Group calls for more rail crossings, parks around Caltrain tracks

Task force report proposes new 'vision' for Caltrain Corridor in Palo Alto

For Palo Alto residents who live near the Caltrain corridor, the tracks are both a blessing and a curse -- a way to get around the Peninsula without cars and a barrier that restricts their ability to travel east and west.

This dichotomy, and the opportunities and challenges it presents, is at the center of a new report from a specially appointed Palo Alto Rail Task Force, a 17-member group that has been meeting for more than a year with the goal of adopting an official community "vision" for the corridor. Members included Sierra Club representatives Tom Jordan and Irvin Dawid, Board of Education member Barb Mitchell, architect Tony Carrasco, Jim Rebosio from the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, residents from various neighborhoods along the tracks and Charles Carter, Stanford University's director of land use and environmental planning.

The project was prompted by California's voter-approved high-speed rail system, which under the current state proposal is slated to run along the corridor. The community's concerns about the $98 billion project ultimately led the city to take a fresh look at the corridor and figure out ways to improve it. In July 2010, the City Council appointed the task force to "generate a community vision for land use transportation and urban design opportunities" along the corridor. In addition to the Caltrain tracks, the report examines El Camino Real and Alma Street, two busy north-south arteries that run parallel to the tracks throughout the length of Palo Alto.

The new report, which the council's Rail Committee began discussing Thursday morning, March 1, highlights the variety of circulation and urban-design issues along the corridor and offers, as the community vision, "to create a vibrant, transit-rich Corridor with city and neighborhood 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."

Barbara Maloney, whose firm BMS Design Group served as the consultant for the task force, told the Rail Committee that the vision the task force settled on "really capitalizes on the unique and special character of the area" and on the "unique mix of uses and diversity of uses that are in this corridor."

To capture this diversity of uses, the task force had split the corridor into six distinct "subareas," each with a unique character and challenges. These include three residential subareas -- Southgate-Evergreen Park area, Ventura and the Charleston Meadows-Monroe Park area -- along with downtown, the California Avenue area and the "neighborhood center" around El Camino Way in south Palo Alto.

Among the city's highest priorities, the report states, should be improving east-west connectivity throughout the city and particularly in south Palo Alto.

"The Caltrain corridor represents the most significant barrier to east-west connectivity in central Palo Alto. ... It is a difficult barrier that divides the city in half," the report states.

One of the task force's boldest recommendations is increasing the number of rail crossings throughout the corridor, whether as an underpass, overpass or at-grade. The task force brainstormed possible options and came up with a list of 15 potential new crossings that could be added to the 11 already in existence. It narrowed down its list to 15 "priority crossings," which would include four new ones -- at Everett, Kellogg and Seale avenues and at Matadero Creek. These locations were located largely to provide residents with safer access to schools and neighborhood services areas and to "ensure safe linkages at all existing grade crossings."

The task force's report also urges the city to bring more schools and neighborhood services to areas around the corridor, as well as parks and recreational amenities. The study area, the report notes, "is generally underserved by park and recreation facilities," though the report also acknowledges that creating "major parks and open spaces will be challenging" given that Palo Alto is a built-out city.

"In most areas, the goods and services offered in the area tend to be more regional or citywide in their orientation rather than serving the day-to-day needs of residents in a convenient manner that does not require dependence on the automobile," the report states.

The report states that the task force's vision for the mixed-use centers is to enhance their "variety of services, housing and employment, and create unique centers for neighborhood."

Its vision for the residential subareas is to "protect areas from noise, vibration and other impacts associated with Caltrain and future High-Speed Train," improve linkages to services and enhance the bicycle and pedestrian linkages.

Though the scope of the study extends far beyond high-speed rail, the report acknowledges that the rail project would have a significant impact on its study area. It includes an analysis of possible rail crossings under a "blended" design in which high-speed rail and Caltrain use the same tracks on the Peninsula and under an alternative in which high-speed rail uses a below-ground "trench" design. It also highlights a variety of state and county transportation initiatives that could further impact Caltrain corridor, Alma Street and El Camino Real. These include the "Grand Boulevard Initiative," a collaboration by various Peninsula agencies to improve safety and aesthetics on El Camino, and "Sustainable Community Strategy," a regional effort to encourage development near transit.

