A long-awaited pedestrian-bicycle overcrossing that's expected to make for safe passage over U.S. Highway 101 at University Avenue in East Palo Alto broke ground on Friday.
The University Avenue/101 Pedestrian Overcrossing Project, which will parallel but be separate from the existing bridge, will create safe access to the east and west sides of East Palo Alto and neighboring Palo Alto after decades of separation by the busy freeway.
The $14.6 million project, which is the second of two pedestrian overpasses to join the city — the first is the Clarke Avenue bridge near the Ravenswood 101 Shopping Center — has been more than a decade in the works. It will span 12 feet widem connecting the east side along East Bayshore Road to a route in the University Circle business development near the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley.
The project has been granted $4.8 million from Measure A funds through the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, $771,000 in federal earmark funds and $1 million from the Stanford Recreation Mitigation Grant, which was approved by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. The city was recently awarded $5.7 million through Measure W and $2.3 million through the State Local Partnership Program to fill the construction funding gap. The project is scheduled to begin construction this spring and be completed by winter 2024.
"This is an unbelievably busy route for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. I'm really pleased to see this project move forward," Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who spearheaded the collaborative effort with city and county partners in San Mateo County, including the city of East Palo Alto, said in a Dec. 7 statement.
Bicyclists and pedestrians making their way across the existing University Avenue bridge are forced to walk or bike along a narrow paved walkway that has caused as many as eight crashes, two involving pedestrians and six involving bicyclists, Rep. Jackie Speier, who helped obtain the federal earmark, said during the event at University Circle. At one point, pedestrians and cyclists must walk across the southbound freeway offramp in front of vehicle traffic to reach part of the walkway.
There's a harrowing spot that is only 15 inches wide to separate cars from bicyclists and pedestrians, said East Palo Alto City Council member Carlos Romero, a regular bicyclist.
"I'm very much looking forward to not taking my life into my own hands when I cross that bridge," he said.
The existing overpass, which Romero said is perhaps the oldest crossing over Highway 101 in the county, will eventually be replaced. The upgrade could take 15 or 20 more years and would likely cost upward of $83 million — the cost the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) paid to replace the overpass at Willow Road in Menlo Park, he said.
Instead, city, county, state and federal officials came up with a replacement that would be separate from the existing bridge so that it could eventually be torn down without impacting pedestrian and bike access.
The new bridge would also open access to mothers with baby strollers and people with assisted devices such as wheelchairs as well as foot and bike traffic.
"It's putting the final stitch in putting our community together (again)," Romero said.
Mayor Ruben Abrica said when the city first formed, there was no safe way for residents on the east and west sides to interact. About 20% to 30% of the city's population lives on the west side adjacent to the Palo Alto border. The city's amenities and services, including shopping centers, City Hall, libraries, medical facilities, parks and schools, are on the east side.
The overcrossings at Clarke and University are "a symbol and reality of the great progress we have made over the last 40 years as a city," Abrica said.
Speier, who represents East Palo Alto in Congress and who has worked to help the city since her early days as a San Mateo County supervisor, said the government "has always had a terrible way of cutting up communities" through transportation projects.
"In decades past, transportation agencies didn't care if they cut up the community." But with new and safe bridge access, "we are knitting the community together again," she said.
The new overcrossing will serve generations of East Palo Altans, Vice Mayor Lisa Gauthier said, such as her 2-year-old grandson, Camden, who was holding her hand. Other city infrastructure improvements, such upgrades on Bay Road, are improving transportation around the city. The major thoroughfare was once so rutted that a person practically needed a Jeep to access parts of the road to reach Cooley Landing's open space, Gauthier said. .
The new bridge "will put East Palo Alto on the map in a new way," she said.