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November 24, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

'Complete mess' or 'total success'? 'Complete mess' or 'total success'? (November 24, 2004)

Gaffes, angry bicyclists and exploding costs haunt Palo Alto's Homer Tunnel

by Bill D'Agostino

When former Mayor Gary Fazzino drives down Alma Street by the gray tunnel currently under construction at Homer Avenue, he shakes his head in regret.

The project, Fazzino argued, was one of the biggest mistakes during his 12-year term on the City Council. He called the pedestrian and bicycle underpass a "white elephant" -- both expensive and worthless.

Fazzino said the Homer Avenue Caltrain Undercrossing Project -- as it's officially known -- shouldn't have been a priority since there are greater needs for train crossings at other intersections around town, such as Meadow Drive and Charleston Road.

He also pointed out there is already an underpass a few blocks away at University Avenue.

In recent months, the tunnel -- one of the most expensive and complex city projects in recent years -- became infamous among local bicycle advocates because of a City Council decision that forces cyclists exiting the tunnel eastbound to ride down the frenzied Alma Street, which has no bike lane.

Numerous other controversies also threaten to overshadow the project's obvious successes, including exploding costs, construction snafus, months of delays and an unlawful traffic signal.

"Obviously some unanticipated problems have emerged," Fazzino said. "Now it looks like a complete mess."

It's the kind of "Only in Palo Alto" tale that occasionally haunts city administrators, who expeditiously won both a series of competitive grants and tricky approvals from other agencies, only to watch the project get caught up in a three-hour City Council debate about a historic, but obscure, nearby pillar.

After more than a decade of planning and fretting, the Homer Tunnel -- 140 feet long, 18 feet wide -- is currently scheduled to open by the end of the year. City officials are divided in their assessments of the project. Some, like Fazzino, call it "a complete mess" while others dub it "a total success."

The tunnel is designed to connect the bike and pedestrian paths near the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Stanford University and Palo Alto High School to downtown Palo Alto.

It was first proposed when the medical foundation began moving from its former home on the downtown side of Homer Avenue to its current home on El Camino Real.

Over the years, the estimated cost slowly crept higher and higher. When the City Council gave its initial approval in 1998, it was estimated to be only $2.3 million -- a price tag that ultimately ballooned to $5.4 million.

But the added burden was never shouldered by the city's budget. City staffers pat themselves on the back by noting the construction was almost entirely funded by numerous state, regional and federal grants. The medical foundation also contributed $300,000; the Sheraton Hotel added $50,000.

"It so often happens that council members and city staff hear the siren song of matching dollars and private support for projects and, because of that fact, move otherwise unimportant or unnecessary projects to the top of the list," Fazzino said.

For all the problems the project has overcome, though, it might not have been possible -- and certainly would have been exponentially more expensive -- had the city not timed it to coincide with last winter's weekend closure of the Caltrain tracks, which were used to make the improvements needed for the new Baby Bullet trains.

The Homer Tunnel will have two main functions, according to Chief Transportation Official Joe Kott. It will be an economic boon to downtown because the employees from the medical foundation will again regularly eat and shop there; it will also be a vital link between the bicycle and pedestrian paths in the two regions.

"The more interconnections we have, the more convenient biking and walking are," Kott said.

The Homer Tunnel will be a major improvement over the nearby University Avenue underpass, which is used by cars, bicyclists and pedestrian and, as a result, is noisy, smelly and has thorny traffic patterns, he argued.

"It's not very pleasant," Kott said. "We all know that."

City reports list reason after reason why, year after year, the projected cost of the underpass rose.

The primary rationale? The difficulty of building under an active train line.

"What seems like a simple tunnel under the tracks is mind-bogglingly complex," Kott said. "When you start digging, you're not always sure of what you'll find and if what you'll find will require mitigations. With rail lines, like highways, there's not always good documentation about what's there."

In January 2002, the original 1998 estimate of $2.3 million was revised -- after some initial investigation -- to around $4 million. Some of that increase was due to the fact that Caltrain was demanding the tunnel be longer to accommodate potential new train tracks.

By then, the city had already been promised $2.3 million in outside funds.

But, to ensure those grants, the city faced intense deadline pressures to get various approvals from numerous state and regional agencies. A major obstacle was overcome when, in August 2002, the city received an OK from the California Public Utilities Commission. Such approval usually takes one year, but Palo Alto got it in two months, allowing the project to continue on track.

"There were a lot of hurdles just to get the project done on time," Senior Engineer Elizabeth Ames said.

Pressure from those agencies, though, was one reason the city was forced in April 2002 to shelve a cheaper construction method -- a switch that drove the estimated cost up to $4.8 million. Over the next few months, the project added another $250,000 to raise the railroad tracks by one foot to reduce the ramp length and "provide a safe, inviting and a more visible undercrossing. There was also a desire to put in a bicycle-only traffic signal and a requirement to relocate fiber-optic telecommunication lines found underground.

The exploding cost eventually had an effect on the underpass' aesthetics. When the contractor put in a $600,000 bid higher than the city's estimate in July 2003, the project's art budget had to be correspondingly reduced, forcing the removal of medallions, LED lighting, two of six skylights, and other features.