The committee on Thursday took its first look at the report, which is still in draft form and subject to major revisions. During the brief discussion, Councilman Pat Burt urged consultants to limit their discussion of state initiatives for Caltrain and high-speed rail given that these plans are "highly fluid." The rail committee will continue its discussion on March 15 and other local commissions are also scheduled to provide input in the coming months before the council adopts the document.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by HSR only?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 2, 2012 at 9:52 am

Is this project part of the HSR construction (which may be years or decades from now)? Or is the plan to build new crossings independently of HSR?

Like this comment
Posted by bill g
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 2, 2012 at 10:39 am

Have any estimates been made as to the costs of the alternatives? All ideas most likely would involve removing existing homes by eminent domain. Such action adds greatly to the cost of any crossing - not to speak of local opposition.

Who pays for any of the proposed crossings? The City already has forecast a budget short fall for the next several years.

I think any fixed action would be premature until the final HSR plans are completed.

Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 2, 2012 at 11:01 am

This is neither a project nor a plan, it is only a report out of committee. To become even a proposal, it has to go through Council.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 2, 2012 at 11:03 am

The way to improve that Rail Corridor is to run Bullet Trains on it.

Like this comment
Posted by Other priorities
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 2, 2012 at 11:50 am

I hope the "group" that is pushing for these changes is also willing to pay for them. I don't want to. We can't afford it. Who can honestly think we're not already paying enough already? It's got to stop! Necessities only!

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Southgate
on Mar 2, 2012 at 11:59 am

This is a committee dominated by development interests and housing advocates. They want bigger and more.
This is very different from the interests of Palo Alto residents.

Like this comment
Posted by James Baloun
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 2, 2012 at 12:39 pm

When considering corridor options it is useful to keep in mind the practical limitions of natural features such as elevation and waterways, and the limitations of the required clearances for pedestrians, cars, trucks, and of course the trains. There are ways to enhance the efficiency of a combined Caltrain / HSR corridor with the minimum of cost and materials.

Please take a look at the suggestions listed in selected blog postings on this blog:

Web Link

In this example the amount of pre-stressed concrete is cut in half while allowing easy pedestrian access:

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by tracks and airports
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 2, 2012 at 12:40 pm

More rail crossings? If they are asking for grade crossings, this is one of the nuttiest ideas I have ever heard coming from Palo Alto residents.

As it is, all grade crossings should be closed. They are far too dangerous for all involved. Everywhere in Europe (where trains are very common) they have eliminated grade crossings in urban areas. What we need, if anything is more underpasses or overpasses.

However, I must say that, as a person who ruled out buying a house near the tracks because of the tracks, I find that people who knowingly bought near the tracks have very little legitimacy when it comes to asking for fixes to the tracks. They had to know what they were getting into. They are like people who buy near airports and then start complaining about the airplanes. Give me a break.

Like this comment
Posted by Not under&over passes
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 2, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I don't agree about the underpass and overpasses for the train tracks. We must be logical and reasonable.
We have crossing guards at certain times.
Parents must talk to their kids about trains, and Never go out without an adult is with them. The parent has the option.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 3, 2012 at 8:27 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

I agree with T & A, all grade crossings should be closed, not as a component of some grand plan, but as a necessary immediate change. Beside the obvious elimination of grade crossing accidents this would eliminate the horn blowing and enable higher train speeds.

Like this comment
Posted by James Baloun
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 3, 2012 at 2:27 pm

It is standard practice to completely separate the auto and high speed train traffic with grade separation. This study is talking about increasing the number of locations where pedestrians can move from one side of the corridor to the other. This would help make the neighborhoods along the corridor much more walkable and pedestrian friendly. Grade separation also makes it less likely to have fatal accidents, although it almost impossible to stop someone who is determined to place themselves in harm's way. There will be less need for the trains to sound their horns, and cross-street traffic will not have to wait for the trains.

