News

New vision for Caltrain corridor in Palo Alto speeds ahead

Planning and Transportation Commission unanimously endorses study that calls for new rail crossings, better east-west connections

Safer rail crossings and better east-west corridors throughout Palo Alto should rank among the city's highest transportation priorities, the Planning and Transportation Commission concluded Wednesday night, May 30, when it voted to endorse a new vision document for the Caltrain corridor.

The commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the Rail Corridor Task Force Study, a report conducted by city officials, consultants and a 17-member citizens panel. The group had spent two years analyzing the rail corridor in Palo Alto, developing a community "vision" for the corridor and considering specific changes to the corridor and to the two major arteries running parallel to the tracks -- Alma Street to the east and El Camino Real to the west.

While the report is sweeping in scope and its most significant recommendations would take years and millions of dollars to implement, its implications could shape the city's priorities for years to come. If the council approves the report as the commission recommended, the study would be added to Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan, the city's official land-use bible, and would help guide policy decisions relating to land use around the tracks. The new document could also help the city develop priorities for its capital-improvement program, Planning Director Curtis Williams told the planning commission Wednesday.

The report, which the City Council commissioned in 2010, was sparked by California's proposed high-speed rail project at a time when the council and many in the community at large worried about the implications of the new system, which is slated to use the Caltrain tracks. The council, which officially opposes the proposed high-speed rail system, decided to pursue the study to articulate Palo Alto's own vision for the Caltrain corridor.

But even though the planned high-speed-rail system prompted the report, the study's scope extends far beyond the controversial $68 billion project. Though the study promotes a below-grade design for high-speed rail, its devotes much of its substance to other issues relating to the Caltrain corridor, including unsafe rail crossings, poor east-west connections and inadequate assets near the railroad tracks.

Rail crossings, in fact, emerged as the city's top priority at a March 29 community meeting, which brought about 50 residents to the Lucie Stern Community Center. When asked to rate their priorities, the vast majority called for better rail crossings, particularly at the Charleston Road and Meadow Drive (dozens also expressed support for an improved overcrossing at University Avenue and El Camino Real).

The new study includes as one of its top goals ensuring "the highest possible safety at all rail crossings" and mitigation of "rail impacts on neighborhoods, public facilities, schools and mixed-use center." The study's recommendations include a proposal for four new "priority crossings" -- at Everett, Kellogg and Seale avenues and at Matadero Creek. It also calls on the city to explore possible sites in south Palo Alto for new crossings. Michael Smiley, a consultant at BMS, noted that the group didn't find any suitable locations for such a crossing that would not require property seizures.

The report already received the unanimous backing of the city's Architectural Review Board, which reviewed the document on May 24. Board Chair Judith Wasserman praised the report Wednesday, saying this was the first time the Caltrain corridor has been looked at in such a broad way, geographically speaking. The new study, she said, gives the city "an excellent framework for urban-design examination of this area."

"It did not simply look at train tracks, but it looked at the city from Alma Street to El Camino, both sides, and in doing so, it gave the city an opportunity to examine what has been sort of put together haphazardly over the years," Wasserman said. "If high-speed rail has done any good so far in this process, it's that it has called attention to this major asset in the community -- which is also a major obstacle."

Members of the planning commission were equally enthusiastic, with Commissioner Mark Michael calling the study "profoundly impressive" and "potentially transformational."

"The potential for this to be a great benefit to the community, when and if it's done, is very exciting," Michael said. "I think it's very thoughtful."

His colleagues also greeted the study with enthusiasm, though Commissioner Samir Tuma asked whether some of the recommendations could be more concrete. The commission also approved the environmental analysis for the study, though it made several additions, including one that explicitly states the city's rejection of an elevated rail alignment in Palo Alto.

Irvin Dawid, a Sierra Club member who served on the task force, said he hopes the report leads Palo Alto to pursue major transportation projects that the city could be proud of. He urged the city to "think big."

