SMCTA: East Palo Alto Can’t Use Highway Money for Safe Crossing at Less Cost

East Palo Alto wants to save money and build a ped/bike bridge over Highway 101 at the University Avenue interchange, but the SMCTA says it can’t use its highway grant for that. Image: AECOM

East Palo Alto is the latest city to be prohibited by the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (TA) from using highway funds to build a bike and pedestrian bridge across a highway.

In this case, city planners actually found a way to cut costs on a planned ramp expansion at the Highway 101 interchange at University Avenue and use the savings to build an overcrossing for people on foot and bike. But according to East Palo Alto officials, the TA insists that its $5 million Highway Program grant must be spent primarily on highway lanes — not safe highway crossings.

Rather than build a new off-ramp, the city wants to add a second right turn lane to its existing off-ramp, which would move cars at least as quickly, according to a 2014 traffic study. (A note of clarification: This project is separate from the bike/ped bridge planned to the south of the University interchange, at Newell Road and Clarke Avenue.)

“The TA feels that the funding for Measure A highway operations is not flexible and cannot be used towards ped/bike improvements,” East Palo Alto Senior Engineer Maziar Bozorginia wrote in an email to Streetsblog. “The City believes that by providing a safer ped/bike route through this section, it would help to reduce conflicts and congestion on the highway system.”

With the money saved from forgoing construction of a new highway ramp, East Palo Alto could build a new bike/ped bridge. The rest of the funds for the interchange project would come from a $1.8 million federal grant awarded to the city in 2003.

Crossing the highway, University Avenue is a double-span bridge built in 1957. Currently, the only way to cross the interchange on foot or bike is via a four-foot wide sidewalk on one of the University bridges, which is “in dire need of repair,” Bozorginia told the Public Works and Transportation Commission last Wednesday. “The infrastructure has been inadequate for a number of years.”

Despite the poor conditions, City Engineer Kamal Fallaha said the University crossing is “one of the most traveled by bicyclists and pedestrians in San Mateo County.”

AECOM, a transportation consulting firm, studied three design concepts for a new crossing that would avoid expensive reconstruction work on the two existing spans over the highway.

The concept recommended by AECOM would include a separate new ped/bike bridge on the west side of University, at an estimated cost of $7 million for design and construction.

“This is one of the projects that the TA should take on,” Fallaha said.

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