The Newell Road Bridge is old, narrow and, according to the state Department of Transportation, "functionally obsolete."
Drivers who approach the bridge have to slow to a crawl so that they can see and avoid oncoming vehicles. And with just 18 feet of width curb-to-curb, well below the modern standard, the bridge cannot comfortably accommodate two cars passing each other.
"Right now, it's a very dangerous place," East Palo Alto Councilman Ruben Abrica told the Weekly. "Any time you spend there, especially in the morning and afternoon, it's just dangerous, and it needs to be made safer for the flow of traffic and pedestrians."
Built in 1911, the 42-foot-long bridge spans two cities and two counties. On the Santa Clara County side, it leads to Palo Alto's Crescent Park neighborhood, which is marked by generous single-family lots with spacious lawns. On the San Mateo County side, it leads to the Woodland Park area in East Palo Alto, a collection of high- and medium-density apartment buildings that house more than 6,000 residents, greater than a fifth of the city's entire population.
For drivers, part of the problem is the crookedness of Newell Road, which intersects Woodland Avenue just north of the bridge and requires East Palo Alto-bound drivers to turn left followed by an immediate right to stay on Newell. It also doesn't help that drivers approaching the bridge have to go up a 7% grade, which reduces their ability to see drivers or bicyclists in front of them. A newly released environmental-impact report (EIR) for a proposed replacement bridge faults the existing structure for "poor drivability for vehicular traffic due to substandard sight distances and vertical profile."
It was the bridge's narrowness that prompted Caltrans to designate it "functionally obsolete" in April 2011, making it eligible for federal funding and jump-starting the current effort to replace it. That effort received a boost this month with the release of a long-awaited analysis for the project, a 404-page document that aims to reconcile competing views about the bridge's future and pave the way for construction to begin next year.
Going with the flow
For officials from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto and for residents who live near San Francisquito Creek, which the bridge crosses, the project carries a sense of urgency. The replacement of the Newell Road Bridge isn't just a way to improve traffic flow; it's also a critical component of the regional effort to improve flood control around the creek. Newell Road Bridge is one of two bridges — along with the Pope-Chaucer Bridge — that is currently on tap to be replaced. And while the Pope-Chaucer is the far more flood-prone of the two spans, its long-anticipated replacement can't occur until Newell Road Bridge is completed. That's because replacing Pope-Chaucer first would increase water flow downstream, raising the risk of flooding in the Newell Road area.
According to the environmental analysis, the Newell Road Bridge can currently accommodate 6,600 cubic feet per second (cfs) of creek flow, making it more than adequate for the existing flow of 5,400 cfs. It is not, however, sufficient to handle the future natural creek flow of 7,500 cfs.
"If upstream improvements are completed, flows exceeding 6,600 cfs would not be able to pass under the existing bridge," the EIR states. "This would result in flooding upstream of the Newell Road Bridge."
For that reason, Thomas Rindfleisch and many of his neighbors in Crescent Park eagerly look forward to the replacement of the bridges. Rindfleisch's home was flooded during the famous February 1998 storm, when water breached the banks at Pope-Chaucer. These days, he runs the email list for his neighborhood association and the topic of flood control is a perennial concern, he told the Planning and Transportation Commission on Wednesday.
"Every winter there is an incredible fear: Is the next rainstorm going to be the one that overflows the creek?" Rindfleisch said. "It's because of Pope-Chaucer. We cannot replace Pope-Chaucer until the Newell Road Bridge is fixed."
Xenia Hammer also argued for the urgency of replacing Newell Bridge. The alternative proposed in the EIR, she said, represents "a reasonable compromise" given all the community input that the city gathered during its public process.
The Planning and Transportation Commission concurred and voted 6-1 on Wednesday night to endorse the environmental analysis and its recommendation: the replacement of the 22-foot-wide Newell bridge with one that is 44 feet wide. The new bridge would also have 5-foot-wide sidewalks and "sharrow" markings, designating it as a shared path for drivers and bicyclists. The project would also raise portions of Newell Road and Woodland Avenue by about 4 feet to make it easier for drivers to see oncoming traffic. It would also eliminate existing flood walls to allow more visibility near the creek itself, said Michel Jeremias, senior engineer at Palo Alto's Public Works Department.
