The two sides of East Palo Alto separated by bustling U.S. Highway 101 will soon link again for the first time in more than 60 years.
Standing on the midpoint of East Palo Alto's partially constructed bicycle and pedestrian overpass on Thursday morning, East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica and interim City Manager Sean Charpentier looked out over the columns of traffic below.
"When you are up here, you get a real feel for what a physical barrier the freeway is," Charpentier said.
But the $13 million bicycle and pedestrian bridge, which could open as soon as this March, will give residents of East Palo Alto's west side, which has virtually no amenities, access to its shopping center, schools, churches, city government, parks and open spaces. Residents on the east side, many of whom work in Palo Alto, will soon be able to bike to work and have access to libraries, parks and other local and regional attractions, he said.
The overpass is also a regional asset, Charpentier noted. Shoppers, bicylists traveling to jobs at Facebook and Google, recreational hikers and bicyclists seeking to use the Bay Trail will now have a safe route and a continuous link from the east side of the Dumbarton Bridge to downtown Palo Alto, Stanford University or Embarcadero Road. "It will be the most direct and safest route to the Caltrain station," he noted.
Looking to the future, the overpass will also provide a safe and important link for bike commuters traveling to Bay Road and the future business district.
Abrica, who was one of the founders of the city's incorporation in 1983, said the idea of a bike and pedestrian overpass was one of the early social justice issues identified by city leaders. It remained dormant for many years while the city grappled with other issues and worked to build up a tax base, but the council has been focused on making the overpass a reality for the past decade, he said.
"Our population needs to be connected on a day-to-day basis. Palo Alto doesn't have a lot of population living on the east side, but for us it is a bread-and-butter issue. And we're adding a very needed piece to these regional connections," he said.
East Palo Alto residents own fewer cars compared to the rest of San Mateo County, particularly on the city's west side, he noted. According to the city's 2014 General Use Plan Existing Conditions Report, approximately 9 percent of the city's households lack a car compared to about 6 percent countywide. The bulk of the city's rental housing is also located on the west side, and about 14 percent of renters do not own a vehicle, according to the study.
East Palo Altans already walk and bike more than the county average. Four percent of residents journey to work by bike and 4 percent walk. Countywide, 1 percent use a bicycle and 3 percent walk, according to the existing conditions report.
Abrica and Charpentier said the overpass would encourage more people — and especially students — to bike or walk to school to avoid the heavy traffic congestion going through the city. The overpass could in turn help reduce traffic congestion because fewer parents would need to drive their children from the west side to the east side of the city, which houses the city's schools.
Plus, overpass users will also have a commanding and attractive view of the mountains and baylands as they travel, a stark contrast to sitting in traffic, city officials noted.
Public Works Director Kamal Fallaha said that at 12 feet, the overpass has one of the widest surfaces to accommodate users. The 1,100-foot-long overpass uses 1,500 cubic yards of concrete and 700,000 pounds of steel. It includes a long, sweeping ramp for access from a point along West Bayshore and Newell roads on the west side and another at Clarke Avenue on city-owned property on the east side, adjacent to the Ravenswood 101 Shopping Center. The quarter-mile-long bridge is compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, he said. The overpass has a gentle sloping grade to make travel smoother and expandable joints to withstand earthquakes.
The project was in the planning stage for about three years and included multiple community meetings for residents' input. Its construction phase was funded by an $8.6 million from the state Active Transportation Program, $2.5 million from Facebook traffic mitigation fees, and $677,473 in funds collected through the city's measures A and M.
Another planned bike and pedestrian overpass at University Avenue is currently in the works but does not have funding, Fallaha said. It would cost an estimated $14 million for construction and about $1 million to design.
The existing University Avenue overpass at Highway 101 is the last old interchange in San Mateo County that has not been upgraded. The California Department of Transportation is currently working on the Willow Road interchange to the north that costs $80 million, he said.
Measure A funds will be used to fund the University Avenue interchange, but a project can take up to 20 years until completion, he said. The sidewalk on the existing bridge is only 4 feet wide and must accommodate bikes and pedestrians. Users must cross a ramp where cars enter University Avenue from the freeway.
Instead of waiting for a new interchange, the city wants to construct an adjacent bike and pedestrian overpass that would not be attached to the old bridge. The overpass would start on East Bayshore Road near University Avenue, across from the Chevron gas station, and would end near University Circle, Fallaha said.
Public Works officials plan to hold a community meeting in about two months to discuss the project, Fallaha said.