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Rising costs strain Palo Alto's infrastructure goals

City Council moves ahead with new fire station and bike bridge, despite major questions about latest cost estimates

Palo Alto's ambitious plan to fix up the city's aged infrastructure and build a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 is being strained by a sizzling construction market, which is adding millions of dollars to the price of each project and forcing local officials to lower their expectations.

Despite the obstacle, two priority projects on the city's infrastructure list moved forward Monday night, when the council voted to approve the construction contract to rebuild the 1948 fire station near Rinconada Park and to approve the environmental analysis for the new bike bridge at Adobe Creek.

In each case, council members voiced significant reservations about the cost increases. The budget for the fire station has gone up from $6.7 million, the amount in the city's 2014 Infrastructure Plan, to about $8.6 million (or $9.5 million, if you factor in the cost of staff salary and benefits).

Three council members were so concerned about the new cost estimate that they voted against the contract with Strawn Construction for the fire station project. Even though the item was on the council's "consent calendar," which is typically reserved for noncontroversial items, council members Greg Tanaka, Eric Filseth and Karen Holman all registered no votes.

In explaining his dissenting vote on Fire Station 3, Tanaka called the revision in the project budget a "substantial increase" and wondered if the project could be revised to save money. He noted that the current design includes amenities such as a pedestrian plaza, a bicycling queue area and public art -- features that could potentially be omitted.

"If we are 44 percent over budget, does it make sense for us to be incorporating niceties versus essentials?" Tanaka asked. "That's really the issue in my mind given that it's taxpayers dollars we're spending."

Filseth and Holman both concurred, with Filseth saying he was surprised that the contract appeared on the "consent calendar," given the magnitude of the increase.

Similar concerns cropped up during the council's long discussion about the new bike bridge, which officials plan to start building in 2019 and complete in 2020. Initially pegged at about $10 million, the project now has an expected price tag over $16 million, despite the council's decision last year to jettison the fanciest proposals for the new overpass in favor of a simpler and cheaper alternative.

On Monday night, it became apparent that even the cheaper alternative is going to cost far more than officials had anticipated. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said she remembers a time when the expected cost for the new bridge was about $6 million and sought reassurance from Public Works staff that the estimate won't continue to climb.

"I'd like some reassurance on how we're going to be able to hold the line on spending on this bridge," Kniss said. "This is a bridge that the public really wants."

But city officials countered that they won't know what the final cost will be until the design is completed and they actually go out to bid on the project, which they expect to happen in about a year. Brad Eggleston, assistant director of Public Works, said the cost escalation that the entire region has experienced in the construction market accounts for almost all of the cost increases.

The council plans to have a separate discussion early next year about the changing cost projections and their implications for the city's infrastructure plan, which also includes two garages, a new police headquarters, the reconstruction of the Mitchell Park fire station and a host of bike projects.

Several council members, including Kniss and Councilwoman Karen Holman, suggested reaching out to tech companies in Mountain View's North Bayshore area to see if they'd be interested in contributing for a bike bridge project that would ostensibly benefit many of their employees (Google has already committed $1 million to the cause).

Councilman Greg Tanaka even suggested pursuing "branding opportunities" with the tech companies, a proposal that received a mixed reaction from colleagues who argued that a bridge to the Baylands is a particularly unsuitable place for billboards or other forms of corporate advertising.

"I feel that this would be important to be kind of creative in thinking about how to fund this project, how to make it happen," Tanaka said. "It seems we're getting closer and closer to funding and the amount of funding we need keeps going up and up. ... How do we bridge the gap?"

Councilman Tom DuBois was less inclined to pursue this approach, though he also agreed that the rising costs are a problem and that the city needs to reconsider the design of the bridge.

"We need to value-engineer it and take features out, rather than just keep the costs going up," DuBois said.

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Comments

9 people like this
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 28, 2017 at 5:19 pm

We're in the middle of a construction boom around here. The fires up north only made this worse. Ideally we'd get these projects shovel ready, then wait for the next downturn to bid them out and build them.


32 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 28, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Worried about money for a footbridge, but plenty of money for what is going on along Ross and Middlefield.

Something very wrong here.


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 28, 2017 at 6:17 pm

Ask Google for help for goodness sake!
What's so hard about that?
A short simple email
The less formal - the more likely they'll respond.


46 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2017 at 6:21 pm

We could save 9 million $ by not putting flower pots in the middle of Ross road and others in Midtown. If you don't want cars on Ross, fine, put in some poles like on Bryant. WAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYY cheaper than concrete flower pots in the middle of the road.


6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 28, 2017 at 6:21 pm

Ask Trump for help for goodness sake! He promised he would make infrastructure upgrade a top priority. It must be a really big going program by now. Just tap into it.


