Caltrain trenching study wins green light

With some reservations, Palo Alto commissions a study for trenching tracks, building underpasses

Declining to stand idle while change arrives along the Caltrain corridor, Palo Alto officials on Monday agreed to commission a study that would evaluate the cost of digging a trench for trains in the southern half of the city.

In a 7-2 vote, with Larry Klein and Karen Holman dissenting, the City Council voted to approve a contract with the engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald to evaluate the trenching of Caltrain between the city's southern tip at San Antonio Road and Matadero Creek, just south of Oregon Expressway. The study would also look at the cost of building underpasses at Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road.

The $127,550 study was prompted by a number of changes looming on the near- and long-term horizons for the roughly four-mile Caltrain corridor in Palo Alto. In the long run, the corridor is envisioned as a conduit for California's highly controversial $68 million high-speed rail system, which under the current plan would share two tracks with Caltrain on the Peninsula. In the more near future, Caltrain is looking to convert from diesel to electric trains, a long-awaited change that would enable more trains to travel along the already busy corridor.

The looming changes have created angst in the community, argued Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who chairs the council's Rail Committee and who was one of the seven council members to support the study. Her committee had discussed the proposed analysis over a series of meetings this year before narrowing down the list of options to be studied to the two in its recommendation.

Shepherd said the study would provide the council with valuable information about which options, if any, are feasible for the potential future redesign of the Caltrain corridor.

"If there is a 'no' here for some of our options, we need to know what that 'no' is," Shepherd said.

The study is also expected to address a common local concern about the Caltrain corridor – its effect as a barrier between east and west Palo Alto. Last year, when the council received a report from a citizen task force charged with forming a "vision" for the corridor, one of the main themes in the task force's report was the limited number of roads that run east/west.

"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 stated.

Councilman Pat Burt argued that the study will allow the council to hold informed discussions with the community about addressing the relative lack of grade separations in Palo Alto. He noted that that the problem is particularly bad in the south. Building underpasses would ostensibly help relieve the traffic jams that already occur at the crossings and that will only get worse as Caltrain ramps up its service.

"That entire half of Palo Alto already doesn't have good access form the east to the west," Burt said. "We only have seven points where we cross east to west across Palo Alto."

Burt called the information in the proposed study "a critical part of our long-term future"

"If we just kick this down the road and don't even evaluate our alternatives until it essentially hit us in the face, we're not going to have the options at that time," Burt said.

Councilman Larry Klein, the sole member of the Rail Committee who opposed the study, rejected this argument and argued that the council shouldn't spend another dime on studying alternatives that would be way too expensive for the city to implement. Earlier projections from Hatch Mott MacDonald had estimated that trenching the Caltrain tracks along the entire four-mile corridor would cost between $500 million and $650 million. The committee agreed to limit the scope of the study to the 1.7-mile segment between San Antonio and Matadero Creek because of the high complexity of building trenches in the northern half of the city, which would require overhaul of the two Caltrain stations and extensive work around the San Francisquito Creek.

"I think this is an example of Palo Alto hubris," Klein said. "We have a tendency to think we can do everything. We can't. We don't control the money on this and we're not likely to."

Klein also argued that the city is moving too fast on the proposed study and urged his colleagues to at least wait until the ongoing lawsuit against the California High Speed Rail Authority is settled before determining whether to commission the analysis. He also argued that the council should get a "buy-in" from the community about the benefits of grade separations before proceeding with the study. The study, he argued, "will be a classic report that will be put on the shelf and not used."

Councilwoman Karen Holman also argued that the city should seek more feedback from the public before studying any dramatic proposals involving the Caltrain corridor, particularly any proposals that would require seizure of houses.

"We have to do a better job in reaching out to the public and getting them involved and engaged in this proposal, Holman said.

Others took the opposite stance and sided with Burt. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who also sits on the Rail Committee, agreed with Klein that the city is in some ways ahead of the big regional agencies in studying the alternatives. That, however, is a good thing, she said. The city needs to conduct the the necessary analyses to make sure it can be as competitive as jurisdictions in San Mateo County in lobbying for grade-separation funds, she said.

