Caltrain grade crossings: an uncoordinated problem with too little communication | An Alternative View | Diana Diamond | Palo Alto Online |

Local Blogs

An Alternative View

By Diana Diamond

E-mail Diana Diamond

About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

View all posts from Diana Diamond

Caltrain grade crossings: an uncoordinated problem with too little communication

Uploaded: Oct 3, 2019
It’s that proverbial cart-before-the-horse problem again, and this time it could be an expensive undertaking because the whole effort to redo grade crossings has been miserably uncoordinated. Unfortunately, taxpayers may be forced to pay for a problem that should have been ironed out earlier.

Here’s the issue. Several years ago, when Caltrain announced it would be getting new and fast electrified trains, probably ready by 2022, the cities along the Caltrain tracks were told they each were responsible for their own grade crossings – those 42 areas along the line where cars routinely cross the tracks until the gates go down and trains rush by. Cities have been working on getting a way for autos to go under or over the tracks, to avoid the delays that occur when those gates go down. And Caltrain has said that in the not-too-distant future, there will be more trains so motorists will have more waits for the trains to go by.

Surprisingly, Caltrain announced it is finally doing a $5 million study of its grade crossings – a move probably inspired by a San Mateo County civil grand jury report that said it wasn’t doing enough to help cities in their grade crossing efforts and also suggesting Caltrain should pay some of the cost.

I talked to Caltrain’s spokesperson, Dan Lieberman, who said the study will begin early next year, after Caltrain completes its business plan, and the study will help “streamline the process” along the whole corridor (whatever that means) because the business plan will “expand Caltrain’s services” by adding more and longer trains and having lengthier train stations. It probably will build more bike lockers at train stations and not accommodate riders who want to bring their bikes to work. Caltrain is predicting a 300 percent increase in ridership by 2040.

But – and it’s a big “but” – many cities have already started planning and spending money for improving grade crossings, and neighboring cities have not talked much to each other about their city’s plans. Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth said he talked to Menlo Park’s mayor about the crossings, but “not in detail,” and has had no conversations with Caltrain.

Palo Alto has already spent more than $1.7 million on consultants, and estimates grade separations will cost anywhere from $100 million to $300 million apiece – and this city has four. Thus, the price tag ranges from $400 million to $3 billion, Filseth said in March.

Mountain View has already decided it wants to tunnel the train at Rengstorff Avenue, while it would close the crossing at Castro Street, both for an estimated $180 million cost, some of which may come from the county.

In other words, cities on their own could develop great rollercoaster tracks as trains go up and swoop down according to a community’s preferences. The problem is trains don’t easily do this -- they need graduated grade levels to ascend or descend.

I asked Lieberman if Caltrain would ask the feds for funds. Unclear, he said. The study will not interfere with cities deciding how they want their grade separations and the tracks to run. But where do they get the money to accommodate their wishes?

Maybe if Caltrain gets the money, it might want to tell cities what to do, which is the opposite of Caltrain's previous suggestion, do what is best for your city. And if cities want Caltrain’s money but certainly don’t want its tracks high in the sky creating visual blight, then what are cities going to do? Lieberman said it’s unclear what cities and Caltrain will do.

It all seems so uncoordinated, and not thought out enough in advance, particularly since that cart is now firmly ahead of the symbolic horse.
What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.

Comments

 +   2 people like this
Posted by DIana Diamond, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 4, 2019 at 12:41 pm

DIana Diamond is a registered user.

Apologies to all those who tried to comment. A glitch in the comment section wasn't noticed until Thursday night. It was fixed Friday morning. Please feel free to comment now.
Diana


 +   3 people like this
Posted by MV Resident, a resident of Mountain View,
on Oct 4, 2019 at 12:57 pm

Mountain View is lowering Rengtorff and Central Expwy below the track level. Along with the closure of Castro at the tracks and the road overpasses at San Antonio and Shoreline, there is no rollercoaster effect going on in Mountain View.
Only Palo Alto would look into shifting the tracks up and down.


