This Bay Area city is the latest to try and reconnect neighborhoods divided by freeways – The Mercury News

South San Francisco’s historic downtown along Grand Avenue is separated from its modern business complexes to the east by an elevated Highway 101 and Caltrain railroad tracks. New state grants may fund ways to help the city connect communities separated by major traffic infrastructure. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

In the span of a mile, two highways and a rail line slice through the heart of South San Francisco, forming barriers that residents must navigate daily on their way to work, school or to visit family.

Now, the “Industrial City’s” downtown area is the latest among Bay Area neighborhoods where officials are working to reconnect communities of color long divided by the construction of major roadways and other transportation infrastructure.

Across the bay in Oakland, officials and advocates are even discussing a proposal to dismantle Interstate 980, a two-mile long connector route that splits West Oakland neighborhoods from downtown.

“It’s a physical manifestation of institutional racism,” said Randolph Belle, a local artist and real estate consultant helping with the plans. “It’s the other side of the tracks.”

Last week, Caltrans announced $149 million for three projects in South San Francisco, San Diego and Arcata to add safe walkways, bike lanes, bus stops and other upgrades in areas with neglected transit infrastructure. Additionally, the federal government recently unveiled $3 billion for a range of projects that aim to rectify a legacy of inequality wrought by past transportation planning — including a $30 million grant for a bike and pedestrian path connecting BART stations from Oakland to San Leandro.

On a recent weekday afternoon, students filtering out of South San Francisco High School stopped at a crosswalk along El Camino Real, waiting for a red light to pause the traffic whipping down the busy six-lane thoroughfare, the site of multiple pedestrian fatalities on the Peninsula each year.

A few blocks away, Naomi Ruiz, 40, waited for a bus to Palo Alto, where she works as a skilled nurse. Ruiz doesn’t mind the hour-long ride south, but she complained that schedule delays constantly disrupt her commute.

“I’m waiting 20 or 30 minutes,” she said. “It’s very hard. Right now, I’m late.”

Patrick Gilster, director of planning and fund management with the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, said a new transit program could help the agency find more effective bus routes through the city.

The authority also plans to make sidewalk crossings safer along El Camino and develop new bike and pedestrian routes to more areas of the city and to reach Caltrain, BART and other public transportation.

That could include building pathways over or under the elevated Caltrain tracks and adjacent Highway 101 corridor to better connect the downtown area to the city’s job center and biotech hub in its former industrial core to the east. There are also plans to create walkways over Colma Creek, a concrete channel that runs through residential neighborhoods and a commercial district, Lindenville, which the city is eyeing for new housing.

It’s not yet clear how much of the $149 million in state grant money the years-long project will receive. Gilster said the transportation authority will seek input from community members on the plans.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, East Palo Alto completed a pedestrian and bike pathway over Highway 101 in 2019 to connect residents with jobs and amenities on the more affluent west side of the freeway. Work recently started on another similar overpass at University Avenue.

In San Francisco, State Sen. Scott Wiener has endorsed a proposal to demolish the Central Freeway, which runs south of Market Street before linking to I-80 on its way to the Bay Bridge. In addition to reconnecting neighborhoods, the goal would be to replicate the rejuvenation of the city’s waterfront after officials agreed to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway instead of repairing it following the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

The idea is not only controversial because of traffic concerns — some community advocates also worry about gentrification.

Belle, the Oakland artist and consultant pushing to eliminate the I-980 freeway, said whatever would replace it must benefit local residents who suffered the “cascade of harm” following its construction starting in the 1960s.

The highway project destroyed more than 500 homes, nearly two dozen businesses and a thriving Black cultural district in West Oakland. It also contributed to the historic disinvestment in local schools and businesses, as well as the concentration of truck routes and heavy industry in the area, exacerbating patterns of segregation and poor health outcomes that persist today, Belle said.


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