Almanac

News - October 5, 2011

Portola Valley council 'neutral' on Alpine trail

by Dave Boyce

The Town Council of Portola Valley on Sept. 28 rejected the advice of George Mader, the town planner for 40 years and currently a planning consultant for the town, and has instead taken a neutral stance on an offer by Stanford University to improve a trail on Alpine Road, in part because the trail is not in Portola Valley.

Mr. Mader had advised the council to recommend to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors that they accept an offer of $10 million from Stanford University to upgrade the trail.

The issue is complicated by a right-of-way that is a) crazily inconsistent in width and topography, and b) located along a heavily traveled artery into the university and its hospital, and c) passes by Stanford Weekend Acres, a tight-knit unincorporated community suspicious of Stanford and whose residents run a gauntlet every day trying to join the traffic on Alpine Road. An improved trail that invites pedestrians, cyclists, kids and dogs could add significantly to their headaches, they say.

A comment from the Portola Valley council is important to residents of Weekend Acres and of Ladera, an unincorporated community just east of Portola Valley where this trail is not as complicated and where many residents support an improved path into Menlo Park. The council's view could influence supervisors one way or the other in a local game of wits with a powerful land-holding university known for flexing its muscles.

Public comment at the meeting reflected the divide, with proponents noting the importance of a new trail to making journeys safe for children, and opponents saying that the route cannot be made safe. About 40 people attended.

In what evolved into a consensus, the council agreed to send a neutral statement to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, which rejected Stanford's offer in 2007 and 2010 and may vote again on Oct. 18 on whether to finally reject $10 million in these hard economic times. The statement would include a positive note on the town's experience with Stanford on upgrading a section of trail in town.

Stanford's offer specifies that the project must address all of the trail, not part of it. The offer expires in December, but the board can get a two-year extension if it decides to explore a trail design, which Stanford would pay for out of the $10 million.

The initial majority — council members Steve Toben, Ann Wengert and John Richards — supported a neutral statement.

Councilwoman Maryann Derwin, while feeling "very sympathetic" to Weekend Acres residents' concerns, said she preferred the letter's recommendation but reluctantly agreed to neutrality. The council has previously spoken out on external matters, she said in an interview, and the greater good is at stake.

Mayor Ted Driscoll did not participate, having recused himself because his wife works at Stanford.

Mr. Mader, the letter's author, noted to the council that an upgraded trail could help reduce traffic congestion on Alpine Road after Stanford expands its hospital, that the eroding bank of Los Trancos Creek could endanger a section of Alpine Road and will eventually need attention, and that a multi-use path could transfer slower bikes out of the bike lanes.

Mr. Toben, who saw the issue as outside the council's purview, said initially that he preferred no letter at all. He said it bothered him to have Portola Valley residents weighing in on a project that won't affect them where they live. That the trail is proximate to the town was irrelevant and that it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions was unimpressive, he added.

Biking to Stanford

Bicyclists are ubiquitous on Alpine Road between Portola Valley and Stanford, but the vast majority travel on the road's side, where they navigate freeway intersections and heavy commute traffic, particularly through Weekend Acres.

A lot of bikes, but very few piloted by children.

"I would love to be able to ride to a Stanford football game with my 12-year-old daughter," Portola Valley resident Ray Villareal told the council, a sentiment expressed by several other speakers. "At least use a portion of Stanford's money to come up with a trail design."

Between 2006 and 2010, that stretch of Alpine Road between I-280 and Junipero Serra Boulevard shows typical speeds of 41 mph and about 18,000 vehicle trips per day, according to county data.

Weekend Acres resident Diane Gerba said she sometimes adds 10 to 15 minutes to her departure plans to allow for the difficulty of making a left turn onto Alpine Road from Weekend Acres.

"Come down during commute hours and walk to Stowe Lane," she said to the council. Ask yourselves: "Is this really feeling recreational? Can it ever feel recreational?"

(An agreement Stanford has with Santa Clara County around this project cites "enhanced recreational opportunities for the Stanford community" and the region if the trails are upgraded.)

Ladera resident Ted Huang cited a study by Harvard University's school of public health concluding that multi-use paths are safer for cyclists than bike lanes.

Ladera resident Rob Decker acknowledged Mr. Huang's citation, but noted that 70 other studies have concluded that multi-use paths that traverse vehicle intersections are more dangerous than bike lanes.

This path crosses two tennis club entrances, five roads into and out of Weekend Acres, about 20 driveways and two freeway off ramps, Mr. Becker said.

The off ramp from northbound I-280 that merges with eastbound Alpine Road is particularly dangerous, Mr. Becker said. Drivers heading into Menlo Park are looking west for Alpine Road traffic and may be oblivious to travelers on the two-way path who are headed west.

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