A new plan to synchronize 14 traffic signals along University Avenue in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto could cut the amount of time commuters spend in traffic jams between Middlefield Road and the Dumbarton Bridge by 20 percent to 40 percent, according to the city of Palo Alto.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission gave the project the green light in the form of a $81,130 grant on July 13; Palo Alto, which initiated the project, will contribute an additional $15,470.
The project will be implemented in the next few months, according to Palo Alto Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello, and will pay for signal improvements at the 14 intersections, plus four intersections on Donohoe Street in East Palo Alto.
Greg Welch, a Crescent Park resident who has headed the neighborhood campaign to reduce traffic on besieged residential streets, lauded the news.
"This is a great development for the residents of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, and commuters alike. Hopefully by smoothing traffic flow along the University Avenue corridor, it will ease the impact of overflow traffic spilling into adjacent residential neighborhoods," he said in an email this week.
The situation has gotten so bad during morning and afternoon commutes that some drivers are engaging in hazardous behavior -- crossing into opposing traffic lanes to bypass the congestion -- residents in both cities have said.
The traffic problems prompted East Palo Alto City Councilman Larry Moody to publicly call for coordination between Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park to help resolve the situation by synchronizing signals and potentially adding a park-and-ride lot and shuttles near the Dumbarton Bridge, among other plans.
East Palo Alto Public Works Director Kamal Fallaha, whose agency participated in the proposal, said it makes sense to coordinate the signals as a way to improve traffic flow. The signals will have updated green, yellow and red light minimum times so that traffic can clear the intersections.
"Hopefully it will help the whole system," he said, noting that the changes are expected to also increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The project will start with traffic counts and proceed to the signal-timing upgrades. East Palo Alto and California Department of Transportation lights have similar signal-timing programs, but they differ from Palo Alto's, so new programming would be added to the East Palo Alto signal-control boxes, Fallaha said.
The work will not impede traffic. The primary task will be reprogramming signal controllers, which does not require lane closures or setting the signals into flash mode, Mello said in an email.
"We believe that significant benefits will accrue to the city of Palo Alto after the project is completed and that the project is well worth the cost," he said.
John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said the agency's project team will meet with Palo Alto's transportation officials this month to begin the study and work. The final report will be due in June 2019, but Goodwin said the synchronization would be working much sooner. The June deadline relates to a signoff after all reports are finalized.
The MTC program that's funding the project aims to improve travel time and reliability along main thoroughfares or arterial streets. It seeks to improve vehicle, bike, pedestrian and transit-rider safety and, potentially, air quality by decreasing vehicle emissions and fuel consumption, according to the agency.
The Palo Alto/East Palo Alto improvements are expected to reduce carbon emissions and fuel consumption by 20 to 40 percent, according to the project application.
In addition to the signal synchronizations, Mello said his department will help reduce cut-through traffic in Crescent Park by adding six large planters at the entrances of Hamilton, Forest and Lincoln avenues east of Middlefield Road. The planters, along with signage, are intended to calm traffic by making motorists aware they are driving into a residential neighborhood.
Transportation staff also plan to work with consultants this fall on details of test programs to address traffic issues and potential solutions that Crescent Park residents submitted to the city in spring, including diagonal diverters to reduce traffic volume, adding curb extensions and bollards on some streets and installing left-turn lanes on University Avenue at some intersections.