Bridges generally serve to unite two sides. But the outdated Newell Road span that links Palo Alto and East Palo Alto is instead driving a wedge between the two cities.
That much was apparent during a packed community meeting Tuesday night at the Lucie Stern Community Theater in Palo Alto.
Palo Alto is coordinating an effort to replace the 112-year-old bridge as part of a wider project to address flooding concerns along San Francisquito Creek. The 22-foot-wide by 40-foot-long span has been identified as one of several choke points.
City officials had intended to use Tuesday's gathering to update the community on plans for a full-scale environmental impact report later this year. But attendees spent most of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour meeting weighing in on what -- if anything -- should be done with the bridge.
Through Caltrans and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the city has lined up $3 million in funding for a new span that is 45 feet wide by 86 feet long.
However, applause filled the theater when city officials listed permanently removing the bridge as an alternative. Another option to swap it for one that only pedestrians and bicyclists can use also drew cheers.
The audience booed and hissed when city officials described the possibility of rebuilding the bridge and aligning it with Newell Road in East Palo Alto.
State funds could not be applied to the projects seemingly favored by the audience. The money comes with a requirement that the bridge be replaced with one that has at least two traffic lanes that are 14 feet wide each.
Opponents of the so-called "super bridge" said it would increase traffic and endanger the lives of children biking to school.
"If you open up the bridge to more traffic, it's going to put all our children at risk, and I'm going to tell you, those kids are mostly not watching the traffic," Meg Waite Clayton said to applause from the standing-room only audience.
The span currently sees 3,000 daily car trips and those would be diverted to surrounding streets if eliminated, Palo Alto resident Norm Beamer warned.
"Let's not be too selfish here," said Beamer, whose comments were also met with approval.
Several East Palo Alto residents said the bridge provides a vital link to and from their isolated community.
"It's a very important bridge for us," said Norm Picker, who has used the span for the past 28 years. "I am totally sympathetic with the concerns about more traffic in the Crescent Park area, but the prospect of eliminating the bridge completely is really terrible for us."
A few members of the audience who spoke at the meeting said the city should focus its flood control efforts elsewhere.
"You can control your flooding by managing your upstream areas. All we hear about is the highlights, the danger points, and we're being frightened into taking some actions we may not need if we had the full picture," said Keith Nicholls of Palo Alto.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, who lives near San Francisquito Creek, urged compromise as the meeting drew to a close.
"It seems to me the bridge has been there 112 years. Maybe on both sides of the bridge we could gather enough consensus amongst each other to not change the scope of the bridge that we've gotten so used to," Young said to hearty applause. "If we all have that consensus, it would give the city a much easier path to get the flooding issue done more quickly."