If you're like many local drivers, the words "Willow Road" may conjure flashbacks of time spent in powerless gridlock trying to get on and off U.S. 101. If you're anything like this reporter, you might even have forehead bruises from periodically banging your head against the steering wheel in frustration.
You've probably asked, Can't somebody anybody do something about this?
The four-part answer to this question:
● Yes, there is a plan to address traffic problems relating to the Willow Road-101 interchange.
● Unfortunately, the plan is estimated to cost $64.4 million, with little funding promised from state and federal sources.
● Fortunately, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority recently committed $56.4 million, or about 88 percent, to fund this project.
● Unfortunately, the project is still $8 million short.
The Willow-101 interchange was built 60 years ago, and can no longer "serve the volume of traffic that moves through this interchange," said Tasha Bartholomew, spokesperson for the county transportation authority.
The plan, she said, would convert the current interchange from a full to partial cloverleaf pattern, designed to help eliminate cars weaving through traffic.
According to Joel Slavit, programming manager for the transportation authority, the new shape of the interchange will reduce the four loops to two. The design eliminates loops on which cars, over a relatively short distance, merge onto 101 and exit onto Willow Road. Those loops cause traffic to slow and create a bottleneck.
The project will replace the existing roadway where Willow Road passes over U.S. 101. The current roadway has two lanes in each direction, with an added exit lane to access the interchange.
The new roadway will have four traffic lanes in each direction, Mr. Slavit said, with carpool bypass lanes at the north and south loop onramps. Alternative transportation will be encouraged, too: a bike lane, cycle track (a separated, protected bikeway) and sidewalk will be installed in each direction on Willow Road.
To further streamline the interchange, the current off-ramps, which are diagonal, will be realigned and widened to meet Willow Road at a 90-degree angle to create a new intersection. Traffic signals and crosswalks will be installed at the new intersection.
On-ramps will have ramp meters (stop-and-go signals to regulate the frequency of vehicles entering the freeway). Finally, frontage roads will be realigned, sound walls reconstructed, and retaining walls built along off-ramps.
The changes are expected to reduce collisions and traffic queuing on U.S. 101 and Willow Road.
Once funding is secured, Ms. Bartholomew said, the construction process is expected to take two years. During that time, construction could temporarily increase traffic congestion. Caltrans, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto are working together on a plan to minimize that impact, perhaps by doing construction work during non-peak travel hours, weekends or nights, creating traffic detours, and giving advance notice of ramp closures.
The project has been in the works for years, but finding funding has been an ongoing challenge.
Funding to rebuild the interchange was approved by San Mateo County voters in 1988 as part of the Measure A sales tax ballot measure to fund transportation projects. A study on the project was completed the following year, but it was never given final approval. In May 2013, the Menlo Park City Council approved the project's design.
Though the interchange is in Menlo Park, it is under the jurisdiction of Caltrans. Ms. Bartholomew said Caltrans has financial responsibility for the state highway system, including Willow Road, but federal and state funding can be hard to come by, so local agencies often must use their own funds.
To speed the local fundraising process, Menlo Park became the sponsor of the project in June 2015. Since then, the city has taken a more active role in pushing the project along, including gathering aerial imagery of traffic congestion on Willow Road and, recently, persuading the county transportation authority to commit $56.4 million.
City officials hope the $8 million still needed might come from a California Transportation Commission's fund known as STIP, for State Transportation Improvement Program. The goal is to persuade the commission to move up by a year funds slotted for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
STIP funded earlier phases of the project, including the environmental review and design process, Ms. Bartholomew said.
Whether STIP acts to fill the gap is expected to be decided this March. If that funding comes through, the project could start as soon as this summer. If not, the project will be further delayed.
Meanwhile, for Menlo Park commuters, the best investment may be a padded steering wheel cover to double as a face cushion.