After their first bid to create a "landmark" bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 took an unfortunate turn, Palo Alto officials are now preparing to scale down their expectations and start over with a new design for the $13 million project.
The bridge, which would go up at Adobe Creek, is the most costly and significant project in the bike and pedestrian master plan that the city adopted in 2012. Once in place, it will provide year-round access for pedestrians and bicyclists trying to get from south Palo Alto to the Baylands.
To underscore its importance, the council in 2014 launched a design competition that attracted dozens of entries, which were ultimately narrowed down to three finalists. Last spring, the council favored a slender, low-key design proposed by a team led by the firm Moffatt & Nichol over a more ostentatious arched bridge that was chosen by the jury in the design competition.
Since then, however, the project has faced a series of obstacles. With the estimated price tag rising and the city unable to reach an agreement with Moffatt & Nichol, the City Council agreed in December to scuttle its negotiations with the firm, effectively rebooting the process.
Now, three new project bids are in, and the city is preparing to award a contract to one of them. If the council approves on Monday the recommendation from Public Works staff, the award will go to Biggs Cardosa Associates. Under the $1.5 million contract, the firm would provide design services for what would be a "standard" 14-foot-wide bridge, according to a new report from Public Works. This includes a 12-foot walkway, with a 10-foot center path and 1-foot-wide shoulders.
The new bridge will include 5 percent slopes, an 8-foot-tall fence with 1-inch square openings. The project also includes landscaping for the area around the ramp near the Baylands.
"The standard bridge will be an attractive, bird-friendly, environmentally suitable design with a strict level of structural and seismic performance," the Public Works report states.
As part of the contract, Biggs Cardosa would also be charged with proposing enhancements to the bridge, improvements that would presumably make it more similar to the low-profile, ribbon-like structure that enamored the council last year.
The project's funding could be problematic. The budget has risen from about $9 million to $13 million, which includes $10 million in construction costs. So far, the city has committed about $4.7 million. It also was banking on two major grants: $4 million from Santa Clara County's Recreational Trails Program (which collects money from Stanford University as part of a 2000 agreement) and $4.35 million in state funding through the One Bay Area Grant program, which is locally administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).
Earlier this year, however, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission decided to cut the bike bridge project as one of 10 whose savings would help make up for a $1.5 billion state funding shortfall.
Anticipating the loss of funding, the city and Google, which owns property near Adobe Creek, both made an appeal to the state and the county earlier this month to preserve the financial backing for the bike bridge, calling it a "model for effective state, local and private partnerships." The project, the letter notes, "has already absorbed substantial cost increases, due to delays in preparing environmental studies and an extensive public involvement process."
"We cannot afford to postpone this project any longer," City Manager James Keene and John Igoe, Google's director of real estate and workplace services, wrote in a March 22 letter to Bob Aldorado, chair of the California Transportation Commission, which identified the $1.5 billion gap and ordered the cuts of some projects funded by the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP).
The goal of this project, the letter noted, is "to provide year-round bicycle and pedestrian access between Palo Alto, Stanford University, the San Francisco Bay Trail, Baylands recreational areas, and large job centers east of U.S. 101."
"An existing bicycle and pedestrian overcrossing at Oregon Expressway is approximately 1.4 miles north and is inconvenient for active transportation users who live in south Palo Alto and commuters to the Google and Facebook campuses," the letter states.
Despite the potential loss of state money, Palo Alto's Public Works staff remains optimistic that the funding will ultimately be replaced by the VTA in subsequent funding rounds. Last month, the VTA notified the city that its board "has committed to program One Bay Area Grant funds to replace the STIP funding if the MTC deprograms the project or delays it beyond the 2016 STIP period."
Palo Alto is also considering other funding options. The county's Recreational Trails Program, for instance, also included a $4.5 million grant for Stanford University to construct a "perimeter trail" around its campus. Stanford subsequently relinquished this grant and opted to fund the project out of its own pockets, creating an opportunity for additional county funds to be used for the bike bridge.
Google also has offered to help out. Last year, the high-tech giant proposed contributing $1 million to the project, though it stipulated that the company should "receive credit as traffic mitigation for any future development application."
The council made it clear during its December discussion that it isn't willing to make any kind of land-use concessions in exchange for the contribution.
Earlier this month, however, Google once again offered to contribute $1 million, this time with no strings attached. A May 6 letter from Igoe states that the company's concern "stems from Google's interest in offering transportation alternatives to our employees and other area stakeholders."
"Google and other bicycle users will greatly benefit from the construction of this bridge by providing meaningful vehicle trip generation," Igoe wrote.