 +   10 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 4, 2019 at 2:15 pm

You are asking the right kind of questions and common sense statements.

The thing is that Caltrain as a commuter train benefits the whole of the Peninsula and beyond. Without a useful commuter train service, 101, 280, 85, Foothill Expressway, Central Expressway, etc. would all be a great deal more congested. Anyone who lives on the Peninsula, works on the Peninsula, gets truck deliveries as a business, all benefit from Caltrain. The fact that each City should be providing the funds and making piecemeal individual decisions is ridiculous as far as I am concerned.

Caltrain telling each City to get on with it themselves is poor management. The fact that Caltrain is not even doing any of this taking VTA, SamTrans, Muni, BART, etc. into the mix is also poor management.

Caltrain is a regional commuter service which affects the whole region. The funds to do these improvements should be centralized and the decisions of what to do at each individual crossing should be made with every other crossing taken into account. Apart from the idea of making a roller coaster of up and down, there is also the traffic flow issue. For example, if a decision to close the crossing at Alma were made, the traffic nightmare that would follow would involve Menlo Park just as much as it would involve Palo Alto. What happens at Rengstorff will have a knock on to traffic on San Antonio which of course will affect what happens at Meadow and Charleston in respect of traffic volume.

The biggest problem I see here is that leaving this to the individual Cities means that the problems one City creates will affect the next City, ad infinitum. Before any work starts, there should be a consortium of the various Cities ranging all the way down to Gilroy, to align in thinking, come up with solutions and that all financial resources pooled together with places like Cupertino (because of 85) and Los Altos contributing.

We are not islands in the middle of the Ocean. We are a region. We don't have Berlin Walls around our Cities, our residents criss cross them everyday for work, for play, for personal business and for the delivery of all goods to our homes and our stores. Let's act responsibly and get regional planning not piecemeal planning.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton,
on Oct 4, 2019 at 6:00 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Feb 25, 2015 at 2:36 pm
Peter Carpenter is a registered user.
If this is done one crossing at a time it will be very expensive, take a long time and result in a dis-integrated design.

Please at least think about a more comprehensive and integrated approach.

Why not see this as an opportunity rather than a problem?

One thought is the put the trains underground, use the surface rights above it for housing in the stretches between stations and use the surface above the stations for transit connections and parking. The surface area of the current right of way is very valuable land - particularly in Atherton - and could generate a lot of the needed capital.

Why not take this as an opportunity to design a multi-dimensional, multi-purpose system that uses the existing right-of-way that includes CalTrain, HSR, utility conduits for telephone and internet cables, surface housing with high density housing around each station. And add pedestrian path and a separate bicycle path on the surface along the entire right of way. And include 3 or 4 12" conduits for the technology of the future.

We should think of this right of way as an integrated multi-modal communications spine for the peninsula.

A piecemeal approach will be very expensive.

Do it once and do it right.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by WilliamR, a resident of another community,
on Oct 4, 2019 at 8:34 pm

Peter C.-- You've brought this idea up before, but haven't gotten past the fact that Caltrain/JPB, not the cities, owns all of that right-of-way. They're not going to build the housing, and I really doubt they would transfer or sell it to the cities. They might license it for running bike paths or dog runs, but not any real construction.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton,
on Oct 5, 2019 at 8:09 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"and I really doubt they would transfer or sell it to the cities."

Railroads have made millions by selling their air rights for over a century in places like NYC and Chicago.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Morris, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 6, 2019 at 1:15 am

"Peter C.-- You've brought this idea up before, but haven't gotten past the fact that Caltrain/JPB, not the cities, owns all of that right-of-way. They're not going to build the housing, and I really doubt they would transfer or sell it to the cities."

