In East Palo Alto, Meager Bike/Ped Funding Leads to Half-Baked Safety Fixes

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The north side of the University Avenue overpass over Highway 101 has no bike lane and a four-foot sidewalk. Pictured: Brent Butler, East Palo Alto Planning Manager, leads Streetsblog on a tour of the area. Photo: Bryan Goebel.

East Palo Alto was recently awarded $5 million to build a freeway off-ramp designed a decade ago that even the city’s traffic engineer admits is no longer needed because traffic volumes are down. But as part of the project, the north section of the University Avenue overpass — a treacherous but often necessary route for East Palo Alto residents who bike and walk — would be widened to expand the skinny sidewalk to twelve feet and add a five-foot bike lane.

“I’m not crazy about the off-ramp, and I see little benefit, in my opinion, but it’s a package that we have to do together,” said Kamal Fallaha, East Palo Alto’s traffic engineer. “We need the widening for the pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Bike advocates not only take issue with the off-ramp, they say the proposed improvements for bike riders and pedestrians fall far short of what’s needed. They’re concerned the approaches to both sides of the bridge — which have no bike lanes and narrow sidewalks — would not be improved as part of the project. Nor would the south side of the overpass.

“We are about to spend $5 million for a tiny reduction in motorist travel times but cannot even provide decent pedestrian and bicycle accommodation at a place with very high ped and bike traffic volumes,” said Andrew Boone, a bicycle advocate who lives in East Palo Alto and helped start the Peninsula Transportation Alternatives blog.

Alex Fabrikant, a bike commuter who also lives in East Palo Alto, “avoids the bridge like the plague” and was disappointed the south side “would be just as terrible,” he said. ”It feels like the kind of improvement that would be a small step forward but it won’t radically change the biking patterns until both directions are covered.”

The story of why this critical project treats safety as an afterthought highlights major shortcomings in the way regional and state agencies plan, fund, and build improvements for walking and biking. Stingy safety funds from the county’s transportation authority and the rigidness of Caltrans have conspired to stymie a common-sense approach to what should be a simple task: Providing a safe passage for people to walk and bike across Highway 101.

A diagonal southbound off-ramp from Highway 101 to University Avenue that would take drivers to Palo Alto is the next phase of a “cooperative agreement” struck with Caltrans nine years ago, before the plush University Circle office and hotel complex was built. As part of the agreement, the University overpass will be widened and the accommodations for walking and biking improved on the north side. Until now, the city has not had funding for the off-ramp/overpass package, said City Council Member Carlos Romero, a bike rider who braves the University overpass daily.

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Photo: Google Maps

The San Mateo County Transportation Authority’s (TA) governing board approved the grant for the off-ramp and bridge widening project as part of the agency’s Measure A highway fund program in early October. It would be leveraged with a $2 million federal grant awarded way back in 2003, which East Palo Alto is in danger of losing if it doesn’t build the “shovel ready” project soon, said Romero.

While it would improve conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians, the curved overpass would be widened primarily because Caltrans concluded it was necessary to improve sight distance for motorists on the off-ramp, said Fallaha. The city also applied for Measure A highway funds to expand the south side of the overpass to add a 5-foot bike lane, at a cost of $1 million, but because there was no perceived benefit to motorists, Fallaha said, the TA denied the funding. He tried to convince Caltrans to allow a buffer next to the bike lane on the north side, but that too was rejected.

As Fallaha sees it, building the off-ramp is the city’s only opportunity to make immediate improvements to the overpass (a new overcrossing for cyclists and pedestrians is in the works, but it’s a few years away from completion), given the competitive and time-consuming process to get funding. ”If we don’t approve the off-ramp, we will not have that $5 million,” Fallaha said, adding that 70 percent of the project’s cost is to widen the bridge.

Fallaha pointed out that the Peninsula’s 20 cities vie for money from the two small pots of funding available for bicycle and pedestrian projects that the TA and the City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) make available. At the TA, more than $5.8 million was divided between 19 bicycle and pedestrian projects this year, compared to $104 million available for highway and other street improvements to benefit motorists.

A growing number of transportation agencies are starting to incorporate “complete streets” standards into their funding requirements, which would encourage walking and biking to be accommodated as a matter of course, but that is something the TA is still trying to figure out, said spokesperson Jayme Ackerman. A strategic plan adopted for Measure A, a sales tax measure for transit and transportation projects first approved by voters in 2004, targets bicycle and pedestrian projects to receive 3 percent of funds, according to the pie chart on the TA’s website.

Conceivably, under a complete streets policy, approval would have been easier to secure for bike and pedestrian improvements on the south side of the overpass.

“We’re really in the throes right now of wrestling with how do we make complete streets a part of our evaluation process, and is there an opportunity to do that based on the constraints that we face with the authorizing language for the measure,” Ackerman told Streetsblog.

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University Avenue and Donohoe Street, described by East Palo Alto officials as the city's most congested and dangerous intersection. A project to widen the overpass will provide more walking and biking space on the bridge, but includes nothing to improve safety at this intersection. Photo: Bryan Goebel

Meanwhile, local advocates insist the current design is insufficient. Boone of the Peninsula Transportation Alternatives blog said East Palo Alto should halt the project until the intersections are covered. “East Palo Alto should not pursue this project until its design is modified to include a sidewalk that is of consistent width and to include a bike lane all the way from Donohoe to Woodland,” he said, referring to the local streets on either side of the bridge.

As for the off-ramp, Norm Picker, a bike advocate who’s lived in East Palo Alto for 28 years, doesn’t see any value in building a new diagonal ramp giving drivers a straighter path from the highway to local streets, and prefers the current loop off-ramp.

“I am personally very disappointed in that and I’ve voiced that, even in the last year. I’ve been told that the plan is frozen and the design approved a decade ago and we’re committed to doing it and it can’t be changed,” Picker told Streetsblog. ”I feel like the current configuration is working really well. It’s a very natural, nice way to stop cars at a stoplight and make the turn and then they proceed onto the road. The other way I’m basically envisioning cars whipping off the freeway at high speed.”

Fallaha said off-ramp drivers wouldn’t be able to merge freely onto University because the intersection would be signalized. He agrees the intersections need to be improved but says the city lacks sufficient funding. The city plans to direct its applications for bike/ped funding to a new bike/ped overcrossing it wants to build.

Romero, who is leaving the council this month after deciding not to run for re-election, said he “could never get the city to look at a redesign, and that may have indeed been one of my failings on the council.” But he feels like the current plan is the best the city can do for now, offering some improvement for bike riders and pedestrians who currently risk their lives crossing the bridge.

“I’m at this point kind of resigned to say yeah, we need to do this project for the safety of our community. It could be better, but I’m not sure I would live to see it improved anymore than what we have on the books.”

The off-ramp and widening project is not a done deal, however. The East Palo Alto City Council must vote to accept the TA grant, and it’s been scheduled for a vote at its December 18th meeting.