Almanac

News - April 27, 2011

Atherton: Road out of town a smooth one for public works director

by Renee Batti

One of the key things Atherton's public works director Duncan Jones was striving to do before retiring was "make the streets in Atherton the best streets in the county."

Recently, the town of Atherton tied with Foster City for the best and most improved streets in San Mateo County, in the estimation of the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission, he said with more than a hint of pride. And, he added, Foster City's streets are much newer than Atherton's.

Mr. Jones, 59, spoke of the MTC's glowing pronouncement a few days after announcing, on April 4, that he will retire at the end of the month from the post he's held for the last eight years. He had been working for the city of Belmont when he was hired by Atherton in April 2003 to head the department that oversees the town's streets, drainage projects, Holbrook-Palmer Park, and related programs.

In a press release announcing the retirement, the town cited Mr. Jones' "tremendous skills," and wrote: "Mr. Jones played a major role in improving Atherton's pavement condition index to one of the best in San Mateo County. ... He assisted with improvements at Holbrook-Palmer Park to help achieve the vision of the town's master plan, which included a pedestrian bridge and trail across the train tacks, a master irrigation system, South Meadow rehabilitation, Main House fountain relocation, and a water tower lawn."

Mr. Jones successfully wrote many grants that benefited the park and other projects in town. He obtained "Safe Routes to School" grants from Caltrans for projects near Las Lomitas and Sacred Heart schools; and oversaw the installation of a traffic signal at Encinal Avenue and Middlefield Road.

In many school-related projects, he worked with multiple jurisdictions, and with parents and other residents, to create routes and infrastructure to bolster safety for kids traveling to and from school, he said.

Notable projects he oversaw to completion include the reconstruction of numerous arterial streets, such as Valparaiso and Atherton avenues and Alameda de las Pulgas.

Duncan Quixote?

Mr. Jones won high marks from council members for his work in researching and analysis of the high-speed rail plan for the Peninsula, which the town opposes. He was instrumental in drafting and editing letters to the agency overseeing the planned project, which would run the train along the Caltrain line that divides Atherton in two.

"If anything that I've done would help stop this high-speed rail boondoggle, that would please me," he said.

Among his concerns about it: "My kids and grandkids will have to pay for it," he said. His work on behalf of the town regarding the rail plan "felt a little Don Quixote-ish" at times, but he hopes that, in the end, the work will prove to be more than just tilting at windmills.

In collecting and analyzing information about the high-speed rail plan, Mr. Jones said he benefited greatly from the "very, very smart people here in Atherton who wrote a lot of the stuff we put together in those letters, especially financial (analysis). ... These guys know finances, and they say this dog won't hunt."

In leaving his post, what advice would he give his yet-to-be-determined successor? He would pass along the advice a former department head gave to him when he came to town, he said. "I'd say how I have avoided being embroiled in all this bad press in Atherton. (The key was to) keep my head down and do the job I'm supposed to do."

What's ahead?

Mr. Jones plans to move to Incline Village, Nevada, once he retires, where he hopes to indulge in the skiing, kayaking, mountain biking and other outdoor sports he loves.

He also is likely to pursue another longtime interest: writing. "When I started out in school, I wanted to be a creative writer," he said. His grandmother and aunt are both published novelists, he said, adding that his aunt began writing her series of mystery novels at age 72.

Mr. Jones' pending retirement won't be the only major change in his life in recent times. Last year, he became a grandfather — twice, with one grandson born in September and the second in December.

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