A Fix for Old Drains, Old Trees with New Rainfall

by | Feb 15, 2024

Photo: Cariad Hayes Thronson

Photo: Cariad Hayes Thronson

Navigating El Camino Real (State Route 92) through the city of Burlingame has been challenging — and sometimes nerve-wracking — for drivers and pedestrians alike for decades. The pavement is uneven and heavily cracked, and the massive eucalyptus trees that line the four-lane highway crowd the road, impeding sightlines and occasionally shedding branches, while their root systems buckle the narrow sidewalks. Flooding occurs during virtually every storm, thanks to an ancient drainage system and uneven pavement. Now, a CalTrans project to rehabilitate 3.6 miles of El Camino promises to remedy many of these issues, improving safety and climate resilience.

The El Camino Real Roadway Renewal Project will completely replace the pavement, including underground structures, between Millbrae and San Mateo, and upgrade sidewalks to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Although climate resilience was not a driver of the project, “the recent flooding due to atmospheric rivers re-emphasized the purpose and need for it,” according to CalTrans spokesperson Alejandro Lopez. CalTrans will install 34 new drainage inlets, modify or relocate an additional 25, and replace old drainage pipes. 

The project will require the removal of up to half of the 700 trees, mostly eucalyptus and elms, within the project limits. Several eucalyptus and one elm toppled during the 2022-23 storms, and many of the trees are deemed too old or unhealthy to withstand construction-related disruption to their root systems; others need to be removed to improve sightlines or make way for sidewalk improvements.

Tree crews in the project zone in Burlingame. Photo: Cariad Hayes Thronson

Crews tackle flooding and debris in the project zone in Burlingame. Photo: Cariad Hayes Thronson

Approximately 250 of the trees that will be removed are part of the Howard Ralston Eucalyptus Tree Rows, which are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. According to Jennifer Pfaff of the Burlingame Historical Society, the trees will need to be replaced with different species with narrower trunks. They will also be vetted for their ability to withstand drought and atmospheric rivers. “We need to convey the period of time when the original trees were planted,” she says. “The goal is a safer roadway and sidewalk while retaining the history and character of the tree rows.”

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About The Author

Cariad Hayes Thronson

reports on legal and political issues. She has served on the staffs of several national publications and is a long-time contributor to Estuary News. She lives in San Mateo with her husband and two children.