42 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 28, 2017 at 7:48 pm

We are throwing money away on the useless road barriers then complain about the increase cost of the bridge. We don't need the road barriers. We blew how much money on the previous bridge attempt? We just need a simple bridge - nothing fancy. And hire a local firm to do it.


17 people like this
Posted by mattie
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 28, 2017 at 8:18 pm

I wonder if there's a better way to spend ~$250 per citizen of this fine city. </sarcasm>


40 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 28, 2017 at 8:49 pm

The "flower pots" in the middle of Ross will end up hurting someone. The design rudely pushes cyclists and cars into one lane. Shame on the "safe bike to school" advocates who promoted this unfortunate design.
As for the Adobe Creek Bridge - had Staff and the ARB adhered to the initial Design Guidelines in managing the design competition, we'd have a lovely low-cost bridge by now. Instead, they selected an 80-ft-tall bird-killer Golden Gate imitation, and the unraveling started...
Our City leaders should stop the scary "bike safety" project and allocate the remaining dollars to removing the flower pots and barriers instead of building more of them. If anything is left, it can go towards the bridge


3 people like this
Posted by So
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 28, 2017 at 8:53 pm

So you folks must know the workers that do this type of freeway construction are not the same as the ones that do residential housing. Neither are the structural engineers. My dad used to engineer LA skyscrapers and large university campuses. Ask him a question about wood residential construction and he was out of his element. Construction workers specialize and are not as fungible as people on this thread seem to think.


33 people like this
Posted by Ken
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 28, 2017 at 9:26 pm

These delays and bloated costs are NOT the fault of a construction boom, fires, lack of workers, etc. No, it is entirely the fault of our city council who repeatedly over the past few years has chosen to turn a simple bike bridge into a statement, and review it, reflect on it, have a contest about it, scrap it and start over, and perhaps start it over again. And that statement is that they are incompetent buffoons! Even now, we need to re-engineer it, get Google involved, get other tech companies involved, says city council. What? Why, if those actions are so important, were they not done YEARS ago? Honestly, what is going on at city hall?This bridge should be open and in service now, not a hypothetical concept being regurgitated for so many years in city hall.


1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2017 at 10:58 pm

Build it and they shall come! If you procrastinate, it will become even more expensive. I can already attest that the environmental impact would be positive as more pedestrians will be inclined to use it instead of driving a polluting air.


23 people like this
Posted by Midlander
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 29, 2017 at 7:53 am

Midlander is a registered user.

" ...they won't know what the final cost will be until the design is completed and they actually go out to bid on the project, which they expect to happen in about a year."

Another full year until the bridge actually goes out to bid? The mind boggles. This should be a very straightforward piece of construction. The amount of foot-dragging and arbitrary unnecessary complexity here is really appalling.


14 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2017 at 8:09 am

I am reminded of the Mitchell Park library fiasco. Many of us thought that the scale of the project was not what was necessary but even when it was agreed, the work took a horrendous length of time to complete. I thought that was bad enough, but of course, the footbridge is another example of the inability of Palo Alto to do anything that makes sense. Even when the work starts, I will not expect a speedy completion.


12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2017 at 9:38 am

That picture of the footbridge is a joke! When was the last time highway 101 had that little traffic.

Thanks for making me smile.

:)


31 people like this
Posted by Richard Placone
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 29, 2017 at 11:43 am

I have counted at least five or six pedestrian/bike bridges over 101 between here and San Francisco. And several more between here and San Jose. These are all simple concrete bridges within wire cages to prevent people form jumping into the traffic. Surely one of these bridges can give up their construction designs so we can go to bid in a month or two. I've seen bridges in this area with long leads on and off so bikes and handicap devices can use them. Trust me, no one on 101 at 65mph is gong to spend time studying the design of this bridge. And take out ALL of the so called amenities - places to sit, plantings, plazas etc. For Pete's sake city hall and esp city council, its a bike bridge, not the stairway to heaven!


21 people like this
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 29, 2017 at 11:53 am

I wish that every dollar spent on "traffic calming" and "signature projects" (and it is a lot of money, with all of the consulting, construction, and litigation costs) that actually seem (to me) to make traffic worse would be put towards meeting the crushing debt burden of our city's retirement/pension obligations.


4 people like this
Posted by How is a bike/pedestrian bridge going to make traffic worse?
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 29, 2017 at 12:28 pm

How is a bike/pedestrian bridge going to make traffic worse? is a registered user.

Jeff, compared to the money we spend on facilities to move and park cars, the bike/pedestrian facilities costs are a teeny, tiny drop in the bucket.

More and more people want to bike for local trips and the city has under invested in bike facilities for many decades. We have a LOT of catch up to do.

