Budget Busting Interchange Expansions on Track Despite State Funding Cuts

An expanded partial cloverleaf interchange at El Camino Real and Highway 92 (bottom) will allow more car traffic during rush hours compated to today's full cloverleaf (top) Image: Caltrans
An expanded partial cloverleaf interchange at El Camino Real and Highway 92 (bottom) will allow more car traffic during rush hours compared to today’s full cloverleaf (top) Image: Caltrans

Desperate to keep expanding San Mateo County’s highways for more auto traffic, the Transportation Authority (SMCTA)’s Board of Directors voted last week to advance $16.3 million in local highway funds to avoid delaying the construction of two major interchange reconstruction projects.

County highway planners were counting on this year’s State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) to contribute $10.4 million to rebuild the Willow Road and Highway 101 interchange, and $5.9 million to rebuild the El Camino Real and Highway 92 interchange. But lower gasoline sales taxes and revenues forced California to postpone awarding $754 million in transportation projects statewide. Rather than wait, SMCTA opted to fill the funding gap with its own surplus Measure A Highway Program funds, to be repaid by the STIP in future years.

“The advancement of funds through this process will fully fund these two projects and allow them to begin construction in late summer or early fall [of this year],” reported SMCTA Director Joe Hurley at last Thursday’s Board meeting.

Both interchange reconstruction projects are full cloverleaf to partial cloverleaf conversions, which replace free-flowing on ramps and off ramps with signalized intersections on both sides of the highway. The updated designs accommodate more rush hour auto traffic on widened ramps and reduce the hazards posed by free-flowing auto traffic to people walking or bicycling.

El Camino Real facing north at one of two new signalized intersections on either side of a reconstructed Highway 92 interchange in San Mateo. Image: Caltrans
El Camino Real facing north at one of two new signalized intersections on either side of a reconstructed Highway 92 interchange in San Mateo. Image: Caltrans

“These two [interchanges] are extremely dangerous,” said SMCTA Board member and San Mateo County Supervisor Carole Groom. “The state has a very healthy [budget] surplus. I’m very disappointed at the state of California’s decisions and it falls to us to solve a problem where our residents are at great risk.”

The new Willow Road/Highway 101 interchange, located in both Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, will include eight-foot wide bike paths and 10-foot wide sidewalks separated from auto traffic by a concrete barrier, as well as standard six-foot bike lanes integrated into auto traffic. Caltrans officials reported in 2013 that $42 million would be needed to build the partial cloverleaf design chosen. Two years later project costs had ballooned to $65 million. Final costs now total $76 million [PDF].

Caltrans made much less of an effort to follow Complete Streets principles when designing the new partial cloverleaf for El Camino Real/Highway 92 in San Mateo. Initial designs included four-foot wide bike lanes – the narrowest legally allowed in California – and only approaching the two new intersections on either side of Highway 92.

“Ideally, Caltrans would include a bicycle pocket lane with green dashed blocks in conflict zones through the entire interchange area in both directions,” wrote the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC) in a February 2014 letter [PDF]. “Caltrains allowed the County of San Mateo to adopt a similar design on Alpine Road on the Caltrans right of way in the vicinity of Highway 280.”

Caltrans found space to squeeze in five-foot standard bike lanes and eight-foot wide sidewalks in the final design. The bike lanes will be the first installed on El Camino Real in San Mateo County. The interchange will cost $22 million.

If construction on both interchanges begins later this year as expected, the new El Camino Real & Highway 92 interchange will be finished by 2018 and the Willow Road & Highway 101 interchange by 2019.

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