"I think Palo Alto should stay ahead of it all," Kniss said.

Councilwoman Gail Price agreed.

"I don't think we should wait until respective agencies feel the need or responsibility to provide this information," Price said, adding that the study will make the city "better prepared" for conversations with regional agencies. "This is a very, very modest cost to set us on one way."

The approved study would be split into two phases, with the council having a chance to revise the scope after the first $59,790 phase, which would look at the underpass and trenching scenarios and include "draft cost estimates and design exhibits." The second phase would cost $67,760 and would refine the data and include a "final feasibility report."


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Posted by grade separation
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 5, 2013 at 8:50 am

Wise choice. Our streets are unable to support current volumes of traffic and parking. Future growth will make the situation untenable. Transportation infrastructure is among the top responsibilities of government. Vision and investment are needed to keep Palo Alto moving. Grade separation makes sense at a number of levels. Let's do as most great cities have done and bury our traffic problems. Underground it.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2013 at 9:05 am

I think this is a good move although I am not sure how it could be done without interrupting Caltrain service.

I like the idea of having the space above the tracks used. We could have a proper bike path, separated from an extension of Central Expressway running all the way to Page Mill Road.

We could also have some green space too.

It would be a horrendous process but well worth the effort when it was finished.

But Palo Alto is not famous for getting stuff done so I am looking on it as pipe dream. That and the cost. It probably won't happen, sadly.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 5, 2013 at 9:24 am

I support the City's coming up with a good estimate as to the cost of underpasses at Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road. Don't think the trenching is such a good idea, or likely to happen.

But one has to wonder what Caltrain will do with these studies? Unless the agencies are willing to accept the studies, and actually do something about the conclusions the studies present, what's the point of the exercise?

It's a shame that this work could not have been initiated via the Caltrain JPA.

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2013 at 9:26 am

Palo Alto has money to burn on consultant studies.

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Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 5, 2013 at 9:30 am

Wayne Martin - Caltrain is not going to do anything unless the city comes up with the money to pay for the changes that it wants. Some grade separations are going on in San Mateo County right now, but only after the county paid for them. Since Santa Clara County is blowing all its public transit money on BART right now, projects like this are going to have to come from city money.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 5, 2013 at 9:48 am

> Caltrain is not going to do anything unless the city comes up
> with the money to pay for the changes that it wants.

Having researched this a bit, the cost of underpasses starts at/about $50M. The trenching is hundreds of millions more. The City has in the past refused to even talk about underpasses, other than possibily pedestrian underpasses, under the Caltrain line. So, this is a new expense to consider funding.

The City's infreastructure backlog is at least $550M, which does not include anything involving Caltrain problem mitigations. It's possible that the City will suggest that if Palo Alto wants to authroize the taxing of property owners to fund this trenching, and possibly underpasses, then they can push for ever larger bonding authority than they have so far.

We have not ever seen a valid infrastructure proposal, so there is no valid estimate for the cost of running the City for the next fifty years. It's pretty clear, however, that with the never-ending suggestions that we fund this, that, and the other--Palo Alto can not afford itself.

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Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 5, 2013 at 10:16 am

Trenching is a huge expense (upwards of $500,000,000 just for a couple of miles in Palo Alto) and unlikely to happen in my lifetime unless the city can get some outside source (like HSR) to pay for it.

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Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 5, 2013 at 10:23 am

A much more likely outcome is that the city will move one of the existing at-grade crossings into a tunnel under the train tracks. Close the other at-grade crossings to cars and replace them with inexpensive pedestrian bridges over the tracks. Car tunnels under the tracks will cost at least $50,000,000 each. Some nearby homes may need to be condemned to make room for car ramps (hopefully better designed than the ones at Oregon Expressway). A pedestrian bridge will cost only a small percentage of the cost of a tunnel, so the city should be able to build a bunch of these pretty quickly.