"I think it's really important that this does not just become another study that goes into the bin," Dawid said. "I hope something big will come out of it -- something good."

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2012 at 9:35 am

The biggest flaw in all this is that Caltrain is looked upon as an entity on its own or at most an entity that parallels road travel.

The real way to look at Caltrain is as a public transport system that must run in conjunction with bus travel. The first and last mile of a rail transit commute is just as important as the rail commute and this is where Caltrain fails. By making shuttles, bus schedules and even innovative ideas such as pedal rickshaw taxis, bike security and rental as well as, wait for it, bathroom facilities, part of the mix, forward thinking could make Caltrain a much better option for many Palo Alto commuters, regardless of whether we are the destination or homebase of the commuters.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Brian Steen
a resident of Greater Miranda
on May 31, 2012 at 10:44 am

Good job! I hope a time table can be established for implementation, particularly for the elimination of all at-grade crossings.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of University South
on May 31, 2012 at 11:16 am

YIMBY is a registered user.

@ Brian, who wrote: "Good job! I hope a time table can be established for implementation, particularly for the elimination of all at-grade crossings."

Wow! Music (in a sense) to my ears!

Unfortunately, as Planning Director Curtis Williams explained at the meeting, the report is a "policy document" that establishes a "policy framework". I think that's a fancy way of saying it does not do what you would like it to do, Brian, but it does enable the city to set up considering doing it, or more specifically, as Gennady wrote, "The new document could also help the city develop priorities for its capital-improvement program, Planning Director Curtis Williams told the planning commission Wednesday."

Commissioner Keller went to great pains to point out that any grade sep' project would require 'takings' of private property, noting that the driveways of private homes by the grade crossing would need to be part of the project. I was confused by what he said because I thought he indicated that he wanted the grade separations "kept open" - hopefully he'll comment here to clarify.

My own wish, having participated in the task force, is that the city authorize yet another task force (don't shoot me....wait till you see what I write next!) composed of civil engineers and other related professionals such as urban planners) in our community (assuming we have many of them) who will provide options for the city to consider for grade separating Meadows and/or Charleston - the two grade crossings that clearly received the most support for separating at the well-attended public workshop. The Churchill Ave crossing by Paly was a distant third.

The top policy statement was to align the RR tracks in a trench - so the task force would need to keep that in mind - though I'm hoping they would evaluate other options as well for the purposes of cost comparison.

The alternative to a citizen task force would be to farm it out to consultants - but I'm not sure that would be good in the long term. To grade sep will require lots of $, and I think it will require a bond to help finance, so enlisting the community in this effort is a smart move, politically speaking, IMO.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Chris Logan
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 31, 2012 at 11:19 am

What surprise! We were at the meeting from 6-8 pm in Council Chambers the and the topic of the rail plan had not been addressed. The notification received in the mail clearly indicated that the topic was to be on the agenda at 6 pm.

We are frustrated that the agenda was changed without regard for those citizens who had made the effort to attend. What a waste of time and energy for community members to try to have input on this important issue.

Chris and Dan Logan


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cost, cost, cost
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2012 at 12:08 pm

OK, so how much is all this going cost and whose going to PAY to implement all these ideas?

The taking of private property by eminent domain to build a system of grade separation at the train tracks will add hugely to the cost.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by KP
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm

I don't understand why everyone thinks it is the City of Palo Alto's responsibility to keep people from running in front of a train!
Does anyone really think that those little yellow gates will keep anyone out if they are really hell-bent of ending their life??? REALLY?!!? And we can't help the stupid people who turn onto the tracks accidentally! They're beyond help...just stupid.
I think it was all just a waste of money - and now we need more studies?! Where does it end?
I live on Meadow, so I was/am affected by these (selfish acts) incidents...Let's all just take a little responsibility for ourselves and not expect the city to guard our every move.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 31, 2012 at 1:24 pm

@YIMBY. There are two main types of grade separations being considered: road over depressed rail, and road under rail.

