Repairs planned for flood-prone Oregon Expressway underpass | December 7, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 7, 2012

Repairs planned for flood-prone Oregon Expressway underpass

Human error, malfunctioning equipment said to be behind the busy roadway's problems

by Sue Dremann

The flooding that shut down the Oregon Expressway underpass at Alma Street twice in the past week due to heavy rainstorms is prompting county engineers to take a deeper look into repairing what has been a persistent problem this winter.

The roadway was closed on Wednesday, Nov. 28, and Sunday, Dec. 2, after a series of storms dumped several inches of rain in the Bay Area, caused power outages and felled trees, making a mess of roadways and causing traffic delays throughout the region. On Sunday, a tow truck had to remove a car that stalled in the water and was immersed up to its hood.

On Dec. 5, another storm filled the underpass with several inches of water at the height of the morning commute. The roadway wasn't shut down, according to Palo Alto police, but drivers headed west veered into the less-flooded left lane to avoid the deep water.

The Oregon Expressway underpass is under the jurisdiction of the Santa Clara County Roads and Airports Department, according to Linda Clerkson, a city spokeswoman. The county was notified by the city Dec. 5 morning about condition at the underpass, she said.

Because the roadway is sunken, water collects in it and must be pumped out. Pumps detect when the water reaches a certain level and turn on to divert the water to the nearby creek.

Dan Collen, deputy director of county Roads and Airports, said the Nov. 28 flooding incident was due to human error. A worker incorrectly set equipment that controls the drainage.

Wednesday's flooding was caused by an electrical-equipment failure. Crews rebooted the computer and tested the equipment to make sure it was running properly again. But workers discovered that a circuit that tells the pumps to start working needs to be replaced. Collen said repairs should be completed by Thursday or Friday. He said the water was pumped out by 9:30 a.m.

Flooding at the underpass has been a problem during other large storms. Oregon Expressway was closed due to flooding in January 2008, and one lane of Oregon was closed due to 5 to 7 inches of water in October 2009.

The underpass is not part of a county plan to improve Oregon Expressway from West Bayshore Road to Bryant Street, which is designed to improve traffic flow. Collen said funding is in place for that work, and the plans are ready to go. The Roads and Airports Department is awaiting an environmental clearance from Caltrans so that work can begin.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2012 at 10:06 am

I got caught on Alma in that yesterday and with the tailback from the Churchill left turn lane traffic was pretty much gridlocked on Alma NB.

We don't get many rainy days, but when we do they cause huge traffic problems around town.

I imagine tardiness at Paly for first period yesterday was high - teachers and students alike!

Posted by Knee-Deep-In-Water, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2012 at 10:43 am

You'd think that there would be at least redundancy built into the control device for the pumps. And there isn't any reason that a remote monitoring/control capability shouldn't be provided for this system, too.

The flooding at this tunnel is infrequent, but the impact on traffic in Palo Alto is significant. Let's hope that the County does the job right, this time.

The City Council should invite the Country Engineers to address the Council when they finish their work, to explain what happened, and how they believe they have fixed the problem for the years to come.

Posted by david, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 6, 2012 at 10:49 am

I once skidded upon braking in this underpass (good tires, light rain, not excessive speed). I wonder if others have had this problem.

Posted by resident, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2012 at 12:31 pm

I live a couple of blocks from this underpass and drive through there all the time. The curved approaches, limited sight lines, narrow lanes, multiple hidden on and off ramps, and frequently wet pavement confuse a lot of drivers. I always slow down to 25mph (or less). I've seen enough car crashes to know better than to speed through there.

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Since I have been here in Palo Alto since 1969 this damn underpass always floods. I cannot believe this happens so fast that no one in the entire city can manage it or get on the problem fast enough to prevent cars from getting stuck under there.

What incredible incompetence ... 40 years and still this is a problem.

Is there any issue on which the Palo Alto city management gets it right ? Ever ?