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Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2013 at 10:50 am

Last week I heard Russ Hancock speak about his vision for ECR as well as some comments about taking a more regionalized approach to various matters that impact this area. He has a vision for ECR that merits consideration BEFORE additional expensive work is done so that well planned, coordinated development occurs. It makes sense to me to know what in the heck is really happening with HSR and CalTrain BEFORE going forward with construction in the CalTrain corridor. At the very least we should sequence projects smartly and avoid the spectre of having to raze something that is relatively new. As City expenses go, 127k isn't all that much, but if it is essentially a waste as Mr. Klein suggests, what's the point?

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Posted by Jeff
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 5, 2013 at 11:23 am

Unfortunately this appears to be a waste of tax dollars. The High Speed Rail Authority is not going to spend $500M+ because Palo Alto wants it. I haven't seen any news about the grade crossings since the end of 2012. The plan still appears to be building partially elevated tracks with trenched under crossings where there are already at grade crossings.
Web Link

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Posted by John Kidd
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 5, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Sounds to me like Larry Klien is the only Council Member that's sees this clearly. Of course we are curious about the difference in costs of trenching vs underpasses, but curiosity does not justify expensive premature exploration.

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Posted by Traffic Wonk
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 5, 2013 at 1:40 pm

I disagree with Klein on this one. Though he is correct that the money for rail "improvements" will come from agencies Palo Alto has little control over, Kniss and Price are correct on their point--that we need to stay in front of this. Caltrain WILL propose the project that is easiest and least expensive for them regardless of the impacts it causes for us--UNLESS we have documented the projected impacts of various options. We can rely on HSRA and Caltrain NOT to study Palo Alto streets impacts thoroughly. That has been their pattern of behavior.

This is a good investment--important due diligence. It will give us information we need in the environmental review process to nudge Caltrain toward solutions that might actually work better for Palo Alto.

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Posted by Robert
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 5, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Caltrain does not pay for grade separation. Local communities, or their counties do. San Mateo County has dedicated sales tax $$ for it, so they eliminate 1 or 2 grade separations per year.

I don't see Palo Alto pulling $50 million out of the general fund for each of these. A better route would be to go for consistent, county wide funding, covering train crossings across multiple cities, including Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and San Jose. Like the $200M sales tax funding (over several years) for county wide Bus Rapid Transit we have now. Maybe by 2030 we can have a early-mid 20th century quality train system, with full grade separation and electric power.

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Posted by Not so simple
a resident of Southgate
on Nov 5, 2013 at 2:51 pm

People who think the trenches will be topped with bike lanes or green space are either very new round here or intentionally trying to deceive, to gain support.
Any space created will be gobbled up by developers. They have long since expressed their wishes to build above the tracks.
Also, when Council member Kniss is in favor of something, follow the money.

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Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2013 at 4:38 pm

Spending of money it going to happen but we need to find out different options to build the below grade trench. Does it have to be pretty?

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Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 5, 2013 at 5:01 pm

@Not So Simple - good point about Kniss.

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Posted by Cal
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 5, 2013 at 8:57 pm

I find it very strange that Klein insists that even considering grade separations for some, or all, of Palo Alto is simply too expensive (estimated cost about $650M), and therefore should be stricken from consideration. Isn't Klein on the same city council salivating over a possible $200M bond for projects the city council can't even prioritize, let alone articulate very well?

Karen Holman needs more community feedback? Karen, are you paying attention? Grade separations have been desired along the Peninsula for decades, really. Remember that rail corridor report that came out about a year ago? Perhaps you ought to read it. The people who put that report together did a pretty good job.

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Posted by toady
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 6, 2013 at 10:48 am

Now that the Maybell project got voted down, how about have the developers build senior dense housing along Caltrain that must include burying it? :-)

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Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 6, 2013 at 11:59 pm

I agree with Mr. Klein. You don't know how HSR is going to play out and you don't know how CalTrain electrification is going to play out, so you're going to spend a lot of money and wind up with a study that's obsolete before the ink is dry.

