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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Editorial: A Sand Hill solution? Editorial: A Sand Hill solution? (August 14, 2002)

Stanford University, Menlo Park reach new agreement on major improvements to 'bottleneck bridge' and two interrelated intersections

After a lengthy political stalemate at the expense of commuters and neighborhoods suffering from spillover traffic, an agreement may be imminent on widening the infamous Sand Hill Road bridge at San Francisquito Creek and two nearby intersections.

If ultimately approved by the Menlo Park City Council, the agreement will allow Stanford to implement its vision for the Sand Hill Road corridor, following decades of controversy.

Stanford has agreed to pay for all improvements and to perform the work, leaving only an estimated maximum of $450,000 in city staff time for Menlo to cover. The total cost of the project -- estimated at about $12 million in 1997 -- is now calculated at more than $15 million. Stanford, through the Stanford Management Company, earlier offered to pay for the improvements at the lower level, and has upped its ante.

It's tempting to celebrate a successful achievement, but the decades of debate and stymied effort on these interrelated traffic bottlenecks leaves one cautious and a bit jaded. Both the full Menlo Park City Council and San Mateo County officials still need to bless it officially.

But we'd like to offer words of commendation to both Mayor Steve Schmidt of Menlo Park (whose initiative re-opened the topic last year) and to Stanford officials, who have been willing to budge a little in response to the legitimate concerns raised about the earlier plans.

Menlo Park steadfastly opposed any widening of Sand Hill Road within its jurisdiction, even after Palo Alto approved the project and work was completed last year on the Palo Alto portion.

A challenge by Menlo Park to Palo Alto's environmental impact report was rejected by the court, but Menlo officials still balked at moving forward, citing concerns about pedestrian and bicycle access, technical issues, whether Stanford would pay all the costs, and whether building such a project would unduly burden the city's staff.

The agreement covers three closely interrelated projects: (1) widening the bridge to four lanes; (2) widening and reconfiguring the Sand Hill-Santa Cruz Avenue intersection; and (3) widening and reconfiguring the intersection of Alpine Road and Junipero Serra Boulevard just around a bend.

The proposed new design will add double left turn lanes and allow simultaneous left turns from opposing lanes, sharply increasing the intersection's efficiency. The project would even improve visibility by moving back the high retaining wall on the Alpine Road curve.

The plan also includes adding handicapped ramps, at each crosswalk; an additional 4-foot-wide bike line on the southbound approach from Santa Cruz Avenue; and a new pedestrian trail that would link to a future regional trails connection.

The longtime stalemate began to loosen late in 2001 when, as mayor-elect, Schmidt initiated talks with Stanford. In the spring, council members Mary Jo Borak and Paul Collacchi -- leading opponents of the widening -- issued a set of alternatives they might consider, including one that had Stanford paying the full cost. Collacchi two years ago had said he might be willing to look at improvements if those would reduce spillover traffic onto other streets.

Although much public focus has been on the need to widen the two-lane bridge across San Francisquito Creek, blaming the bridge for the bottleneck is off target, a Menlo Park staff report noted last January: "The Sand Hill-Santa Cruz intersection is the controlling bottleneck, not the bridge," the report concluded.

Similarly, just focusing on Sand Hill Road itself is not adequate to understand the complex maze of traffic patterns between El Camino Real and Highway 280. The role of overflow or "spillover" traffic is felt on a number of Menlo Park streets, as shown in a 1999 traffic-and-land-use study.

As one of several examples, that study predicted a near-doubling of traffic on Middle Avenue by 2020 (now 6,000 to 7,000 cars per day) if nothing is done on Sand Hill. Streamlining Sand Hill traffic flow would keep the counts about the same as they now are, despite regional growth. Such spillover is an underlying motivator behind the new interest in resolving the Sand Hill bottlenecks.

The projects are due to reach the Menlo Park City Council in September, and we hope there is support for what appears to be a good solution to some knotty issues.

While we certainly can't commend this bumpy and still unfolding process as a model of problem-solving, perhaps it will yet be a case of all's well that ends well.


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