After more than two decades of anxiety and frustration, residents around the volatile San Francisquito Creek could finally see improvements next year, when the Newell Road Bridge finally gets replaced, paving the way for other flood-control projects in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
But as the three cities prepare to hit the construction phase, officials are confronting fresh challenges, including unpredictable creek behavior that may require modification of plans and a funding gap currently estimated at about $17 million, according to the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, a collaboration of cities and water districts that has been working on improving flood control.
On top of that, the cities are still working to overcome the objections of residents, which are delaying the project, including the refusal of three property owners on Edgewood Drive in Palo Alto to allow the creek authority to enter their properties to conduct survey work and identify easement needs.
"We anticipate that some of these properties will negotiate access agreements, and for others we may need to proceed with a legal process to gain access for survey work," a new report from Margaret Bruce, executive director of the creek authority, states.
On Thursday, March 9, Bruce provided an overview of proposed work on what is known as the "Reach 2" area, which stretches between Newell Road and the Pope-Chaucer Bridge (the creek authority had already completed the "Reach 1" phase, which focused on improvements in the particularly vulnerable area downstream of the U.S. Highway 101). The suite of projects in Reach 2 includes the replacement of both bridges, widening of the creek channel to boost water capacity and improving flood walls on top of the creek in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.
The creek authority originally estimated the Reach 2 projects would cost $47.9 million, which includes $9 million to replace Newell Bridge, $11.3 million for Pope-Chaucer Bridge, $23.2 million for channel widening and $4.5 million for repairing floodwalls downstream of the Newell Road Bridge, near East Palo Alto. The overall cost, however, has shot up to $65 million and the Newell Road project now has an estimated price tag of $15 million.
The funding challenges are not necessarily insurmountable. The Newell Bridge project is being largely funded by the state Department of Transportation, which had committed to footing 88.5% of the project's original price tag of $9.1 million. Holly Boyd, Palo Alto's assistant Public Works director, said the city is preparing to ask Caltrans for additional funding as well as an updated schedule, given that the state agency had earmarked the spending for fiscal year 2026.
For residents like Dick Held, the improvements can't come soon enough. The Palo Alto resident saw water flow into his yard and seep into his bathroom during the major flood on New Year's Eve. One of his neighbors, a 93-year-old woman who lives alone, remains frightened when she hears about another upcoming storm. Another neighbor had spent $4,000 to clean mud out of her home after New Year's Eve.
"We just have reason to question the existence of any — after 25 years — sense of urgency on the part of the government in addressing the issue," Held told the board on Thursday.
Eduardo Pelegri-Llopart, a resident of The Willows neighborhood in Menlo Park, shared his sentiment and also chided the creek authority for its "lack of a sense of urgency."
"I suspect part of it is the rotating people involved in this process," Peligri-Llopart said, referring to recent changes in the board's composition.
The meeting turned tense after one of the new members, Rebecca Eisenberg, who is representing the Santa Clara Valley Water District, began to express her reservations about the Newell Bridge design, the creek authority's funding plan and the impacts of the flood-control work on mature trees around the creek. She also said she does not see how the creek widening can be done without eminent domain — notwithstanding assertions from the creek authority that the agency only needs easements from property owners for surveys and construction work.
Eisenberg argued that the proposed Newell Bridge design may not be sufficient to address the flood threats.
"If this bridge is only made to be as wide as the existing Newell Bridge, which is causing flooding, I don't feel confident. … I think that the board really needs to look at the design because I'm hearing the community has significant objections to this," said Eisenberg, who serves as vice chair of the creek authority board.
But other board members had little appetite for reopening the design process for Newell Bridge, which was a subject of years of public hearings stretching from 2013, when eight alternatives were presented to the community, to 2020, when the Palo Alto council finally approved a design that widens and strengthens the bridge. The 1911 structure has been deemed functionally obsolete by the state Department of Transportation, which is funding the bulk of the replacement costs.