In the road over depressed rail, if the road is at grade, I believe that there is no permanent taking of property; there are, however, significant construction impacts, as occurred in the construction of BART underground in Berkeley, and light rail/BART on Market St in San Francisco.

In the road depressed under at-grade rail, there is either an intersection with Alma or not. There are permanent private property takings necessary under either scenario. The consultant's analysis said there was no takings necessary if there was no intersection, but that's not correct. Houses near the train tracks with driveways on the newly depressed road would be inaccessible, and therefore need to be taken through eminent domain.

The motion was worded to state explicitly that the City is opposed to elevated rail structures, that north and south Palo Alto would be treated comparably in terms of rail elevation, and that all existing grade crossings would remain open to vehicular traffic. The last item does not preclude changing a grade crossing to a grade separation, nor does it preclude temporary closures for the purposes of construction.

@Chris Logan: The rail plan was on the agenda for the meeting that started at 6pm. But the item was not first on the agenda. The PTC usually has multiple items on the agenda, and they can't all start at 6pm.

Grade separations might occur in the future IF there is a build-out of high speed rail to the Peninsula along the Caltrain right-of-way. They might also occur due to an increase of service on Caltrain, as part of an EIR, if it overly inhibits cross-traffic.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 31, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Eminent domain takings are a given, so just suck it up and insure that compensation is adequate. The whole peninsula transit improvement is being held up to avoid buying 20 or 30 houses. That is just foolish. If this was a highway improvement there would be no question about eminent domain.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 31, 2012 at 5:10 pm

KP,
There is more to grade separations than preventing suicide. If the train frequency increases the traffic backups will be quite serious if there are no more grade separations. If you live on Meadow you will be impacted by that every day, more than the impact of crashes and suicides.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Richard
a resident of Midtown
on May 31, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Speaking of delays, I was on the train today from San Jose and we arrived at Cal. Ave. several minutes late because they had to board a person in a wheelchair. The procedure is riduculous and time-consuming, requiring a train employee to fetch a lift trolley from a locked cage, position it in front of the door, have the passenger enter the trolley through a ramp, close that ramp, crank up the passenger by hand, open another ramp into the car, then after the passenger boards, crank the trolley back down and lock it in the cage again. VTA light rail spent a lot of money arranging their cars and platforms to have level boarding so wheelchairc, bikes and strollers can roll right on quickly and easily. I hope that Caltrain's modernization plans include level boarding or their hopes for 15-minute frequency will not be realized.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by dave
a resident of Downtown North
on May 31, 2012 at 7:04 pm

If grade separations for Palo Alto are agreed to, every city along the corridor will want them which would mean some 30 from San Jose to San Francisco. The cost would be staggering - dwarfing the $68 Billion already estimated for HSR.

After reading and analyzing the statements made by the HSR, I hope it dies a quiet death because of its own greed and stupidity.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by only dreaming
a resident of Midtown
on May 31, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Allow me to dream for a moment about what it would be like if we could reclaim the area over a tunnel as a long bicycle corridor...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Tom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2012 at 11:01 pm

@Walter: If it was YOUR house on the tracks you wouldn't say "go ahead take it"


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 1, 2012 at 8:48 am

Tom, Walter wouldn't have bought a house that close to the tracks without realising this was a possibility.

Anyone buying that close to the tracks must have realised that there was a possibility of this, that is why their home seemed "cheap" at the time they bought. Certainly when we were looking to buy in Palo Alto, we stayed clear of anywhere with potential for this type of thing to occur.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by BeNice
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 1, 2012 at 9:30 am

It's unkind for Resident and others to expect people who bought by the tracks to have expected HSR and the possibility of taking property by eminent domain. That right of way has been the same width for generations. The lower cost of homes by the tracks was more due to noise and privacy considerations in the past. It's so disheartening see these mean posts. (Full disclosure: I don't live near the tracks.)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 1, 2012 at 9:35 am

Be Nice.

Sorry but it is not mean of me to point out what is obvious!

