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November 24, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Editorial: New tunnel gaffe requires safety review Editorial: New tunnel gaffe requires safety review (November 24, 2004)

Expiration of state law affecting traffic-signal setup means city needs to reconsider bike lane for safety at troubled Homer Tunnel

At long last, the problem-plagued Homer Tunnel is about to be completed and opened.

But, as has been pointed out in several recent articles and in the cover story in today's paper, the $5.4-million tunnel is more than a year behind schedule -- and it rivals the eastern span of the Bay Bridge for being over-budget, percentage-wise.

Far worse, the city has not yet resolved a terrible safety hazard for the 600 or so bicyclists projected to use the tunnel each day: Those heading east will face either the narrow lanes of Alma Street or have to ride a block going the wrong way on one-way Homer Avenue -- will survivors get moving-violation traffic tickets?

There are a good reasons for some of the ballooning cost -- Caltrains required the tunnel to be extended to make room for an extra set of tracks for future "Baby Bullet" high-speed commute trains, and there were other unfortunate delays.

The city staff also has done a commendable job in finding grant funds to pay for about half the project. Yet the scope kept leaping ahead of the staff's efforts.

But there also are many bad reasons why the city now finds itself in a quandary of having a hugely expensive underpass with a potentially unsafe exit plan at hectic Alma Street/Homer Avenue.

Bad reason number one is that the project seems to have been driven more by funding and grant opportunities than from a citywide assessment of where a bike/pedestrian tunnel is most needed -- it originated as an add-on mitigation for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation's new campus on El Camino Real, and the foundation is paying a small part of the cost.

Second, someone should have anticipated, in the year the project has been under construction, that there might be a safety problem at Alma, the narrow, traffic-clogged artery into and out downtown Palo Alto. The tunnel will open straight onto one-way Homer Avenue -- with two lanes of traffic coming head-on at exiting cyclists, who have no good way to turn.

School PTAs are now saying they will not recommend the route for students. We believe many others will also avoid it, at least heading east, reducing its usefulness and making it an even bigger boondoggle.

Inconceivably, the City Council on Sept. 27 voted 7-2 in favor of retaining eight parking spaces along Homer in lieu of a "contraflow" bike lane for one block that would provide a safer if not ideal solution to the hazardous mess that will soon exist there. The council heeded legitimate concerns from local businesses, particularly Ole's Car Shop, about loss of parking without fully exploring alternatives for finding substitute spaces.

Now it turns out there's a Jan. 1 expiration date for the state law authorizing a traffic-signal setup in which all cars are stopped for 20 seconds while cyclists and pedestrians scurry across. So the city instead must tinker with pedestrian walk/don't walk signals to try to achieve the same effect.

We don't think it will work. As we said editorially Oct. 13, the city's timid "try signals first" approach needlessly puts at risk hundreds of cyclists. It increases the city's liability because the city knowingly is creating a hazardous situation that didn't exist before. What would be the court and attorney costs of a $1 million lawsuit?

The City Council urgently needs to reconsider the safety issue in light of the latest signalization gaff -- or put off opening the tunnel until the city finds the wherewithal to fix the dangerous situation it is creating.

Editorial: Holiday Fund gifts are already arriving Editorial: Holiday Fund gifts are already arriving (November 24, 2004)

Donations to the Weekly's annual Holiday Fund -- which raises money to help programs that help children and families -- have already begun to arrive at the Weekly, a pre-Thanksgiving sign that our community spirit is alive and well.

The Weekly absorbs overhead costs, meaning 100 percent of all donations go to grants for child-related programs of local nonprofit organizations. Matching funds from local foundations also double the impact of the donations.

A fiduciary partnership with Community Foundation Silicon Valley -- combined with the Weekly's absorbing the costs of the fund drive -- means the donations are fully tax deductible.

Our goal this year is again $300,000. Please help us reach it.

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