Can someone run some alarms or videos to the central police dispatch or something - and then monitor it and DO SOMETHING ? This never seems to happen to Embarcadero ... but then there is probably less water flowing into it.

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2012 at 4:07 pm

An we better be damn careful or the City of Palo Alto government is liable to want to put a nuclear reactor down there when they see that pumps don't work ! /SARCASM-MODE

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 6, 2012 at 5:56 pm

ok, ok, it IS a problem - a hassle and a safety issue. It should be fixed. That underpass has been there for something like 50 years?! Sometimes, irrespective of weather, traffic is really bad on Oregon and that is a major artery through the City of PA and it should function more smoothly in all regards.

Posted by WilliamR, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 6, 2012 at 6:23 pm

@ Anon--

If you would actually read the article, you would see that the Oregon underpass is under the jurisdiction of Santa Clara County, not the City of Palo Alto. But that would take all the fun out of bashing the City, wouldn't it?

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 6, 2012 at 6:28 pm

It floods because it is below the water table, and has been for 40 years. Fighting Mother Nature is a losing battle (ask the Army Corps of Engineers). This is a bad design, and the pumps and controls will never work 100% of the time that you need them. This is not incompetence, it is reality.

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 6, 2012 at 6:42 pm

WilliamR ... I don't look at it as fun and at least I am trying to use a little humor.And I don't care if it is under the county, after 50 years someone somewhere needs to step up and make noise about a chronic problem. This is really ridiculous, someone in the city, or the county, or wherever needs to do something to catch this multiple ways so at the very least it gets blocked off in a flood when it starts to flood.

Posted by Mike, a resident of University South
on Dec 6, 2012 at 11:32 pm

Just close the underpass and divert Oregon traffic to Alma. After a week or two, people will find ways to avoid the area and traffic will return to normal.

Posted by Wendy, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 7, 2012 at 8:51 am

This flooding issue has been going on for 40 years or more. Why wait till now to try and resolve it? The problem could have been taken care of long ago at a smaller cost than it will cost now. Who was the bright person to finally decide that this issue needs to be taken care of??

Posted by 40daysand40nights, a resident of Community Center
on Dec 7, 2012 at 1:14 pm

This underpass was a nightmare back in the 1998 Super El Niño flood year. Many, many times that spring it was flooded and some dingbat would try to drive through it and then get stuck. Back then, the city said "never again", but it has flooded repeatedly in 2002, 2006, ,2008, and 2009.

What in the world has taken so long?? Didn't the city clue the county in twelve years ago? Just what repairs need to be done to fix this hazard permanently? Maybe this requires legal action

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 8, 2012 at 1:08 pm

WilliamR, I think it is pretty tough for PA citizens to "contact the county" and get action - we NEED the city of PA to contact their colleagues in county government. I would have no idea where to go to complain in all that county bureaucracy. I remember going down to that large county building once - an impressive bureacratic setup.
The fact that this major boulevard floods periodically should have been dealt with - I don't know about the specifics of the pumps, original design, and all, but I do know I pay a lot of taxes.

Posted by enough, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 8, 2012 at 2:26 pm

If they closed Oregon Expressway then everyone would walk or bike. Problems solved. then we can become the leading bike city in the USA. After Oregon we can close Middlefield, San Antonio and Embarcadero--no more traffic problems in PA.

Posted by Robbie, a resident of Ventura
on Dec 8, 2012 at 9:06 pm

This is a problem that needs engineers, not lawyers.

Posted by Cindy, a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Does anyone of you know how I can findvout what time EXACTLY Oregon Expressway was closed on Dec 2?

Posted by splash, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 9, 2012 at 6:44 pm


You should contact the Weekly for a time stamp of the photo.

WilliamR - would you know if the related traffic, or safety issues are also "under the jurisdiction of Santa Clara County?"

You seem to know enough about this issue, you think the City will never do anything about it?

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