For Ana Uribe-Ruiz, a resident of Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood, the last few days have been colored with a hellish sense of entrapment. Her neighborhood, already prone to swarms of cut-through commuters during peak hours, she says, has become completely gridlocked between the hours of 3:30 and 7 p.m.
She attributes the worsened gridlock to the Nov. 6 installation of temporary traffic signals that were installed at the Willow Road and U.S. 101 interchange, which is currently being rebuilt by Caltrans. Permanent traffic signals at the interchange are planned for installation as part of the final project.
Over the week, she's had to miss classes because she couldn't leave her neighborhood. Her driveway has been blocked completely by cars trying to get onto Willow Road, and when she did leave her driveway, it took her 25 minutes to travel one block, she said.
In desperation, she contacted the City Council with a request for some action to improve the situation.
Councilman Ray Mueller on Nov. 9 also asked that the matter be put on the council's agenda for its Nov. 14 meeting. A little after 2 p.m. on Nov. 10, the matter was added to the agenda as an urgency item, meaning there is as yet no staff report on the topic.
The council may consider short-term measures such as: installing "No through traffic" signs; asking the police department to increase enforcement, block off streets or divert traffic; or even increasing capacity on Willow Road, where possible, during specific commute periods, such as 4 to 7 p.m., Mr. Mueller said.
Ms. Uribe-Ruiz said that the matter can't wait until the end of the month. "I can't get out of my house," she said. "In the meantime, what do I do?"
Plus, she noted, Thanksgiving is coming and more people will be traveling in the area.
Brian Gilmer, also a resident of the neighborhood, called the worsened traffic conditions "untenable." In the middle of drafting his email to the City Council describing the worsened traffic conditions, he says his car, which was parked on the street, was hit – for the second time in two days – by a driver trying to squeeze past other cars in an effort to get onto Willow Road.
"This has never before happened to me and just indicates how drivers are in a rush and are driving dangerously," he wrote.
Mr. Gilmer grew up in the house his family now lives in, so he has spent decades in the neighborhood. He told the Almanac that the daily level of congestion he's seen in the past week is akin to what he has traditionally observed only once every six or seven months, when a really bad traffic accident happens.
He issued a challenge to the City Council: try to drive the roughly 3 miles between City Hall and the terminus of Willow Road at Bayfront Expressway, at 5 p.m., in under an hour.
"When you find that a near impossible challenge, I invite you to walk through the Willows neighborhood and observe the congestion on the residential streets and the impact it’s having on our families. If a fire truck or other emergency vehicle was needed it would take a very long time to get through," he wrote.
Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman agreed that the new signals have worsened traffic considerably. "It's taking something that was already a bad situation and making it exponentially worse," he said.
Just Thursday evening (Nov. 9), he said, a fire truck on an emergency run was trying to turn from Middlefield Road onto Willow Road and the truck got stuck for so long the sirens were turned off temporarily because there was no point to them without any traffic movement.
"It's not like we're going to say we told you so," he said. "We all knew it was going to be bad."
The project to rebuild the interchange, he said, comes with some impacts that are "predictable, but not necessarily preventable."
First responders, he said, have to take increasingly drastic measures to get to accidents, fires and medical emergencies quickly, including driving the wrong way on some roads. "That's a slippery slope," he said. "It's not conducive for our personnel, in terms of safety."
He added: "If we don't do it, there's no other way to get around."
A spokesman from Caltrans has not yet responded to requests for comment.