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Posted by Rational
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 7, 2013 at 6:10 am

I really like the trench option and have been thinking about it for years. There are following advantages:
1. Way better looking, it removes the visual interruptions caused by flyovers and underpasses.
2. Requires less space: drop Caltrain tracks down 20 feet as it enters town on the other side of San francisquito creek. It should take <1/2 mile at 1% grade and by the time you are at Lytton the tracks are down. Streets have to climb 5 feet or so over the tracks, gentle ramps with a tiny bit of space needed compared to tunnel thru options.
3. Clears up the mess near downtown. University goes over tracks and El Camino, intersects with Alma with a wide and nice intersection. Lytton and Hamilton connect to El Camino to relive traffic on University. A parking structure for Caltrain patrons goes above the tracks, and two large pieces of land get (current parking) freed up.
4. Gets Stanford "closer" to town. Right now the train tracks and el Camino act like a barrier between town and campus.
5. Less train noise: 45 degree sides to the trench channel noise up.
6. Boost real estate values of properties on Alma
7. A reengineered Palo Alto station with 4 tracks that can accommodate HSR. Station depot above tracks bad platforms below tracks like European stations.

I just think we ought to find the money. It will be pretty when it is done!

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Posted by cassidy
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Nov 7, 2013 at 8:29 pm

If Palo Alto does not have a viable plan how to deal with the Caltrain corridor, rest assured that the CA HSR Authority and/or the Caltrain Joint Powers Board will do what ever is necessary to keep trains rolling at the absolute lowest cost. Community standards would be of no concern to them, and issues such as noise, eminent domain, elevated tracks, etc are all viable options. The less $$ they spend on tracks, the more they spend on bonuses, overtime, more bonuses, and a great party when it's done celebrating how they completely duped Palo Alto, and no doubt other communities, because those communities were certain that they had the upper hand.

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Posted by Financial Insanity
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 7, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Go bug Zuckerberg or Sergey Brin/Larry Page or Larry Ellison to pay for the cost of doing all this! . . .it makes NO financial sense to spend that kind of money on such a small distance of track. Insanity . . .

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Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2013 at 6:44 am

This scheme to re-engineer University avenue and build a parking structure etc. would add tens or hundreds of millions to the cost. How would your lowered tracks cross the creek and not damage El Palo Alto and accomodate HSR and accomodate the Union Pacific freights and fit in with CalTrain electrification? Didn't think about those, did you?

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Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 13, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Regarding the condemnation of homes note that "eminent domain" does not pay the homeowner at market value. The calculation used is the tax assessment for the property with some other mitigating costs. If these homes have been in one ownership for many years than the variance between the tax assessment and market value will be substantial. Thus any investment to the homeowner will be a loss. And the homeowner will not be able to recover the differential in order to move to a new location. That needs to be brought out as it could affect other people in other city areas if eminent domain is used for other projects.

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Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 13, 2013 at 11:23 pm

Once the property is condemned, doesn't its market value go to zero?

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Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 14, 2013 at 7:55 am

The word "condemned" that was used in the original proposal is incorrect.
The displacement of property for the purpose of a government action (change in roads, example) should have been "eminent domain". In that case the owner of the property is entitled to financial reimbursement. The change in title to the property for tax purposes - property and income tax - needs to happen to update the tax assessment system. Transfer of title to the property is a formal action. If the property is being kept up and meeting code then the word "condemnation" would not apply.
Eminent Domain is being used in the central valley for the purpose of HSR which is targeting properties in Fresno that have been in families for many years - so the tax assessed value has no relation to the current market value. People are suing over that discrepancy.

Like this comment
Posted by pa
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 14, 2013 at 8:24 am

"Green light" for every study you paid. But Let the citizen vote for it first!

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 14, 2013 at 10:44 am

I hope the San Joaquin Valley settlers vs railroad dispute fares better than the 1880 version precipitating the Mussel Slough shootout. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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