Located in the downstream area of the Reach 2 span, the Newell Road project is critical because of its role as the necessary prerequisite to all the other projects further upstream, including channel widening and replacement of the flood-prone Pope-Chaucer Bridge.
Ruben Abrica, an East Palo Alto City Council member who lives close to the Newell Bridge, said he doesn't want to spend any more time on the dais debating the design of the project. Abrica cited the long history of the project, noting that Palo Alto took the extra step of doing a full environmental impact report to address community concerns, even though such an analysis was not required for bridge replacement.
"I think that area has been reviewed very thoroughly," Abrica said. "I saw plenty of graphics, we saw all kinds of designs, we heard from the Crescent Park people, the East Palo Alto people and I'm satisfied personally that it's probably the best design that can serve both purposes, to replace the old bridge and at the same time help the JPA with the whole flood management."
Board Chair Drew Combs, who serves on the Menlo Park City Council, also took issue with Eisenberg's long sequence of questions and demands for additional information such as maps and copies of environmental impact reports. Combs interjected when Eisenberg began to ask staff about the number of mature trees that would need to be removed from the creek area as part of the Reach 2 work.
"This is the problem," Combs said. "When you get to essentially beat up on staff and suggest there is no urgency and then in one minute create this whole new scheme that you think they hadn't taken a note of. That is the problem. I'm not going to sit here, meeting after meeting, and be quiet for it."
Combs also objected later in the meeting, when Eisenberg pressed staff for more details about the impact of the work on private properties near the creek, including possible use of eminent domain to acquire properties. While Eisenberg said she doesn't see how the projects can proceed without use of eminent domain, Boyd assured her that there are no plans to take any properties through eminent domain.
"We just need to enter into agreements so we can go into the property during construction, but the improvements won't be on the property," Boyd said.
After several rounds of questioning, Combs suggested that the board "move on" while Eisenberg asserted that the overview was not the "deep dive" into the project that she had been promised.
"At some point we have to move on. … I'm not going to be here until 8 p.m., because you don't feel your question was answered," Combs said.
"These are questions from my constituents and I do not take lightly to being told that my constituents can't have their questions answered," Eisenberg responded. "I'm sorry if this is inconvenient to the chair."
Combs also took issue with comments from some residents who suggested that the creek authority is not acting with a sense of urgency. The government process, he said, requires officials to consider and address the input of many stakeholders, which takes time.
"For every voice that spoke here and said, 'This needs to go more quickly,' I can promise you I can find a voice that says this project shouldn't happen at all," Combs said. "And in some communities and some sectors you can just push them aside, but that's not how this system works."
While the projects have been in the planning phase for years, they took on fresh urgency in recent months thanks to heavy rains that have amplified flooding risks. The New Year's Eve storm resulted in erosion along the creek and forced water to spill over the banks in areas that the creek authority's models did not predict, Bruce said. To gain a better understanding of the current creek conditions, the creek board approved spending $45,000 on survey work, which will help agencies design future flood-control projects.
"Those changes in creek behavior are going to be an important guide to make sure we're designing the right project," Bruce said.
Even with uncertainties over creek condition and funding, the creek authority and its partner agencies are preparing to construct all the projects in the Reach 2 area over the next four years. Palo Alto officials hope to go out to bid on a contract to replace Newell Bridge in early 2024 and construction is expected to take about 18 months. After that, the creek authority will be able to do the rest of the projects, including the Pope-Chaucer replacement, which is slated to begin in 2026 and be completed in 2027.
Abrica said after the presentation that he is optimistic that the projects will finally get built, starting with Newell Bridge. He also stressed the need for the cities to continue to work together on flood control — an issue that is too big for any of them to tackle individually.
"The way our system is set up is — it has a lot of strengths but that's the weakness: Nobody is responsible," Abrica said. "How can you deal with nature that way? You can't. The fact that we formed this agency and have stayed together is really the only way."