I am frustrated that bike projects like this one (especially in south Palo Alto) seem to constantly get hung up with delays. I just want a simple, functional bike/pedestrian bridge. We have needed it forever.

Please, let's just get it done already.


3 people like this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 29, 2017 at 1:11 pm

DTN Paul is a registered user.

It boggles my mind that it's going to be one more year before we put out the bridge for bids.


18 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 29, 2017 at 1:12 pm

"The "flower pots" in the middle of Ross will end up hurting someone. The design rudely pushes cyclists and cars into one lane. Shame on the "safe bike to school" advocates who promoted this unfortunate design."

Did the "safe bike to school" advocates actually push this design, or did they just ask city hall to create a "safe bike to school" route? If the latter, they are guilty only of naivety. The problem is in the dept. of public works, specifically, its strange new obsession with strewing distracting shiny objects and bright colors over our busiest streets. It's a thing that most people outgrow after kindergarten.


25 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 29, 2017 at 1:16 pm

While this article focuses on the fire station and bike bridge, the problem is much greater.

I understand that city government is a complicated thing. Still, Palo Alto is among the most educated and wealthy cities in the country. Our residents include an abundance of very successful people across a wide variety of occupations.

Even so, we elect (and re-elect) city council members who fail to address pervasive problems. They hire city management and reward them with exorbitant salaries, benefits, etc. They, in turn, hire their buddies and reward them richly, but are unable to conduct even modest projects to achieve successful outcomes within reasonable costs.

I fear something is seriously rotten here in Palo Alto.


Like this comment
Posted by Hate makes bad pudding
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 29, 2017 at 2:43 pm

With everyone seeming to hate "The other guy" (ie cyclists or motorists or pedestrians) nothing will get done for the benefit of all. The grumps and angry haters have stalled everything they can because...why should "That group" get the benefits?! What about MEEE!
It's just the self centered nature of the town. It's also why life in PA is enjoyable as surrounding towns.


29 people like this
Posted by jane
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2017 at 3:22 pm

"More and more people want to bike for local trips "

I'm a little mystified bv that statement regarding a bike bridge over 101 into the Baylands. I'm wondering how many people who live in Palo Alto and work on the east side of 101 will use this bike on a daily basis, rain or heat? Or will some bikers made a big detour to get to jobs in downtown Palo Alto/Menlo Park? Or will this be mostly used by employees biking to the Google buildings?

This amount of money with huge infrastructure, city salaries, and future retirement liabilities so some (how many?) residents can have a nice bike ride to the baylands on the weekend (or before or after work ) seems like a huge amount. How many cars is that taking off the road?

Yes, it would be a lovely bike ride, but for how many and at what cost? If Palo Alto's share of the cost was known from the outset this boondoggle would never have got off the ground. Millions already sunk on staff time and consultants, and more ongoing, with no firm cost estimate or start date in sight yet....

Apparently the city can't afford to have even two dedicated traffic officers to get a handle on all the red light and stop sign running, the speeding and dangerous driving, that deter people who might otherwise bike.


10 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2017 at 3:28 pm

38 year resident is a registered user.

@ Curmudgeon....you just couldn't resist. Had to bring Trump into it, didn't ya. I seem to recall President Obama promising thousands of shovel ready projects that would create a whole bunch of jobs. Oops, didn't happen at a great cost to American taxpayers. "Shovel ready wasn't as shovel ready as we thought." And then he laughed it off.


11 people like this
Posted by Haiku Gangsta
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 29, 2017 at 5:30 pm

@Resident in Old Palo Alto

"Ask Google for help for goodness sake! ... The less formal - the more likely they'll respond."

Yo Google! Help us
Build the bridge from here to there
It would be so dope


2 people like this
Posted by Nancy
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 29, 2017 at 5:56 pm

We, in Palo Alto have chosen to do the right thing, and support the purchase and upgrade of Buena Vista trailer park. We need diversity, and we should be willing to give up some favorite nuggets to fulfill our moral obligations. Cancel the bike bridge, and use our money to support our own poor people.















6 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 29, 2017 at 7:28 pm

Check out the Stevens Creek Trail in Mountain View. It starts beyond ECR and goes to the Shoreline business area next to Microsoft. A number of different approaches are used over Central Expressway and tunnels under the freeway. This is one of the busiest bike commute trails out there - try to walk this in the AM and the bike traffic is very high. So bridges and tunnels. We have a tunnel under 101 that is used half the year. It just needs to be "massaged" and have the vegetation thinned. Everyone else is doing this with no fanfare and we keep making a BIG DEAL out of it. Put a bike trail next to the flood zone section with some fences and you can get this done.


