When Caltrans introduced a project that would add traffic signals at the exit ramps from Interstate 280 onto Page Mill Road to the Los Altos Hills City Council last April, a city planning commissioner predicted the arrival of residents with “pitchforks and torches.” Metaphorically speaking, the mob arrived at Thursday’s council meeting.
Councilmembers quelled the fears of anxious residents by emphasizing that they also had reservations with the proposal.
“I don’t think any of us is happy with this solution,” said Mayor John Radford to a packed council chamber audience. “I assure you that we don’t intend to roll over and die on this.”
Nearly a dozen residents approached the podium at the meeting to state their opposition to the premise behind the project and make it clear that their resistance wasn’t just about adding traffic signals but more broadly about the project’s scope and its local implications.
Residents said they were reticent to endorse the project because they believe that it could increase traffic, open the window for future development by Stanford University and the city of Palo Alto and compromise the rural feel that attracts people to the community.
“It’s about stopping this overdevelopment,” said Los Altos Hills resident Edwina Cioffi to applause and cheers from the audience as Radford requested order in the council chambers. “The next San Jose is in the development plans in Palo Alto. What’s going to happen when VMware Inc. opens? … That’s going to be 3,000 more commuters.”
When Caltrans introduced the traffic signal and safety project, estimated at $3 million, a representative said the department was “initiating the project to mitigate accidents.” Caltrans cited data reporting five accidents on the northbound off-ramp from I-280 during a 12-month period in 2001 to 2002, and another documented five accidents on the southbound off-ramp during a 12-month period in 2007-2008. The statistics raised questions from local residents, who challenged the agency’s safety claims.
“I cannot make heads nor tails of (the Caltrans data),” said Anne Kiremidjian, a civil engineer and risk assessment expert from Los Altos Hills.
Kiremidjian said the Caltrans classification makes the intersection – with five accidents for every million cars that travel through annually during rush hour – more hazardous than the risk for failure at a nuclear power plant (one in one million).
Although Los Altos Hills residents and councilmembers agreed that improvements to the intersection may be necessary, the effort to urge Caltrans to halt the specific project plans until more complete data are available has escalated. A petition urging the town, Caltrans and Santa Clara County to delay the project began circulating in late February. It garnered more than 500 signatures as of this week.
Councilman Gary Waldeck echoed sentiments expressed in the petition and argued for a systematic approach to managing traffic following the evaluation of the entire corridor between I-280 and Highway 101.
Despite early confusion about the town’s position on the project, spurred in part by a Santa Clara County Roads and Airports Department report citing the town’s request for project modifications to improve pedestrian, bicyclist and equestrian safety at the intersection, councilmembers said they were working to serve the interests of residents.
“Something needs to be done,” said Councilman Rich Larsen, who will join Radford at a meeting with Caltrans to discuss the project this week. “When this was presented in 2012, it was presented as a done deal. Myself, the Traffic Safety Committee and council are looking for constructive ways to address these issues. It’s a real problem, and I think we all agree with that.”
To keep residents apprised of outreach efforts, a public hearing with Caltrans will be scheduled and town staff will provide updates at each council meeting.
Page Mill Road at Interstate 280 slated for new traffic safety measures - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier