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Improvements set for California Avenue station

Council discusses future of Caltrain depot

The California Avenue Caltrain station, the stunted sibling to the busier downtown stop, will receive a major facelift in the near future: a pedestrian underpass and two new platforms.

Two weeks after approving a "Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Development" (PTOD) zone that will surround the California Avenue train depot and hopefully encourage a "walkable, bikeable Palo Alto," the City Council discussed transportation trends and changes at Palo Alto's secondary train station.

At the forefront of council concerns was the decline in riders at California Avenue, owing to the popular Baby Bullet trains bypassing the station for the Palo Alto stop.

"In a certain sense, it takes away the rationale for it (the PTOD). But we're all hopeful that it's a temporary decline and we'll get some Baby Bullet service," Councilman Larry Klein said.

Though Caltrain has extensive improvement plans for the California Avenue station, they do not include bringing the Baby Bullet to the station.

"It's doubtful because there's another stop right up the road," Caltrain spokesman Jonah Weinberg said. "If you start putting in bullet stops every two miles, you've basically ruined the purpose of the bullet."

Caltrain plans to spend about $13 million to reconfigure the California Avenue station to make it more pedestrian friendly and able to accommodate more than one train at a time, Weinberg said.

He added that construction could start "within the next couple months."

Right now, the California Avenue station is set up as a "hold-out station" where only one train may pass through at a time and passengers board between the tracks. With the new platforms, that would no longer be the case.

Before the introduction of the Baby Bullet, the Palo Alto station consistently attracted about 1,000 more riders than the California Avenue station. But after the Baby Bullet service started during the summer of 2004, the Palo Alto station saw a surge of more than 1,000 passengers while California Avenue's dropped off by 150.

The Palo Alto station is the second busiest Caltrain station -- right below San Francisco's 4th and King stop -- while California Avenue is ranked 11th.

Caltrain expects this divergence between the two Palo Alto stations to continue well into the future. The commuter train operator expects to electrify and speed-up the trains, accommodating 15,000 passengers at the Palo Alto station and just below 6,000 at California Avenue by the year 2030.

The Palo Alto station will also receive some upgrades soon.

Plans for an "intermodal transit center" include improved bike and pedestrian access; a new bridge over El Camino Real; better integration of the station with downtown, and an "enhanced gateway to Stanford University."

Along with the anticipated passenger growth will be an increase in the number of commuters' cars that nearby parking lots will need to accommodate. Currently, the Palo Alto station has 385 spots and California Avenue has 57 spots, but by 2030, Caltrain's service plan predicts the demand for parking will jump to 1140 spots downtown and 188 at the California Avenue stop.

"I'll be interested in seeing where those spaces are," Klein said at the Monday night study session.

"I don't think the expectation is that Palo Alto would pay for the parking," said Vice Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto.

Besides providing parking for those who head to work on the train, Mayor Judy Kleinberg added that the city needs to be thinking about how to encourage more residents to access the Caltrain via another form of public transit <0x2014> such as Stanford's Marguerite shuttle, the Palo Alto shuttle, and VTA buses.

"What really, in my mind, gets people to use mass transit is convenience," Kleinberg said, expressing her doubt that increased Caltrain service would boost the number of train commuters without more local transit.

"Until it gets into the neighborhoods," she continued, "I think you're still catering to one segment of the population that has the big commutes to the big buildings."

The council is expected to give final approval to the PTOD at its Sept. 11 meeting. Council members voted 6-1 to postpone the vote from Monday's meeting, with Dena Mossar against and John Barton and Peter Drekmeier absent.

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