Then there was the case of "the monument," a marker that historically designated the end of the Homer Avenue on Alma Street.

Even though the 3.5-feet by 6-feet white pillar wasn't deemed all that historically significant, the city's Historic Resources Board still wanted it maintained at its then current location. In December 2002, the City Council asked for it to be moved further away, after a contentious three-hour discussion.

"Put all these things together and you quickly move from an optimistic planning level to a real 'Palo Alto estimate' to actually build the thing," Kott said.

During a City Council meeting three years ago, Councilwoman Hillary Freeman asked a question that --in retrospect -- seems obvious: How will bicyclists exiting eastbound from the Homer Tunnel continue safely on their way?

Homer Avenue is a two-lane, one-way road aiming westbound while the perpendicular Alma Street is a thoroughfare that claims to have a 25 miles-per-hour speed limit but in reality is much faster and more chaotic.

Even though the Homer Tunnel was planned for a decade, city transportation officials only brought the dilemma before the City Council two months ago.

The elected officials had the option of constructing a "contraflow" bike lane on Homer Avenue, so named because it would have gone against "the flow" of the street's auto traffic. However, that option would have taken away eight parking spaces in a section of town that already has too few. Businesses, especially Ole's Car Shop, complained.

The council, on a 5-3 vote, decided instead to rely on the timing of the intersection's traffic signal so bicyclists would have 20 seconds to ride on Alma Street with all cars theoretically stopped. Even though transportation officials insisted that option was safe, it left bicycle advocates angry.

"As someone who advocates for students bicycling to school, I would not be comfortable advocating students use it" to go downtown, said Audrey Alonis, the traffic safety representative for Palo Alto High School's PTA. "It is a pretty expensive project. Unfortunately, it just hasn't been executed in a way that makes it fully safe for them to use that to get from the bike path to downtown or Downtown North."

Ironically, Council members Jack Morton, Dena Mossar and Yoriko Kishimoto -- consistent Homer Tunnel supporters and the council's three most avid bicyclists -- voted in favor of the "contraflow" bike lane.

"If we solve the exit problem, I think it will be, very much, a benefit to the community," Morton said of the underpass. "We don't have all that many track crossings."

City transportation officials, who argued against the bike lane, said last week they might eventually advocate for the lane's inclusion. But Kott noted they wanted to first see how the less severe measure -- using only the signals -- would work before recommending a more extreme solution.

Part of the dilemma, Kott has noted, was that when the project was initially designed, there was an expectation that both Homer and Channing avenues would turn into two-way roads. But that transformation has been on hold for years, primarily because of concerns about Whole Foods, located one block away from the tunnel.

If Homer Avenue were turned into a two-way road, some city officials argue, delivery trucks wouldn't have enough space to park in front of the grocery store.

Since construction on the underpass began last summer, the project has seen a few construction snafus. The most egregious came last winter when the contractor installed the foundation's metal piles unevenly.

That forced the city to again redesign the project and caused the opening to be delayed by a few months. Ames, who oversaw the project for the Public Works Department, said she once again had to get rapid approval for the project's design from all the related state agencies.

But Ames dismissed the problem as a major concern, saying it was covered by the project budget's $400,000 contingency fund. The reason the contractor installed the piles unevenly, she noted, was because Caltrain reneged on an offer to close both train tracks during its own construction. Instead, the city had access to only one track during the winter and spring evenings.

"Given the environment out there, I don't think it was a total flop," Ames argued.

The project is now facing additional delays due to rainy weather and handrails that are on back order. The city originally scheduled the project for an August 2004 completion. Ames now hopes it will open by the end of the year.

Earlier this month, city officials discovered a gaffe of a different sort: the laws governing the bicycle-only traffic signals, a device that officials hoped would help bicyclists maneuver the intersection at Alma Street, expire at the end of the year.

The city's proposed solution is to use the pedestrian light to give bicyclists time to maneuver the Alma Street while waiting for the bike-light law to be renewed. Members of the Palo Alto Bicycle Advisory Commission said they were not disappointed with that answer.

"It was more of an embarrassment for city staff than anything else," said chair Paul Goldstein, Mossar's husband. The bicyclists had mixed emotions about the bicycle-only signals at first, anyway, since -- according to the expiring law -- bicyclists cannot ride when the car light is green but the bike light is red, he noted.

Goldstein will use the tunnel on a daily basis to travel from his home in the South of Forest Avenue are to his job at Stanford University Although he is disappointed with the City Council's decision not to place the "contraflow" bike lane on Homer Avenue, he's excited for it to open soon.

"I just so badly want that to be in there and to start experiencing the connectivity," Goldstein said.

Recalling the catalog of delays and problems, Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg -- who voted against the project at one juncture -- said she expects the Public Works Department to ask for more money to finish the tunnel.

Kleinberg said she'd accept any such request because it's too late to reject the project now.

"I hate people who say 'I told you so,' and I won't say that," she said. "I wish I had been wrong but ... we are in a bad place. In order to get out of it, it's going to cost us money and it's going to cost us time."

Ames said she isn't planning to go back to the council for more money. Despite everything, she called the project "a total success."

"I think it was a total success because of the obstacles to get the project approved," she said. "Every project is not perfect, but this one -- overall -- went well."

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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