These tracks have been here for a long time agreed, but anyone who didn't foresee this was rather lacking in foresight. Yes the noise is one reason for cheaper house prices, but there is just as much noise half a block away!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of University South
on Jun 1, 2012 at 10:37 am

YIMBY is a registered user.

@dave, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, who wrote:
"If grade separations for Palo Alto are agreed to, every city along the corridor will want them which would mean some 30 from San Jose to San Francisco. The cost would be staggering - dwarfing the $68 Billion already estimated for HSR."
Well, I don't think it would be that high....but very high nonetheless.
BTW, take the train up to San Bruno and see a grade sep' construction in progress. In fact, I believe the overpass separates more than one crossing. Oh, Here we go: "The $147 million project will elevate the Caltrain tracks above three existing at-grade street crossings at San Bruno, San Mateo and Angus Avenues. A new elevated Caltrain station between San Bruno and San Mateo Avenues will replace the station at Sylvan Avenue."
Web Link
Dave also wrote: "After reading and analyzing the statements made by the HSR, I hope it dies a quiet death because of its own greed and stupidity"
It's SO IMPORTANT to recognize that the Task Force DID NOT focus on HSR - I think Judith Wasserman, chair of ARB put it very well: ""If high-speed rail has done any good so far in this process, it's that it has called attention to this major asset in the community -- which is also a major obstacle." In other words, we looked at the Caltrain Corridor. Whether HSR is built or not, Caltrain will continue to operate in some form or another as it has since 1863......


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Safety1stforSure
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 1, 2012 at 4:07 pm

If parents don't go with their kids, a child would be going across a large intersection. No Kid should try to do it alone. Truly. Unless perhaps in a age of 14 or 15.
We happen to have a line of trains, so realize that there should be adult supervision.
Trains are big, heavy and quick.
They are also good for us for getting away further and faster; and the riders can sleep, do work, read, etc.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Safety1st p.s.
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 1, 2012 at 4:17 pm

p.s. Maybe perhaps 10-12 kids could be ok. Not sure I am not a parent. But we can't put Hoards of money into safety either.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 1, 2012 at 10:56 pm

Resident, most people bought those houses 30-40 yrs ago. NO ONE then thought any houses in PA that sold for $12K would be worth 1mill now; and NO ONE thought an HSR would rumble thru our town. Your comment is unintelligent. And are you aware that Foothill expressway was once a passenger train track? Perhaps that should be converted back.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Tunnel
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 2, 2012 at 1:27 am

Why don't you just tunnel it. Yes it's a high cost, but the tracks have been left untouched for ages. Stop wasting money on tiny improvements. Change it once and for all and in the long run that will save money vs. adding a gate at a time. Less noise, better safety, and a long park through the city, add little shops to it and turn it into a promenade that extends from university to California. Make Palo Alto something people are jealous of.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sorry
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jun 2, 2012 at 10:31 am

This is a sorry state of affairs. People should not be as hard on their neighbors.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 2, 2012 at 1:45 pm

How to deal with the lumbering dinosaur that is Caltrain?

The Valley has grown up around it and it may be time to eliminate it completely.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of University South
on Jun 3, 2012 at 9:44 am

YIMBY is a registered user.

Place the Caltrain tracks in a tunnel, place it in a trench, get rid of the train all together - just some of the thoughts mentioned above. As for the last one - as much as some may prefer that one, those proponents have to recognize that the train serves more than just Palo Alto - so unless all the other cities and counties agreed, the train is staying - which leaves the first two - both being compatible with the aforementioned Planning & Transportation Commission resolution described by commissioner Arthur Keller.

Both options require lots of money which may be completely unrealistic - though it is important to recognize that costs will only escalate in time.

Our city needs a leader - it seems like those who lead on rail only strive to 'protect' our city - but none to improve it.

So the grade separations stand. Consequently, more may die at these intersections - voluntarily or involuntarily.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by rh
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jun 3, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Just received Joe Simitian's election flyer - no mention of HSR. He is an absolute failure and s/b voted out of office.


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