While some details remain divisive, including the lack of actual bike lanes, the new recommendation represents a truce after years of heated debate stretching back to 2013. Over the course of several public hearings, which stretched from 2013 to 2015, city officials discovered that when it comes to the future bridge, residents have very strong — and widely divergent — opinions.
A new direction
The greatest difficulties that Palo Alto and East Palo Alto leaders had to wrestle with during the environmental review process concerned project's priorities: If the Newell span is taken down, what should the replacement bridge accomplish? And what unintended problems might be created through the changes?
Some on the East Palo Alto side of the San Francisquito Creek supported realigning Newell Road to eliminate the existing "blind turns." Wendy Smith, of East Palo Alto, said at a 2015 public meeting that she favored a "full alignment" of Newell Road, which was one of the options that Palo Alto presented. The priority, she said, should be "not continuing to have sight lines that are around corners and don't give you a clear view of who's coming."
Those on the Palo Alto side countered that widening the bridge and realigning Newell would encourage drivers to speed through their neighborhood. Crescent Park residents came out hard against the proposed realignment. Some suggested either keeping the existing bridge, replacing it with a bridge exclusively for bicyclists and pedestrians or simply removing the bridge and not replacing it at all.
Doug Kelly, a resident of Edgewood Drive, represented the view of many in his neighborhood when he said at a 2015 public meeting in East Palo Alto that he likes the "blind nature" of the existing bridge, calling it a "natural break to traffic."
"You're suicidal if you do anything but a crawl over that bridge, and that's a good thing in my mind," Kelly said.
Even those who favor stronger connections between the communities acknowledge that the bridge's biggest weakness — its narrow width — is also an asset. Trish Mulvey, a longtime proponent of improving flood control around Pope-Chaucer and Newell Road, called it the "single-best traffic calming device in the city." Despite — or perhaps because of — the uncomfortable alignment, there have been almost no accidents in the area, she said.
"It really makes me stop very carefully and look very carefully and go slow," Mulvey said. "I think people recognize that, and that's why there don't seem to be accidents."
Yet she also acknowledged that the bridge simply can't stay the way it is. The East Palo Alto area northwest of the bridge continues to grow and evolve, and the Newell Road Bridge is a critical route for residents, including bicyclists, she said.
"When you look at the number of people who live in that part of East Palo Alto and who need to use that bridge — and there is significant bike and pedestrian use of that bridge — I do think it's pretty dangerous from that standpoint," she said.
The new environmental-impact report, which has been endorsed by staff from both Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, seeks to reconcile the different viewpoints. Gone from consideration are some of the more controversial proposals that were brought up during the public-outreach process, including the removal of the bridge without replacing it and the replacement of the bridge with a bicycle/pedestrian bridge. And while the document considers two alternatives that would straighten Newell Road (a "full" and a "partial" realignment of the street) and an option that would create a one-lane, bi-directional bridge with a traffic signal, it does not recommend advancing these options.
Instead, it recommends as its "preferred alternative" a more conservative plan: widening the bridge and not altering Newell in any way. Though it falls short of the type of realignment some in East Palo Alto were hoping to see, the recommended alternative appears to be something most public officials can live with.
R. Allen Fisk, an East Palo Alto planning commissioner who lives close to the creek, said he favored some realignment and rejected the notion that traffic would significantly increase if Newell Road were modified.
Fisk pointed to the stop signs that had recently been installed in Crescent Park, including on Hamilton Avenue, and to the fact that the roads around Woodland Avenue and University Avenue are already clogged during peak commuting times. This makes the prospect of growing traffic volumes unlikely, he said.
