It took far more time and money than anyone had expected, but construction is finally ready to launch on Palo Alto's bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101, with the City Council approving on Monday $15.5 million in contracts for the long-awaited overpass.
The bridge, which is the most ambitious project in the city's 2012 bike and pedestrian master plan, will provide south Palo Alto residents year-round access to the Baylands at Adobe Creek. It will replace the existing underpass, which is typically only open from April to October, and create a new entry for both nature lovers and employees at Google and other companies headquartered around East and West Bayshore roads in Palo Alto and Mountain View.
Originally envisioned as a $10 million project, the costs have roughly doubled since 2014, when the council released its list of infrastructure priorities. Today, it stands at about $20 million, which includes the roughly $3.5 million that the city spent on the design process, the $13.8 million construction contract with Granite Construction and a $1.7 million with Zoon Engineering for construction management. If staff salaries and benefits are considered, the price tag is about $23 million, according to Public Works staff.
"When a project takes this long, we really pay for it in the end," said Councilwoman Liz Kniss, an early champion of the bridge who in her earlier role as a Santa Clara County supervisor helped land $4 million in county funding for the structure.
Initially envisioned as an iconic structure with a "Wow!" factor, the bridge had since been scaled back to account for growing costs. In 2014, the city invited architectural teams to participate in a design contest, which resulted in a winning design that staff later deemed too expensive to execute within the budget. In December 2015, the city terminated its negotiations with the winning engineering firm, Moffatt & Nichol, and pivoted to a more standard bridge design.
Despite some reservations about the growing costs, the council voted 6-0, with Vice Mayor Adrian Fine absent, to approve the contracts with Granite and Zoon. With the approvals, construction is set to begin in January and be completed around May 2021.
The new bike bridge will cost about $7 million more than the one East Palo Alto recently constructed at Clarke Avenue. While one reason for the discrepancy is the length of the Palo Alto bridge (it is 22% longer than the one in East Palo Alto), the city's long and involved review process also contributed to the higher price tag. East Palo Alto spent $1.1 million on design work, less than three times what Palo Alto had spent.
The biggest factor, however, remains the hot construction market, which has significantly raised the costs of all infrastructure projects. Given these conditions, council members agreed that waiting longer will only drive costs even higher.
"It seems to me that our space of choices here is fairly constrained," Mayor Eric Filseth said. "If we don't do this now, it makes no sense to try again in six months because construction costs will continue to escalate. Every month that goes by, it's going to get harder to close this gap."
It helps that the city is receiving about $9 million in funding from outside sources. In addition to the $4 million in county funds, the project is benefitting from another $4.35 million from the One Bay Area Grant program distributed by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and a $1 million pledge from Google.
Even with the escalating construction costs, council members agreed that the bridge remains an important, exciting project, one that will both enhance the city's recreational offerings and allow it to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The steel structure will include concrete ramps connecting to trailheads and the Adobe Creek Reach Trail.
Councilwoman Alison Cormack called the approval of the contract a "bittersweet moment," noting that the project now costs $4 million more than it did in the last estimate. Even so, she said she and her neighbors have been waiting "a very, very long time."
"It's no longer mythical. If it's not there next year, it will be there the year after. I can't wait to ride my bike on it," Cormack said.
"I wish it weren't as expensive as it is. I wish we'd moved more expeditiously. That was yesterday; this is today. And this is the time to move forward," Kniss said.