Because CPA is doing this in a vacuum, with no coordination between JPB and CPA according to mayor Filseth, we've no idea whether JPB will approve any plan to put its tracks underground or up on a viaduct, let alone tear up the tracks on the surface to build housing, offices, quaint shoppes, tennis courts, a dog run or a bike path.

I agree with WilliamR. JPB is in the business of operating commute trains and leasing trackage rights for freight. In 150+ years they have evinced no interest in being landlords or real-estate developers.

In the final analysis, CPA does not get to make the final determination as to whether the tracks go underground or up on a viaduct. This is a fact the city's myriad rail committees will have to come to terms with sooner or later, NYC and Chicago notwithstanding.

I have made these points many times in the past yet the city's rail planners continue to operate in a vacuum with no outreach to JPB.

It is fair to ask, if there has been no outreach by CPA to JPB then what are we paying millions to AECOM for?


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 6, 2019 at 8:10 am

This brings up a good point. Since the Right of Way is owned by Caltrain/JPB, does that mean that the ground beneath and the space above also belongs to them? If that is the case then shouldn't they be responsible for work that is done below or above and not the cities?

Another way of looking at it, if they decided to say allow cell towers built on their land beside the tracks, wouldn't they be the ones getting the rental and not the City?

It worries me that this piecemeal approach is going to cost us all a lot more in the future. In 50 years' time when a new technology wants to use the ROW, what we are doing now just might prevent that unless we have a sensible overall approach.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Morris, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 6, 2019 at 8:41 am

"Since the Right of Way is owned by Caltrain/JPB, does that mean that the ground beneath and the space above also belongs to them?"

Yes.

"If that is the case then shouldn't they be responsible for work that is done below or above and not the cities?"

I'm not sure what you mean by "be responsible for".

The purpose of grade separation is to facilitate traffic flow on surface streets owned by the city of Palo Alto. From this one can infer that CPA should bear the costs of construction and maintenance.

In the case of a road going under the tracks, good question. If it doesn't alter or interfere with the path of the train tracks, what are the respective rights of CPA and JPB?


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 6, 2019 at 5:24 pm

"The purpose of grade separation is to facilitate traffic flow on surface streets owned by the city of Palo Alto. From this one can infer that CPA should bear the costs of construction and maintenance."

Yet those costs are occasioned by the need to mitigate the impacts of CalTrain's activities, so it appears the railroad should share, if not bear entirely, those costs.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Morris, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 6, 2019 at 6:58 pm

Of San Antonio, Oregon, Embarcadero and University, which of those grade-separation projects were financed wholly or in part by Southern Pacific?

Historical precedence is not on your side.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by TBM, a resident of another community,
on Oct 7, 2019 at 2:44 am

"Mountain View has already decided it wants to tunnel the train"

No they haven't, they are moving ahead with a plan to lower Rengtorff road under the tracks, estimated to cost about $120m in 2030$ Web Link .
Closing Castro Street to traffic and building a pedestrian and bicycle underpass is estimated to cost about $60m, so Mountain View is looking at a total of $180 million to grade separate 2 crossings.
Sunnyvale has a similar cost estimate for it's 2 crossings.

Palo Alto's expensive design options are driven by its reluctance to take properties through Eminent Domain, a reluctance that Caltrain, Mountain View and Sunnyvale don't have.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for grade separations which is why the city must take the lead in coming up with a design that matches the cities long term vision. There is not much opportunity for economy-of-scale that Caltrain could bring by doing every crossing together.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by TBM, a resident of another community,
on Oct 7, 2019 at 4:42 am

@Peter Carpenter - "Railroads have made millions by selling their air rights for over a century in places like NYC and Chicago",

But never in the Bay Area where low density, weak soil and powerful earthquakes would make construction of a tall building straddling a railroad on stilts uneconomic.
If it is such a great idea why doesn't PA sell the air-rights above Alma Street to property developers?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Oct 8, 2019 at 4:56 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

Trains are not (normally) slowed in the least by grade crossings. The relatively rare exception is when motorists, or suicidal people, violate the law and illegally put themselves (or their vehicles) into the path of an oncoming train.

