Nearly two decades ago, I asked a former council member to explain to me why this city debates and debates in deciding what to do and how to get it done. The council member explained to me (paraphrased) that “Many Palo Altans think this city is special – just look at how many bright residents with college degrees live here, even lots of Ph.D.s are in our midst. So, obviously we are a smart community, and if we’re so smart, we should be able to arrive at thought-out decisions for our community. We just have to together find the one right answer.
“And to get to that point, it takes time to discuss all aspects of an issue, all pros and cons, just to find that right answer, which smart people do. And this all takes time, and studies and consultants to accomplish. That’s why the Palo Alto Process is slow. But that’s okay, because we know we are smart and the process proves again we are right.”
This “process” of it being okay to take a long time to get things done has affected other projects in town:
• The pedestrian/bike bridge across Highway 101 took more than 20 years to decide upon and build, and ended up costing not $10 million but about $22 million.
• The city has finally decided to approve the Palo Alto History Museum after more than 20 years of cajoling and pleading from groups of residents. It still has to be built.
Current case in point: The PA City Council’s decade-plus-long discussion on providing grade crossings over or under Caltrain tracks so cars will not be delayed by train gates. At first the council focused on all four intersections-- and then three-- then four and now three again– Churchill Avenue. Meadow Drive and Charleston Road. Palo Alto Avenue at Alma will be determined later, the council decided.
Recently, the council learned that it could get $29.7 million from federal and state grants. BUT (and that’s a big “but”) Palo Alto would have to make its final decisions on the crossing alignments (autos go under, or over, or hybrid model that combines a raised track with a lowered road) by June 24 –nine whole months from now.
The council has already spent at least $3 million-plus on consultants as part of its years-long effort to figure out what exactly should be done. The council also agreed recently to pay Caltrain $106,676 in exchange for assistance in refining local plans for grade separations,
While staff says the track configuration decision can be made by June 24, some council members are doubtful – Pat Burt for one, chair of the council’s Rail Committee.
As Weekly reporter Gennady Sheyner aptly wrote in his recent story, Burt’s committee promised the studies that must be conducted before a decision can be made – “evaluating the pros and cons of each existing alternative when it comes to east-west a connectivity, traffic congestion, pedestrian and bicycle circulation, costs, private property acquisitions, environmental impacts and visual impacts.”
All that makes me wonder what the Rail Committees has been discussing for the past several years.
Sheyner’s story also reported, “Burt also said he worried that “speeding things up will keep the city from fully evaluating things like bike improvements, for instance. He called the timeline ‘ambitious,’ and said he is not ‘sanguine’ about being able to get to this point.” He also worried that some in the community may have “concerns” with this.
Analysis, Paralysis, I say again. And trying to please every0ne is an impossibility.
The proposed analysis will cost the city another $109,000, the staff estimated. The study, of course, will be conducted by the city’s rail consultant, Aecom.
Resident Steve Rosenbaum, who has participated in previous grade separation discussions, told the council he didn’t want to see the city “forced into making a quick decision on a project that’s going to have a long-lasting effect on this city.”
Yes, The Process is still alive and well in our fair city.
What do I think? This grade-crossing issue is becoming ridiculous. The city has been discussing this for more than a decade. Yet the committee and some council members still want more studies, more analyses, etc., which will cost more money. The fact that the city might lose the $29.7 million in grants is not even a driving force.
Enough! Just make a decision and move forward, council
As Judith Wasserman wrote online in a comment on the story, “It's a classic case of the perfect being an enemy of the good. Of course, there will be push-back - this is Palo Alto, after all. You CC guys get elected to have backbones, not be push-(back)overs. I agree, Judith.
Getting rid of the Palo Alto Process will not be easy, because in our town, it’s a mindset, and minds are hard to change. But we can start at the city council and commission level -– the council could impose deadlines for staff, consultants’ contracts can also include specified deadlines, etc. This way, the city can save time and money, and projects could be finished – without all this over-the-top analysis/paralysis.
Palo Alto can do it, can’t we? We are a smart city.