A little less than a month since Caltrans installed new traffic signals at the Willow Road/U.S. 101 interchange – and in rapid response to the debilitating congestion in the city's Willow neighborhood that has resulted – the Menlo Park City Council approved Tuesday a number of actions to address the problem.
Caltrans is rebuilding the highway interchange to widen it and convert it from a full cloverleaf (with four loops to enter and exit the highway) to a "partial" cloverleaf (with two loops), in order to give drivers more space to safely merge onto U.S. 101. But the construction is causing massive traffic delays for anyone trying to get onto Willow Road, especially at the residential cross-streets some commuters take as a shortcut to the highway or Bayfront Expressway.
The city will:
● Install signs prohibiting right turns onto Willow Road from O'Keefe, Chester and Durham streets between 3 and 7 p.m. on weekdays.
● Add "Keep clear" pavement markings on Willow Road at O'Keefe, Chester and Durham streets.
● Add signs prohibiting left turns from Woodland Avenue to Baywood Avenue between 3 and 7 p.m. on weekdays.
● Add signs saying "No access to Willow Road" on Laurel Avenue at Chester Street and Menalto Avenue at Chester and Green streets.
● Create a partial "bulb out" at Middlefield Road and Woodland Avenue. This will force people to slow down when turning on to Woodland Avenue, according to city staff.
● Dedicate $275,000 in funding to coordinate traffic signals along Willow Road, Bayfront Expressway and Marsh Road. The city has applied for a grant to do this, but won't know until the spring if it will be granted. Putting city funding into it will speed the process.
The council also authorized city staff to act nimbly and, in Silicon Valley parlance, use a process of "iteration," and trial and error to build on what works and scrap what doesn't.
While more specific metrics are to be determined, the goals are to reduce traffic volumes in the area and to make sure the small businesses there aren't adversely impacted, Councilman Ray Mueller said.
After hearing comments from 24 people, most of whom supported the turn restrictions, the council approved the measures 4-0, with Councilwoman Catherine Carlton absent. The topic is slated to return to the council for an update at the council's first meeting of 2018 on Jan. 16.
In the meantime, the new signs will be installed on a dedicated date to be determined, said City Manager Alex McIntyre. According to state law, the Police Department can't enforce the signals until 30 days after they're put up, Police Commander Dave Bertini said.
A number of speakers spoke in favor of right-turn restrictions farther down Willow Road, specifically banning right turns from Gilbert Avenue onto Willow Road. That option was ruled out, at least for now. According to Willows resident Brian Gilmer, the right turn prohibition might re-route commuters across Gilbert Avenue, right on Santa Monica Avenue, and then right on Coleman Avenue to return to Willow Road at the traffic light. Concerns were also raised about right turn restrictions on Durham Street: motorists might instead go straight on Durham Street across Willow Road toward the VA hospital, where they could make a U-Turn and proceed left on Willow Road.
Caltrans' project to rebuild the interchange is in the second of four phases, the last of which is expected to end in early 2019, according to Angela Obeso, Menlo Park transportation engineer.
Phases two and three, expected to last a year in total, are likely to be the worst for local traffic, she said. After the project's completion, there will be more space for cars on the interchange, so traffic won't back up into the neighborhoods as it does now, she said.
But some say that the redesigned interchange may worsen traffic conditions in the long term. Councilman Mueller pointed to an email from Gary Lauder, an Atherton transportation commissioner and longtime critic of the Caltrans Willow/U.S. 101 interchange project.
Mr. Lauder argues that the amount of traffic that the new configuration at the interchange (known as a partial cloverleaf) will accommodate will be lower than what the current full cloverleaf handles.
Mr. Lauder said in his email he feels like the Greek mythological figure Cassandra, who could see the future, but whose predictions nobody believed.
"The current nightmare will – in hindsight – be considered to be NOTHING compared to the permanent problems that will result if the present plans are carried out as planned. They don't have to be. It's not too late to go back, but the longer you wait, the greater the liability – both legally and politically."
Mr. Mueller said he wanted to talk to Caltrans about changing it to the interchange's original configuration as a full cloverleaf.
Mr. Cline said he's done some research of his own and come to different conclusions. "Everything I research disputes that these (partial cloverleaf interchanges) are failures," he said, adding he was "uncomfortable" asking an engineer to make the project back into a full cloverleaf pattern.
The council agreed to invite Caltrans to respond to questions regarding the project's capacity to handle traffic.
During the council's discussion, there was a frank acknowledgment among several council members that much of the traffic on Willow Road is coming from Palo Alto.
"I think we're carrying an unnecessary burden of Palo Alto's traffic," Councilman Rich Cline said. "I do think (a) discussion with our neighbors needs to become more serious."
When he was mayor in years past, he said, he had tried talking to Palo Alto officials about traffic problems. "They laugh. They say 'Good luck with that,'" he said.
He suggested the possibility of cutting off access to Willow Road from Palo Alto, at least temporarily, "until they sober up." "Nothing's going to stop until we work together on it," he said.
As Menlo Park's mayor this year, Kirsten Keith said that she has talked to the mayors of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. She said she's been pushing to have changes made in other choke points between Menlo Park and Palo Alto.
She has called for the elimination of the Palo Alto barriers that prohibit motorists from driving across El Camino Real from Sand Hill Road onto Alma Street. Regarding the Willows area congestion, she suggested the city install a stop sign at the intersection of Middlefield Road and Woodland Avenue. That way, she said, when traffic invariably backs up, it will be a Palo Alto problem.
Councilman Ray Mueller pointed to yet another place where Palo Alto's traffic problems leak into Menlo Park: near each of the foot bridges. He said that Palo Alto's downtown parking program "does not work," and that employees in downtown Palo Alto park their cars on the Menlo Park side of the pedestrian bridges and walk downtown from there.
Editor's Note: The story has been revised to further explain the implications of the right-hand traffic restrictions. A previous version of this story inaccurately indicated that the VA Hospital was opposite Gilbert, rather than Durham avenue.