The benefits of grade separations accrue mostly to motorists, and, if they're designed well, bicyclists and pedestrians. As occasionally seen here on Caltrain and on completly fenced and grade-separated systems around the world, suicidal people can and do continue to commit suicides in station areas. Station suicides can be stopped with the use of platform screen doors, but these are (thusfar) only seen on airport people movers in the US.

There is a double standard whereby people lose sight of the fact that the red light delay times experienced at practically any non-trivial street intersection far exceeds that seen at Caltrain's grade crossings (whether at present or increased future service levels). Further, at peak periods, Caltrain trains typically never have less than several hundred, and sometimes even 1,000 people crammed aboard ... so you have up to 1,000 people NOT IN CARS " BUT WHO COULD BE IN CARS passing through a railroad "intersection" with a street, causing a motorist delay comparable to many ubiquitious and ordinary red light cycle times which would typically only allow maybe several dozen single occupant vehicles to pass. And yet, we have electeds and their constituents looking at spending hundreds of millions per crossing to eliminate a gate downtime delay which is comparable or shorter than most red light cycle times at any non-trivial busy road intersection. Don't take my word for it, whip out your stopwatches and start timing red-light cycle times and see how favorably Caltrain crossing gate downtimes compare. For extra credit, tally up the number of people that pass per second of red light delay vs. per second of Caltrain crossing gate downtime!

Rhetorical question: why is there no clamor to grade separate (freewayize) our busiest street intersections before any more cars are allowed to pass through them? Delayed waiting for trainloads of people to pass? BAD! Must spend hudreds of millions to fix! Delayed waiting for dozens of carloads of 1.2 persons to pass? OH WELL! Maybe rail against more high-density TOD housing (in favor of out-of-sight, out-of-mind, supercommuter-generating exurban sprawl)?

The foregoing is not necessarily to argue against grade separations, but it is merely intended as a reality check and to bring some perspective to the issue.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Have we asked?, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 8, 2019 at 5:37 pm

Have we asked? is a registered user.

Have we asked the households that might be affected by eminent domain about it? If someone offered me 2x for the house, I'd take it in a heartbeat and move farther from the tracks. The people who should be upset are the people who just miss out on eminent domain. Construction is going to be a bear.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 10, 2019 at 7:44 pm

Easy solution: Dig Charleston, Meadow, Churchill, and Palo Alto Aves straight under both Alma and the tracks in their existing footprint. No connections to Alma. No eminent domain needed. Smoother ride down Alma to boot.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 10, 2019 at 9:59 pm

Curmudgeon, your idea is beginning to make so much sense now.

With the total mess of Arastradero/Charleston anyway how can no intersections at Alma and A/C and Meadow make traffic any worse?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by TBM, a resident of another community,
on Oct 11, 2019 at 11:49 am

@Curmudgeon "Easy solution: Dig Charleston, Meadow, Churchill, and Palo Alto Aves straight under both Alma and the tracks in their existing footprint. No connections to Alma. No eminent domain needed. Smoother ride down Alma to boot."

Should the dug roads return to the surface immediately, or should the dug roads be tunneled all the way from El-Camino-Real to the 101 ?



Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.

Email:

SUBMIT

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields


All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Gluten-free bakery Misfits Bakehouse is reborn in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 4 comments | 3,174 views

Premarital and Couples: The "Right" Way to Eat an Artichoke
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 2,053 views

What did you learn last week?
By Sherry Listgarten | 8 comments | 1,446 views

Some answers, please, PG&E
By Diana Diamond | 12 comments | 1,367 views

The holiday season
By Cheryl Bac | 2 comments | 474 views

 

Race Results Are In

Thank you for joining us at the 35th annual Moonlight Run & Walk! All proceeds benefit the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday fund, supporting local nonprofits serving children and families.

Click for Race Results