Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Director Shiloh Ballard wrote on July 3 that the group is “not interested” in figuring out who is responsible for a two-year (and counting) delay in fixing lethal hazards that killed 52-year-old Palo Alto resident Jeff Donnelly at the Page Mill Road and Highway 280 interchange. Ballard chalks up the multi-year delay in installing wide, green, buffered bike lanes there the result of an unfortunate “stand still due to a disagreement between Caltrans and the County of Santa Clara over the issuance of an encroachment permit.”
“The disagreement is rooted in who is ultimately liable if something happens in the future,” continues Ballard. “Who’s to blame for today’s delay of the project? We don’t know and are not interested in finger pointing because here’s what it boils down to: Someone died here. We have a designed and funded project. Work it out and build the project before someone else gets hurt.”
Yes, “work it out”, admonishes the bicycle coalition, but doesn’t know and doesn’t care who at Caltrans and Santa Clara County are threatening our lives by not approving permits over a legal non-issue. Or why our elected officials aren’t nudging these public servants to move the project forward.
Caltrans and Santa Clara County staff are arguing about which jurisdiction this segment of Caltrans highway should be under, which doesn’t make sense because it’s under Caltrans jurisdiction as part of the interchange with Highway 280. So Caltrans or Santa Clara County or both are worried somebody will sue them for creating a hazardous condition if someone is injured bicycling in the future green bike lanes, when in fact such lawsuits are summarily dismissed if the bike facilities are designed according to state standards.
Ironically, the concept drawings drafted by Alta Planning + Design in June 2016 do in fact violate state design standards with elements such as striped bike lanes passing through the middle of left-turn lanes, but Caltrans is meticulous about the designs they approve, so no doubt they’ve fixed Alta’s errors in the final engineering design. Caltrans is responsible for any injuries or deaths resulting from non-standard designs on their roadways, but they can simply not approve any such designs for installation.
Santa Clara County resisted making such improvements for decades, claiming they would someday get around to fixing all the hazardous highway interchanges that they themselves had built, before finally ceding to demands by the Palo Alto community to install “interim improvements” – green bike lanes with striped buffers in some places, running continuously through the interchange.
After Donnelly’s death, County Supervisor and fellow Palo Alto resident Joe Simitian directed the county’s Roads and Airport Department to stop dragging its feet and finally fix the interchange. The project costs, which at a total of $525,000 are a drop in the bucket compared to the billions lavished on highway expansions in the area, were covered by the cities of Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), and Santa Clara County. Simitian deemed the green bike lane improvements “modest but significant”.