16 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 30, 2017 at 6:57 am

Writing to applaud Tanaka's observations and effort on this. As a best practice there should be a $ cap on what the Mayor and City Manager can place on the Consent Calendar. And when there's a budget shortfall, it is prudent to adhere to necessities and eliminate embellishments.


10 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 30, 2017 at 11:17 am

Annette is a registered user.

I "liked" Jane's comment above largely b/c I think she makes a good point about problems "that deter people who might otherwise bike." I think it likely that if we fixed what needs fixing, improved what needs improving, and enforced what should be enforced we would encourage higher use of alternative modes of transportation.

My list would include enforcing the WALK YOUR BIKE rules downtown. Yesterday I took the Embarcadero shuttle to the stop on Lytton and then walked to a restaurant on University. At numerous points I had to maneuver around a cyclist even though I was walking on the sidewalk. This was at 6:00 p.m. My thought at the time: I should have driven; would have been safer.


1 person likes this
Posted by Passing On
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 30, 2017 at 4:27 pm

The new bridge is needed and will be a source of pride and interest for our city. I hope our fellow citizens will look to the future and support creating a monument that will endure long after we are gone. Hopefully our children and our children's children will safely cross that bridge in the decades to come and will remember us for our good works.


7 people like this
Posted by resdient
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 3, 2017 at 8:26 am

It is amusing to hear the city complain about the cost of construction. A major part of that cost is the city itself! The approval cycle is onerous, with at least ten different departments, each with detailed, unwritten requirements, which requires a small army of hired engineers to respond to. The city allows itself generous time-lines to respond to even the smallest issue. In the end, planning takes years, and the amount of consultants, engineers...many of which must be "city approved"....creates a cost that is higher than the entire project cost of identical construction elsewhere in the country.


4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 3, 2017 at 1:27 pm

"President Obama promising thousands of shovel ready projects that would create a whole bunch of jobs. Oops, didn't happen at a great cost to American taxpayers."

Last I looked, our prexy's name was Trump. Check it out.


7 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 3, 2017 at 4:46 pm

Nayeli is a registered user.

@Nancy - Who is this "we" that you're speaking about? From the sound of it, most residents of Palo Alto actually opposed this ridiculous Buena Vista debacle.

As for the bridge: Just build a simple structure that crosses 101. If you want it to look "unique," then let residents who want that contribute to a fund that would make the bike bridge look "different."


4 people like this
Posted by Concerned
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 4, 2017 at 4:16 pm

We unfortunately have an inadequate city manager combined with the ill equipped senior city management "team" he personally hired. What a pity! Let's hope that reason will prevail in releasing both the city manager and his senior management team from their duties as Palo Alto city employees.


Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 5, 2017 at 11:08 am

The topic of this stream is infrastructure and the bike bridge. One person has now inserted Buena Vista into the discussion which is a totally different topic. What ever budget is associated with Buena Vista is what it is and do not overrun that budget. The bridge is benefiting a whole different category of needs for the total population of the city. It does not need to be fancy - just THERE and functional. Other cities are providing functional bridges at a lower cost. This city needs to check out with the other cities who have provided bridges and find out who they used and realistic budget prices. The price being projected for our bridge is not realistic and looks like it is supporting a whole group of people who may not have any direct responsibility for the bridge. Something is wrong with the management of this city if they cannot provide a functional bridge similar to what other cities have provided at a reasonable cost.


4 people like this
Posted by Remember the Rainbow Bridge
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 7, 2017 at 10:33 am

Keene seems to have problems building bridges and managing infrastructure projects. The $350 million Rainbow Bridge over Interstate 10 and the Rio Nuevo fiasco in Tucson, AZ demonstrated Keens's management of urban infrastructure projects. By the end, there was little to show for the hundreds of millions spent, other than investigations by the AZ State Attorney General and the FBI.

"• More than $7 million spent planning the University of Arizona "Rainbow Bridge" Science Center across Interstate 10 proposal, which was ultimately deemed too expensive to build.

• $6 million for travel, food and gadgets for other UA Science Center plans, which were also scrapped.

• $12 million to refurbish the Fox Theatre, which later had to be taken over by the city because it couldn't bring in enough money to cover its bills.

• $500,000 to tear down a 100-year-old building downtown and give the land, plus an adjacent historic building, to developer Don Bourn for $100 - a vacant lot surrounded by a fence nearly five years later.

• $820,000 for a 12- to 15-minute video to play in the atrium of a museum that officials decided not to build after spending $9 million on planning.

• $2 million on a west side adobe wall that has become a magnet for graffiti.

• $1.5 million to redesign a bridge four times, only to run out of money and decide to build it with $13 million in street repaving money.

• Rushing a bond sale at the height of a terrible market in 2008 to keep the Legislature from taking the money away, which pushed up interest costs by as much as $5 million to $18 million."


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