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.