Towering weeds and grasses are blocking the line of sight of motorists trying to use freeway on-ramps and off-ramps in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, a recent tour along U.S. Highway 101 and Interstate Highway 280 shows.
The hazardous conditions are preventing drivers from seeing cars that are on conjoining merge lanes and those speeding past on the highway. The entrance to U.S. Highway 101 at University Avenue and Donohoe Street in East Palo Alto is one such example.
Two lanes feed onto the on-ramp and merge into speeding freeway traffic, but drivers can't see past the 4-foot-tall wild oat grasses hiding one of the on-ramp lanes and to gauge the speed of approaching cars.
The situation is the same at other local highway entrances and exits. Tall weeds on the Embarcadero Road exit also create a blind spot of cars barreling down the roadway. At the northbound Highway 101 exit onto Embarcadero, a screen of grasses also blocks views in an already challenging location, where merging drivers must crane necks, looking backward to see approaching traffic as they try to reach left-turn lanes across two to three lanes of traffic.
On I-280 at the Page Mill Road off-ramp, an imposing wall of tall weeds is also similarly obscuring drivers' views.
Caltrans is responsible for weed clearance, but local city leaders who've contacted the state agency about the problem said they've heard that Caltrans is short-handed.
East Palo Alto City Manager Melvin Gaines said by email that his city is concerned about multiple safety hazards created by the tall weeds.
"In addition to driver safety, we are concerned about fire risks, particularly if unhoused persons inhabit those areas. Caltrans is responsible for maintaining these areas. I personally am not familiar with how Caltrans monitors the growth of weeds and deploys crews when weeds need to be cut. When the city recognizes a need, our staff submits service tickets to Caltrans," he said.
He noted that California Department of Transportation crews appeared to be cutting the weeds at the off-ramp onto University Avenue on Wednesday, May 10.
According to a Caltrans website on roadside vegetation control, "tall grass and weeds create serious problems for motorists by decreasing visibility, block traffic signing and reducing sightlines impeding the ability to see oncoming traffic around bends in the road. This can be especially problematic on winding rural or semi-rural routes where cyclists often use the road."
During the summer months, vegetation along the road shoulders turns dry, creating ample fuel for fires. A car bottoming out, a trailer chain dragging on the road — even the friction of roadway rocks hitting other rocks on the shoulder — can send a spark into the dry weeds, igniting the next wildfire, Caltrans noted.
"Currently, crews are mowing and trimming vegetation across the Bay Area region including Santa Clara County. These past winter storms have created high weeds and grasses along our right of way. Crews are mowing, trimming and weeding on a daily basis but can't do every site simultaneously," Caltrans spokesperson Victor Gauthier said in an email.
The agency maintains more than 15,200 miles of highways and freeways throughout the state.
The city of Palo Alto's Public Works Department stated in an email that staff members have heard about vegetation problems along the freeway interchanges from city crews and from city residents. The city submits service requests on the Caltrans website at csr.dot.ca.gov and staff has also spoken to Caltrans about the weeds. Caltrans has communicated to the city that it is short-staffed and rotate crews and prioritize the work, the Public Works Department stated.
"City crews have observed Caltrans crews mowing/trimming vegetation and pruning trees at multiple locations/times since summer to date. Most recently, at 101 San Antonio exit, Caltrans crews mowed and trimmed vegetation and pruned trees quite heavily," the department stated. "Staff is aware that with the heavy winter rains coupled with the late ongoing spring rains has caused excessive regrowth of previously mowed/trimmed weeds and the city is experiencing the same problems. Due to this, we expect for weed eradication to continue through the end of June or early July."