El Camino Real (ECR) is a state highway and, therefore, Caltrans is responsible for addressing flooding, street widening and sidewalk repair, as well as maintaining the trees. This is a very significant project that might eliminate lanes of traffic and lots of historic trees but also would fix flooding and sidewalk issues and possibly underground utilities.
Caltrans is proposing four alternatives for transforming the entire length of the highway in Burlingame, which would include a new roadway, gutters and drainage, utilities and trees. Two of the alternatives envision changing the current four lanes of the roadway into one lane each, north and south, with a center turn lane in between.
With each of the four alternative options, sidewalks would need to be brought up to ADA (American Disability Act) standards. Caltrans might also have to dig three to four feet underground to put in the proper drainage to eliminate flooding. The digging would severely compromise the existing trees.
Many of the eucalyptus trees on ECR are more than 100 years old, and some of the tree rows are on both the National Register of Historical Places and the California Register of Historic Resources. However, most of the trees are in fair to poor health and have caused severe problems with flooding, sidewalk distortions and concerns about falling trees and limbs.
Caltrans and Burlingame have been at loggerheads for decades over the issue of the trees. Caltrans has long wanted to remove them and Burlingame has been adamant about keeping them. Now, the imminent danger has become so threatening that both Caltrans and Burlingame officials agree that something needs to be done. In recent years, there has been a real effort on both sides to come up with a workable solution.
Since summer 2016, a Citzens Task Force has studied a section of ECR having approximately 80 to 85 trees. Caltrans usually spaces trees widely on its roadways and according to current Caltrans guidelines, there would be around 10 to 15 trees replanted in their place. That plan was never going to fly.
The 80 to 85 trees in the Study Section could be replaced with 60 to 65 new trees but only if Caltrans bends its rules about wide spacing between trees. The new trees would be planted in nutrient-enriched soil and properly irrigated so their roots would grow deeply – they would remain healthy and the beautiful Burlingame canopy preserved.
Caltrans has allocated over $100 million for this project. There is a possibility that utility lines might be buried – since the Caltrans plan does not include this important aspect, the City has initiated a funding plan for utility under-grounding, combining several possible sources.
Details still need to be worked out and an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) has to be made. Construction probably would not be underway before 2024. Additional opportunities for public comments are expected at a yet to be determined date.
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