"This is something that's been very much on our minds, and it's a very, very contentious issue," councilman Larry Klein said.
The discussion came in the context of the council's approval of a "vision statement" for the rail corridor, which runs the length of Palo Alto. The statement takes no position on grade separations other than that the city "supports a non-elevated alignment" of the tracks, leaving open the question of whether cars would go under the tracks, cross them at road level or go over them if the tracks were placed underground. However, the statement says there's a need to assess the rail crossings for safety and engineering soundness before deciding which way to go, Planning Director Curtis Williams said.
The vision statement calls for a "vibrant, safe, attractive transit-rich area with city and neighborhood mixed-use centers that provide walkable, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly places that serve the community and beyond, and to connect the east and west portions of the city through an improved circulation network that binds the city together in all directions."
The cost of placing the tracks underground is unknown, Klein said.
"We've seen $500 million, and (architect) Tony Carrasco says $1.5 billion. These are huge numbers, but the detailed study, which some of us think is a good idea for HSR (the California High-Speed Rail Authority) to undertake remains to be done," he said.
In separate, later testimony before the council, Adina Levin of Friends of Caltrain cited a "very interesting proposal" in San Francisco to fund realignment and undergrounding of tracks through the sale of land that then would be freed up.
But short of undergrounding the tracks, the community will need to decide what to do about the rail crossings, council members said.
If the trains are at grade, running along four tracks instead of the current two, "roughly 100 homes would have to be taken to put in a grade separation, and we've been cognizant of that as a very contentious impact," councilman Pat Burt said.
"When we get to it, these chambers will be packed," Klein said.
"People will say, 'Oh, I thought it was a great idea, but now that you're taking houses in my neighborhood — or my house — people will get very excited about it. It's something we'll get to, but it's not an easy one for the community."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss said other cities to the north of Palo Alto have been able to secure funding to build grade separations and asked city staff members whether that has been explored.
But Klein said, "What you suggest assumes you think grade separation is desirable, and the council has not made that decision.
"It's a major decision for us to take as to whether we want to have a grade separation at a particular place. It's not a slam dunk, so it's premature to discuss funding."