows easier since the drivers who enter/exit the office sites will not affect the other 2 lanes of traffic.

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Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 4, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Except where the drivers then immediately muscle over to the left lane to make their necessary U-turn since they can't turn left directly out of the driveways. . .

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 4, 2014 at 4:06 pm

> “It has been understood for more than a decade that adding lanes does not solve traffic problems. It simply attracts even more cars…”

Can you please provide some data to back up this claim?

Let's not forget all the development that is being approved up and down the peninsula. Without efficient public transit, how bad do you want traffic to get?

Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 4, 2014 at 7:57 pm

With all the complaining of traffic and the others not wanting to improve the roads, it is no wonder that nothing can ever be done to make everyone/majority happy. Add more bike lanes and encouraging alternate modes of transportation (bus, train, or light-rail) isn't working either. If you've ever tried to take them, you'd know it takes twice to three times longer on public transportation and the routes (both starts and stops) don't work for many. Taking 2-3 hours to get to work, work an 8-hr work day, and another 2-3 hrs to get home doesn't make a work/commute/lift-balance.

If the city/county/state wants to get us out of our vehicles to take the load of the roadways and air quality, improve public transportation.

Like this comment
Posted by Janet
a resident of another community
on Apr 4, 2014 at 9:47 pm

I grew up in Palo Alto and am totally lost when I go there for anything. It was a wonderful place to live back ten and now every little nook and craney seems to be covered in apartments, asphalt, or some sort of building. It is very sad to see. Rather than expanding roads, I would think the city would be smarter to put a moratorium on building and use lights to regulate the traffic. Palo Alto is becoming an over developed, sterile looking community. There use to be some really neat shops that average people could afford to shop at and now it is full of high priced speciality shops and wall to wall buildings. Very sad indeed. Time to slow down or stop the growth. Palo Alto is not hurting for money so stop being greedy.

Like this comment
Posted by Ralph
a resident of another community
on Apr 5, 2014 at 10:45 am

The county traffic planners have for years tried to have freeways under their jurisdiction. They tried unsuccessfully to ban cyclists from expressways. When that failed they have been working to make cycling a 3rd world experience on their expressways and pedestrians are below that level.

The latest dead was expansion of Central to near freeway status by adding merge lanes to the segment from Matilda south towards Lawrence. Cyclists now have to watch out for cars heading down the ramps at 50 mph while watching for drivers trying to get over into the new super extended off ramp. Pedestrians, no provision, climb up in the weeds.

If the county has the tens of millions per mile these projects will take there are better options. Put in adequate bike routes. Upgrade the route past the Central and train track intersections for cyclists and pedestrians. Upgrade pedestrian facilities and intersection light timing so a person walking doesn't only have 5 seconds to step off a curb or wait another 4 minutes for the next 5 second chance. Take the "freeway conversion money" and apply it to adding some transit routes to the area. Take some and add it to shoulder widening on county roads which see a lot of conflict between drivers and heavy cyclist use. I know it's not as glamorous but it will be a better use of scarce resources.

There are ways to improve cycling for commuting. People who have the facilities they feel safe on will use them. Cyclists aren't all out riding on weekends for fun. I commute daily, on Central and Foothill. They are like a freeway for me, and I'm sure many others. Foothill has 7500 people who ride that route as reported on Strava. That is only a small subset of cyclists. When you turn that section of the road into a freeway where will they go? Into cars? Los Altos Hills already doesn't want a traffic light and the county thinks a freeway is going to make the wealthy who live there happy.

Major changes to auto use are on the way. Self driving cars will be a large segment of the traffic by 2040. They will use the roads more efficiently. We are likely to have too many roads. Change is going to happen and the plan is to spend tens of millions on failed plans.

Like this comment
Posted by Traffic circles redux
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 6, 2014 at 2:25 pm

I have lived in Boston and the UK. Traffic circles worked well in the Uk because drivers are more considerate and better about surrendering the right of way.

However, Boston was a different story: lots of accidents occurred in and around traffic circles, and many of them were finally removed for safety reasons. Boston drivers are notoriously and shockingly rude.

Palo Alto drivers are not as rude, but there are many scofflaws and I really doubt that traffic circles in the British tradition would work here.

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