Commuting by train may be on the rise in job-rich Palo Alto, but when the City Council meets on Monday to discuss the local rail line, its focus will be on burying Caltrain, not praising it.
Specifically, the council will consider commissioning a study to evaluate the cost of digging a trench for Caltrain between San Antonio Road and Matadero Creek. The study would also evaluate the costs of submerging the roadways at Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road as they cross the railroad tracks, while leaving the Alma Street intersection at grade.
The idea of separating roadways from the tracks has been lingering in the background for years but has become more prominent since 2009. The prospect of a high-speed rail system getting built between San Francisco and Los Angeles has prompted serious conversations about train alignments, with many local residents and council members urging an underground system for the new trains.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority has been loathe to commit to such a system, though, citing high costs and engineering complications. The design currently on the table has high-speed rail and Caltrain sharing two tracks on the Peninsula.
Yet the prospects of underpasses and trenching continue to tickle the imaginations of Palo Alto officials and residents, many of whom remain concerned about the dangers of trains and cars both running at street level.
While most experts acknowledge that grade separations would be expensive and complicated, reliable cost estimates have been hard to come by. In 2011, the firm Hatch Mott McDonald estimated that the cost of building a 4-mile, two-track trench from one end of Palo Alto to another would cost in the ballpark of $500 million to $650 million. That study did not, however, consider such factors as shoe-fly tracks (those set up for temporary use) or temporary road construction and did not look at underpasses.
The new $127,550 study, which the council's Rail Committee had approved by a 3-1 vote on Aug. 22, with Councilman Larry Klein dissenting, would be more refined and based on a new set of assumptions. The 2011 study used data supplied by the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The new one will use "current and local construction cost information" based on information obtained about BART and other similar projects.
"The recent and local data is more relevant for Peninsula/South Bay purposes, compared to the CHSRA information which was primarily based on statewide averages," a report from the Office of City Manager's Office states.
At the Aug. 22 meeting, members of the Rail Committee emphasized the study would be a useful tool for educating the public about trenching alternatives and for enhancing the city's ability to lobby for grade separation. Councilwoman Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd both cited local anxieties about having trains and cars remain at street level. This could become a bigger issue in the coming years, as the Caltrain system becomes electrified and more trains are added.
The city's station at University Avenue is already the second-busiest in the system, behind San Francisco's.
Klein argued against the study, citing the earlier study and arguing that the city should not spend any money on a project that is so uncertain. He also argued that studying trenching in only the south end of the city would violate the city's guiding principle to treat all areas of the city the same (staff is recommending not studying trenching for the entire corridor because of the complexity of burying the tracks around the San Francisquito Creek, at the northern border).
"It just doesn't make any sense to go further," Klein said.
Councilman Pat Burt disagreed and joined Kniss and Shepherd in arguing that the study will provide much-needed information that would strengthen the city's ability to seek funds for grade separation.
"I think, like we've seen in other projects, there are possibilities long term for much greater funding that we might envision or see available at the present time," Burt said, citing possible funds to stem major impacts of train projects.
Shepherd said it would also be helpful to provide the community with more information about what it would take to create underpasses or to put the rail line in a trench.
"There still is angst and there is uncertainty in the community," Shepherd said. "I think this will allow us to get a little closer to certainty and feasibility."