Almanac

News - May 15, 2013

Redesigning Willow-101 interchange

Menlo Park City Council OKs design option; the project is expected to be finished by 2018

by Barbara Wood

It has been 25 years since voters approved funding to replace the outdated interchange where Willow Road meets U.S. 101 in Menlo Park, but on May 7, Menlo Park City Council members tried to finally nudge the project closer to reality by giving a nod to one of the design options suggested by the multi-agency group currently working on the interchange.

The plan favored by the City Council includes bike lanes and pedestrian walkways on the overpass, separated from vehicle traffic by a concrete barrier, as well as two-lane on- and off-ramps designed to cut back on freeway and Willow Road backups. Additional bike lanes would be next to vehicle lanes on the 162-foot-wide overpass structure.

Instead of the cloverleaf design of the current interchange, traffic would stop at signal lights before entering Willow Road.

Council member Ray Mueller said Menlo Park might even be able to use the prospect of the new interchange, which should ease traffic problems for motorists heading to Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, as a bargaining chip in trying to get Palo Alto to resolve a long-standing traffic issue. "I think it's time that we actually start having serious discussions with Palo Alto about opening up Alma to Sand Hill," he said.

Funding to replace the interchange, built in 1955, was approved by county voters in 1988 as part of the Measure A transportation fund sales tax spending plan, and a study on the project was completed the next year, but it was never given final approval. The interchange was again included in the spending plan when Measure A was renewed in 2004.

The interchange is in Menlo Park, but is under the jurisdiction of Caltrans, which worked with the city as well as East Palo Alto and C-CAG — the City-County Association of Governments in San Mateo County — on the project. C-CAG will provide much of the funding along with the Measure A transportation funds.

East Palo Alto's City Council will consider the project designs later this month, according to Menlo Park Public Works Director Chip Taylor.

Even if all goes well, the project won't be completed until 2018, according to projections. That includes a two-year construction process following environmental analysis and design work.

The design chosen by the council was developed after talking to the agencies involved as well as local neighbors and users of the roads. Considerations included how much nearby property would be affected, safety and ease of use, as well as traffic congestion.

Menlo Park's engineering services manager Fernando G. Bravo said a team of engineers not otherwise involved in the project also looked at alternatives in terms of cost, performance, construction time and risk, and favored the version supported by the City Council.

The current interchange is "not pleasant, safe or convenient for anybody right now," said Willows neighborhood resident and bicyclist Andrew Boone, who said he is "actually very pleased with" the proposed design, which does have bicyclists and pedestrians crossing vehicle traffic at traffic signals. "I think it's a good compromise," he said.

"The current cloverleaf is a transportation dinosaur from another era," said Jim Bigelow, longtime chair of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce's transportation committee. "I think you have a solution before you."

Council member Kirsten Keith urged the city to move quickly to assure it can be first in line for available C-CAG funding. "I think you really came up with a really great plan for Menlo Park," she said.

Council members unanimously approved accepting the recommended design and continuing work on the project.

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