"During the busy commute times, especially in the afternoon, the whole Crescent Park neighborhood is locked into their homes," Fisk said. "They can't get out because of all the cars that are lined up on those crescent-shaped streets, heading to University Avenue. At the same time, traffic is backing up from the Newell Road Bridge all the way up to University Avenue and Woodland Avenue."
Fisk noted that even though the EIR does not recommend the Newell realignment option that he favors, the one it does recommend — a widened bridge — would largely accomplish the same objective.
"Given the fact that the bridge will be so much wider than the current bridge, whether it's fully aligned or partially aligned, it doesn't really matter," Fisk said.
He does have one recommendation for the new bridge design: Shift the location of the bridge so that a larger portion of it would be on the East Palo Alto side, which would also prevent the removal of a California buckeye tree. According to the analysis, 12 trees around the bridge would be cut down.
While the city councils in the two cities have not yet discussed the proposed alternative, Abrica told the Weekly said he is comfortable with the proposed solution. He said he had strongly opposed a full realignment of Newell Road near the bridge, saying it would create a "mini-highway" in the area. And while Abrica said a partial realignment (which the EIR does not recommend) may improve drivers' visibility on the bridge, he noted that the recommended plan has other measures for making conditions safer, as well as new space for sidewalks and bicyclists.
Abrica, who serves on the board of directors at the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, also emphasized the importance of moving the Newell project along so that the creek authority can proceed with its upstream work, including the replacement of Pope-Chaucer Bridge.
"Whatever happens, the responsible thing would be to not do anything upstream unless something is done on Newell Road. ... The timing is critical, and it's important for us to get this done," Abrica said.
A commission weighs in
Perhaps the biggest sign that the bridge project is now gaining momentum is the change in tone of public discussions. Unlike during the 2015 meetings, the commission's deliberation Wednesday on the new environmental analysis was swift, calm and generally amiable, with only three public speakers and no opposition to replacing or widening the bridge.
The only disagreement was over the proposed amenities for bicyclists. Robert Neff, a longtime advocate for improved bicycling facilities, called the environmental analysis "grossly inadequate" because it fails to consider bike lanes for the bridge. Instead, by proposing wider lanes with "sharrow" markings, it recommends an alternative that would encourage cars to speed and that would worsen conditions for bicyclists. The sharrows "do not change the level of traffic stress and make no significant difference," Neff said.
Commission Chair William Riggs concurred and argued the city should have been more thorough in evaluating bike and pedestrian use of the bridge. He favored making the bridge a one-lane span with traffic signals regulating traffic in both directions. The proposed alignment, he said, will create conflicts between drivers and bicyclists.
"I know it's important from a watershed standpoint, but I'm not sure that the artificial acceleration of the timeline justifies what can be a unique and more safe treatment from a multi-modal standpoint," Riggs said just after casting the lone dissenting vote.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck also suggested a modification: Widen the Newell Road Bridge but install traffic signals to slow down cars. The existing bridge's narrowness is effectively a "speed bump," Alcheck said, and widening it will have the effect of speeding cars along.
"It will likely encourage faster passage over the bridge," Alcheck said.
But he ultimately agreed with the majority of the commission, which backed the preferred alternative in the environmental analysis. Commissioner Asher Waldfogel observed that the project has taken "a long time to germinate" and urged moving it forward. Commissioner Doria Summa agreed.
"I do think this is a very good compromise for a project that involves multiple cities and multiple agencies," Summa said. "I want to see it go forward as soon as possible."
Once the EIR is approved, the city will draw up construction plans and obtain environmental permits with the various regulatory agencies. The city will also apply for federal funding, which is expected to cover about 88.5% of the estimated $8.5 million construction cost. If things go as planned, construction could begin as early as summer 2020, Jeremias said.
The Wednesday hearing was the first of four scheduled public hearings on the Newell Road Bridge project. Upcoming meetings will take place on June 18 (7 p.m. at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road), June 19 (7:30 p.m. in the East Palo Alto Council Chambers, 2415 University Ave.) and on July 18 (8:30 a.m., Palo Alto City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.).