Like this comment
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of University South
on Mar 6, 2012 at 1:31 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

In response to the question posed by " HSR only?", my understanding is that our group is called "Rail Corridor" and not HSR Corridor for the reason you inquire about - it is about the current Caltrain corridor and nearby areas - extending to Alma and El Camino. In fact, in reviewing the article, per Councilman Burt's comments, we are encouraged to NOT look at state issues around Caltrain, much less HSR, that are relevant to the corridor.......speaking only for myself as one member of the task force.

Like this comment
Posted by Arnold the Pig
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I recently saw that movie "Unstoppable" with Denzel Washington and I'm not in favor of any new trains in my neighborhood.

They are fast and dangerous and are a relic of the 17th century.

Like this comment
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of University South
on Mar 6, 2012 at 3:26 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

Arnold, before 'your neighborhood' existed, there was the train.....just worth noting.

Like this comment
Posted by DZ
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Mar 7, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Totally agree with Walter_E_Wallis. We need underpass and overpasses to close the crossings. Otherwise, more crossings means more death.

Like this comment
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2012 at 8:19 pm

I think you'll find that historically, the number of people who have been accidentally killed or seriously injured by trains (e.g. their car gets stuck on the tracks) during the past 100+ years is quite small.

Like this comment
Posted by robit noops
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 9, 2012 at 9:05 am

I was stopped at the red light crossing at Cambridge and some lady pulled right up behind me and stopped on the tracks. I could see the northbound train down the tracks. The lady ignored the signs, and the common sense not to stop on train tracks. It is not an issue of the train tracks, it is an issue of people being to ignorant to heed common sense. I have lived in other cities that didnt have half the safety features of palo alto train crossings, but they were much safer because the people in those cities used common sense.

Like this comment
Posted by rambrasil
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 18, 2012 at 10:35 am

People advocating for underpasses or overpasses should recognize that they also kill the living standards near these places. They serve as gathering points for drug exchange, homeless folks and more importantly, many take it as a free pass to urinate and defecate near these. Just notice the state of the University ave. crossing and you will have to acknowledge that. I live in Sand Hill, far from all this, but would note that it is not fair to dismiss everyone who lives near the train tracks with "they knew what they were getting into". Yes, as it is now they knew. But you cant push on them a new bullet train, High speed rail or under/overpasses. They were not signing up to be subject to those. Unfortunately, the majority in this country seems to mean authority to push everyone around with some kind of moral authority. No, we are in a republic. And we have equal rights... So in all fairness, I wouldn't ever buy a home near a train track, but I can't support train track measures that those who live near it object...

Like this comment
Posted by Go back to the drawing board
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2012 at 12:03 pm


"People advocating for underpasses or overpasses should recognize that they also kill the living standards near these places. They serve as gathering points for drug exchange, homeless folks and more importantly, many take it as a free pass to urinate and defecate near these. Just notice the state of the University ave. crossing and you will have to acknowledge that."

I agree and would add that anything with transit activity diminishes living standards for a neighborhood, which is why there was community concern to begin with.

The task force looked at ways to "improve the corridor" but failed to give the task force the job to address community concerns. This is evident because they now suggest increasing circulation, and they make them sound pretty with words like "friendly."

It's surprising that resident representatives bought into the architectural hype and forgot reality.

"transit-rich" and "neighborhood" doesn't go together. City needs to go back to the drawing board, and instead of "improving the corridor" for the single-minded objective of overbuilding Palo Alto, focus on keeping the corridor clean, safe, and not overbuilt.

Like this comment
Posted by Go back to the drawing board
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm

"Among the city's highest priorities, the report states, should be improving east-west connectivity throughout the city and particularly in south Palo Alto."

East-west connectivity is an issue with cars, not pedestrians.

Adding 15 new pedestrian crossings between east and west will help nothing, compared to solving the connectivity issues related to commuters from 101 and 280. Is anyone addressing this?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Palo Alto's Taverna to expand next door
By Elena Kadvany | 5 comments | 1,852 views

What Would it Take to Get Tech Companies to Move Jobs Out of the Region and Is This a Good Idea?
By Steve Levy | 28 comments | 1,749 views

A Power Play
By Sherry Listgarten | 12 comments | 1,612 views

Premarital and Couples: Valentine's Day: Annually or Daily?
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 983 views

Piles of artwork
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 619 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.