Every weekday morning, an endless procession of cars crawls eastward along Page Mill Road toward Palo Alto's most congested intersection.
The caravan of commuters begins on southbound Interstate 280, where traffic is so bad that backups routinely stretch beyond the exit lane. Then, once they turn onto Page Mill, drivers inch toward the third worst intersection in Santa Clara County's entire expressway network: Page Mill and Foothill Expressway.
Improving the intersection is a priority project in Santa Clara County's Expressway Plan 2040, a document that the county is now finalizing. County officials note in the plan that the segment between I-280 and Foothill operates at the worst possible level of service (a Level F). And the worst may be yet to come.
A study on the Page Mill corridor notes that "operating conditions are projected to worsen in the future with the proposed population and employment growth in the vicinity," with congestion spreading east toward El Camino Real.
Yet fixing Page Mill, much like driving on it, has been a frustrating, fits-and-starts endeavor. An earlier proposal to add traffic signals at the interchange of I-280 and Page Mill was scuttled after Los Altos Hills residents protested it would divert traffic toward their residential streets. The Los Altos Hills council also requested that the county look at expanding capacity on Page Mill before proposing major changes to the interchange.
On Monday night, the county's latest plan to improve traffic conditions on Page Mill ran into a few speed bumps in Palo Alto. The new proposal calls for widening Page Mill from four lanes to six between the highway and Foothill, creating a shared-use bike-and-pedestrian path on the north side of the expressway and installing a roundabout at the I-280 interchange.
County officials expect the new lanes and the roundabout to improve conditions at the busiest segments of Page Mill to a Level C.
The time it takes to get through the Foothill intersection would shrink from the current levels of 84.4 seconds in the morning peak period and 108.5 seconds in the afternoon peak period to 31.1 seconds and 43.4 seconds, respectively.
Dawn Cameron, county transportation planner, told the City Council Monday that Page Mill is "facing unique and difficult challenges." As a result, the county has received more in-depth analysis than any other county expressway, with the sole exception of Lawrence Expressway. In addition to the near-term improvements on Page Mill, county officials are also looking at an under- or overpass at Foothill and Page Mill as a long-term solution.
That so-called grade separation would cost about $50 million, according to the county, or roughly half of the entire budget for Page Mill improvements. The funding could come from a 2016 sales-tax measure, county sources and local revenues collected from traffic-impact fees, according to county officials.
Despite its promise to relieve congestion, the proposal received a mixed reaction from Palo Alto officials, who are now in the midst of an overall effort to dramatically reduce the number of solo drivers on city streets.
The city has recently launched a Transportation Management Association aimed at providing employees with incentives to switch from cars to other modes of transportation. It is also expanding its citywide shuttle service and preparing to introduce new parking restrictions in downtown's residential neighborhoods. Adding driving lanes and increasing the volume of cars on local roads in some ways run counter to these initiatives, critics of the plan argued Monday.
"We're looking to spend $100 million to accommodate a growth in car traffic," said Adina Levin, a member of the group Friends of Caltrain. "Whereas in Palo Alto's current strategy focusing on downtown, we're looking at TDM (transportation-demand management) and strategies for reducing car trips (and) reducing traffic."
Robert Neff, a bicyclist who serves on the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Committee, voiced skepticism about the proposed bike path on Page Mill and predicted that it will be "dirty, hilly and noisy." He urged the county to consider making improvements to the more scenic and less congested Old Page Mill Road.
"I predict few will actually take advantage of the new proposed multi-use path," Neff said. "Nearly every potential user will find a more attractive route. That's just the nature of six-lane expressways."
Council members also gave the new Page Mill plan a mixed reception. While they generally accepted the county's plan to add driving lanes to Page Mill, several council members insisted that these lanes be high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes -- devoted to buses or carpooling commuters.
"If we just add another lane on Page Mill for all cars, that will make it easier for them to get to work faster, and frankly that continues to encourage single-occupancy vehicles," Councilman Marc Berman said Monday.
Berman said he was "sympathetic to the idea of adding a lane if it's for HOV purposes."
"I really have a lot of problems with it if it weren't for HOV," he said.
Councilmen Pat Burt and Greg Scharff took similar positions, with each saying a new bus lane could help large employers at Stanford Research Park provide more shuttles for its employees, thus cutting down the number of solo drivers.
"The assumption is that we'll have employers bring people in buses and also use Caltrain," Scharff said. "To make buses work and make them convenient, the buses in high-occupancy lanes seems to me the way to solve that problem."
Despite some hesitation about more lanes, council members praised many aspects of the plan and agreed with county officials that something needs to be done on Page Mill.
Councilman Tom DuBois said the council needs to "pay attention to car traffic and this is really a major thoroughfare for getting workers to Palo Alto."
"I think the backup on 280 is a very dangerous situation that really needs to be fixed," DuBois said.
They also acknowledged, however, that given the expected growth in traffic, the fixes may only provide a temporary relief.
Councilman Cory Wolbach characterized the proposed improvements on Page Mill as "a really, really expensive Band-Aid."
"It will probably have short-term positive impacts that will last from when the project is done. I believe by 2025 it will start running out of efficacy," Wolbach said. "It would buy us seven to eight years of minor improvements along that stretch. I do think $90 million to $100 million can be spent better."
Mayor Karen Holman likewise referred to the proposed improvements as a "temporary fix."
"There is a saying, 'Water will find its level,'" Holman said. "Traffic will too."