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."