With a whopper of an El Nino predicted for this winter, several residents told Palo Alto officials at a meeting on Thursday night they want a new Newell Bridge to be built -- and fast.
While the design of the bridge has debated for more than four years, some residents said they don't care what the bridge looks like: They just don't want their homes to be flooded this winter by the San Francisquito Creek.
Thursday's meeting was a chance for the public to weigh in on four alternative bridge designs and to suggest what categories should be studied in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
The public has until Sept. 14 to comment. A draft EIR will then be developed, which will be open to additional public review and comment.
If approved, construction would begin in 2018, and it would be a full year before the new bridge would be functional, officials said. That timeline has residents nervous, since weather forecasters are predicting an unusually wet winter.
"This is a little podunk bridge compared to the danger we all face from flooding," said Alan Hallberg, whose home was flooded in 1998. "I frankly don't care what kind of bridge we put in. Just do it."
Some residents living up the creek near the Pope/Chaucer Bridge said the city is making assumptions without fully knowing what impact a new Pope/Chaucer Bridge, which will be replaced later, would have on the creek. The city should consider downstream fixes all at once, they said.
Jim Wiley, a Menlo Park resident who lives near the creek, said the Newell Bridge is being designed with the assumption that a six- to eight-foot flood wall would be constructed upstream.
But city staff said the Santa Clara Valley Water District has proposed widening the channel in East Palo Alto to allow a greater volume to flow downstream, which would eliminate the need for flood walls.
Kevin Fisher, whose home also flooded in 1998, said he didn't want to wait longer for a comprehensive plan.
"It feels like the right approach to focus one step at a time" rather than trying to fix the entire creek problem all at once, such as by including Pope/Chaucer, he said.
The 103-year-old concrete Newell Bridge is not just a flooding hazard. Over the years, the narrow structure has concerned drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.
Palo Alto residents have called for its removal altogether as a way to eliminate traffic through their neighborhood and to reduce crime.
There are now five alternatives: four possible bridge designs and one option to do nothing at all. The lattermost possibility received little attention at the meeting.
Each of the four designs would heighten the bridge by two feet. One proposal would entail a 16-foot-wide traffic lane -- the same width as the current structure -- with one or two pedestrian walkways on the outside.
Traffic signals would allow cars to move across in one direction at a time. Bicycles would also use the traffic lane, using a bike "sharrow," or road marking that indicates where the bikes can travel.
Additional alternatives would be a two-lane bridge with bike sharrows -- each lane 14 feet wide -- and the pedestrian walkways. The alignment of Newell Road -- which currently is offset by 90 feet on the East Palo Alto side -- could either be kept, partially realigned, or fully aligned.
Instead of traffic signals, these three designs would have stop signs.
East Palo Alto residents said they preferred a two-lane bridge with full alignment of Newell Road. They noted that blind spots along Woodland Avenue toward the bridge approach and zig-zagging traffic from the bridge endangers children and families crossing the streets.
Wendy Smith, an East Palo Alto resident, was one of those favoring full road alignment and stop signs.
"Visual sight lines are necessary" for safety, and with stop signs, "that's the safest thing and then you have traffic calming," she said.
Some Palo Altans at the meeting supported that alternative as the safest. But other Palo Altans said they are against anything other than a one-lane bridge without a realignment of Newell. They are concerned that the two-lane and aligned alternatives will make the Palo Alto portion of Newell Road a speedway.
Doug Kelly said only the one-lane alternative would preserve the character of the neighborhood and the bridge. He noted that he has never seen an accident on the bridge because people are forced to cross so slowly.
"Anything other than a crawl is hazardous," he said.
Other residents said that adding speed humps or tables along Newell Road could reduce the speeding problem.
The city plans to post all comments from Thursday's scoping session, plus a video of the meeting. The comments will be online by Sept. 28. The draft EIR will be released in June 2016 with another opportunity for public comment. The final EIR will be released in January 2017 with a final hearing and approval scheduled for February 2017.
Comments about the scope of the EIR will be accepted until 5 p.m. on Sept. 14. Written comments should be sent to: City of Palo Alto, Public Works Engineering Services, 250 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto 94301, Attn: Joe Teresi, Senior Engineer.
Information, public comments and updates can be found at the project website, cityofpaloalto.org/newell.