How hard can it be to build a couple of bus shelters in Menlo Park?
The answer: ridiculously difficult, according to Nikki Nagaya, Menlo Park's assistant public works director.
A seemingly straightforward task to protect bus riders from the elements has been a frustratingly Kafkaesque process for Menlo Park staff. Ultimately, though, staff prevailed: there are now two new shelters installed and in operation at Market Place Park (soon to be renamed Karl Clark Park) near Alpine Avenue, and near the Onetta Harris Community Center and Menlo Park Senior Center on Terminal Avenue. A third is planned to be installed along Willow Road.
For years, the absence of bus shelters in Belle Haven was pointed to as evidence of inferior infrastructure on the eastern side of town. The neighborhood did not have any bus shelters, while there are a few shelters scattered throughout Menlo Park west of U.S. 101, clustered mainly on El Camino Real and Middlefield Road. The reason for that, according to Ms. Nagaya, is that SamTrans, the San Mateo County Transit District, controls where bus shelters are installed, and has a policy of adding them only at stops that have more than 200 riders a day, among other qualifications. She noted, though, that "it does give the appearance that SamTrans is excluding that neighborhood."
The call to build bus shelters in Belle Haven, she said, is a matter that city staff had discussed since the start of her now four-year tenure working in Menlo Park. Bus shelters, she said, are "a seemingly small thing, and it goes a long way to making the system more usable."
The first obstacle, Ms. Nagaya said, was to work around a part of the municipal code that restricts advertising along city roads. Since 2006, SamTrans has contracted with a third-party advertiser, Outfront Media, allowing the firm to post ads on bus shelters in exchange for replacing and maintaining them at no cost to SamTrans and local agencies.
But Menlo Park's code doesn't allow for advertisements on roadways. It took between two and two and a half years, Ms. Nagaya said, but eventually, the city and SamTrans reached a compromise in which the city would allow some advertising if SamTrans agreed to restrict the type of ads that would be permitted, prohibiting advertisements that are religious or political; promote the use of drugs, alcohol or tobacco; or are otherwise uncouth. The City Council approved a licensing agreement with SamTrans for the shelters in December 2016.
Next, staff had to choose where to put the bus shelters. The locations had to be at well-lit, safe bus stops with high ridership. The staff looked for city-owned land to locate them to avoid having to negotiate with private owners for an easement allowing the public to use it, which would have taken more time, Ms. Nagaya explained.
In addition, each potential bus shelter site needed to have a wide berth and leave ample sidewalk space to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and enable a wheelchair to navigate the stop comfortably.
The area needed, Ms. Nagaya said, is "much bigger than you might think. You can't necessarily install (a bus shelter) on a given street corner."
The city eventually identified three locations. The first shelter was installed at Market Place Park in July. Asphalt had to be replaced with stronger concrete to give the needed foundation for the shelter, Ms. Nagaya said.
Then, there was the waiting period of several months for the second and third shelters to be delivered. They cost about $13,000 each. The deliveries were finally made in November and the second shelter was installed near the senior center in early December.
Ms. Nagaya said the third shelter will be installed either at Hamilton Avenue or Newbridge Street near the existing bus stops.
"We never would have expected this was as complicated and challenging as it ended up being," she said.