News

Palo Alto to seek public input on trenching train tracks

City Council rejects idea of submerging roads and taking properties, but remains open to trench

Digging a trench for Caltrain would be a colossal undertaking with a price tag that could be higher than $1 billion, but Palo Alto officials agreed on Monday that it's an option that the city can't afford not to explore.

The City Council considered on Monday a new study by the engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald that estimated the costs of separating the rail corridor from the roads in the southern half of the city, either by placing the tracks in a trench of by submerging roads under the tracks.

The trench alternative, which emerged as by far the more popular of the two main options, has an estimated cost of $488 million or $1 billion, depending on whether the trench is built at a 2 percent or 1 percent grade. The cheaper option, a 2 percent grade, would require exemption from Caltrain and possibly the Federal Railroad Administration and may encounter opposition from Union Pacific, whose trains use the rail corridor for freight, according to Michael Canepa of Hatch Mott MacDonald.

The council did not vote on the trenching proposals, but several members vehemently rejected another design that would place roads under the train tracks. Doing so would require the acquisition of 32 privately owned full parcels and seven partial parcels, a prospect that many agreed was a deal-breaker, even though the price tag -- about $320 million, according to the study -- was favorable.

Councilman Marc Berman called the idea of taking properties an "absolute nonstarter" and said it would be "devastating to the community," a view widely shared by his colleagues.

Mayor Nancy Shepherd agreed.

"The only option I would consider would be trenching because it does not take homes," Shepherd said.

The study only looked at digging a trench south of Oregon Expressway, which would include grade separating the crossings at Charleston Road and Meadow Drive. The council requested that Hatch Mott MacDonald study only this part of the corridor. If this proves prohibitively expensive, members reasoned, there's no reason to spend more resources evaluating trenches for the far more complex northern half of the corridor. Digging a trench north would require the reconstruction of Embarcadero and Oregon Expressway crossings. It would also require construction across the environmentally sensitive San Francisquito Creek.

Even so, the council agreed that it's important for the city to have a community discussion about placing trains underground. Several members and speakers urged the council to spearhead a process called "context sensitive solutions" (CSS), which is commonly used by Caltrans to design freeway exits. The process, which was championed Monday by Shepherd and Councilman Pat Burt, entails intense community involvement in the early stages of design.

Several members of the public agreed that it's time to go out to the community for feedback. Nadia Naik and Elizabeth Alexis, founders of the rail watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), urged the council to move forward with the outreach. This includes figuring out exactly what the city's goals should be with grade separation.

"CSS is absolutely the next step," Naik said. "We should not do any further engineering until as a community we have highlighted what's important."

The council generally agreed. Burt said the CSS process takes time, but "It's been very effective." He called it the "current state of the art in how to look at major transportation projects."

Councilwoman Karen Holman also said that the "time to start educating the community and getting input really is now."

Both Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Holman also stressed that when it comes to a giant project like grade separation, money is just one of many concerns that should be factored in.

"There's the cost, and the emotional cost and the community cost," Holman said. "Those need to be fully integrated."

The idea of either trenching the tracks or building a tunnel has been a popular one in Palo Alto for years. The idea became particularly appealing in 2009, when residents and officials became concerned about high-speed rail passing through the city and disrupting the community with an elevated alignment.

These days, as Caltrain prepares to electrify the corridor and increase its number of trains, council members are bracing for increasing congestion and disruption at intersections.

The council agreed Monday that with electrification in the near future, the time to consider the city's options is now. Councilwoman Gail Price spoke in favor of reaching out to the community for feedback.

"I think there are lots of opportunities here," Price said. "I think there is an opportunity for us to take this very seriously and use this as a way to plan for the future of Palo Alto."

Comments

3 people like this
Posted by David Epstein
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 21, 2014 at 10:40 am

Trenching is the way to go: safety and quiet.


7 people like this
Posted by cheapskate
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 21, 2014 at 10:46 am

How much would it cost to elevate the train tracks and run the roads underneath, like San Mateo County is doing right now? Wouldn't this be tremendously cheaper? This shouldn't require any home demolition. Was this option even considered? $1 BILLION divided by the current Palo Alto population is around $50,000 per household. Who is willing to pay that price?


4 people like this
Posted by The Shadow knows.....
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 21, 2014 at 10:51 am

Where would the estimated 1/2 to 1 billion dollars in funding - for the Palo Alto section alone - come from?

Shouldn't any truly "context sensitive solution" include all communities so effected, like say Mt View and Menlo Park, just to name the two adjacencies?

How much would it cost to trench through all residential communities? Tens of billions?

Is Palo Alto's context more sensitive than that of other communities?

How do you trench under creeks?

What happens when the creek(s) overflow - say like San Francisquito?

It seems to me that this is either a poorly though out pipe dream, or a very clever guise attempting to kill the entire project.


14 people like this
Posted by JIm H
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 21, 2014 at 11:14 am

This is quite humorous. We're expecting our council to deal with the ramifications of the largest infrastructure project in the state's history. They have a hard enough time building a library. Or a park. Or a golf course.

Yes, it's great that they think that it's necessary to look at options, I'm just not sure they're going to come up with anything that's viable. But, I'm sure it'll make them look busy for a while.


2 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 21, 2014 at 11:23 am

It's a huge price tag but would be a positive game changer for PA for decades to come. Certainly, much of the funding will have to come from Fed and CA sources. The alternative, leaving the tracks at grade is not free vs. $1B. What's the difference in cost between a trench and a tunnel? The tunnel would free up hundreds of acres for parks, open space and some property the city could sell to help cover the cost. This is a huge opportunity for PA and a great investment in the long run.


1 person likes this
Posted by Ryan Smith
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 21, 2014 at 11:43 am

Not all intersections necessarily require automobile grade crossings. The Alma Street crossing (over San Francisquito creek) is prime for a bicycle/pedestrian-only crossing. Doing so would encourage transportation alternatives to cars in our downtown while also providing an inexpensive alternative to an automobile grade crossing (whether trenched, above grade, etc.)


Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 21, 2014 at 12:12 pm

There appears to be no good way to bring high-speed rail through the main populated part of Palo Alto.
( perhaps if it was done alongside one of our big highways?

There appears that if there were some good ideas ... and I always liked underground/tunnelling that they would cost too much.

The whole idea of high-speed trains ala European-style after 200 years of growth and development unlike Europe's historical evolution is too costly and will probably not be matched to our needs.

The thing is that in order for mass-transit/rail to be effective, or put our investment where it is needed instead of into some kind of flashy political thing that has no real need for it yet we would have to have lots of train routes out of the area in a medium distance and a lot of cars. That would allow lots of people to live outside the area and commute in ... like you see in the New York area. We absolutely do not have that and it would be expensive to build too, but at least there would be a point to it.

I think the problem is that it would lower everyone's property values too much not to have a housing shortage in the local area, which is what our real estate prices are based on - a shortage ... that we pretend we are trying to address but we really are not and will not.

Instead we will go through the charade of building lots of relatively small cheap condos and townhouses along a one-dimensional corridor, El Camino, that will house people but which people really do not want to to live in long-term when it is so expensive to do anything here ... and that goes double in retirement.


Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 21, 2014 at 12:17 pm

I don't like elevating the tracks because it would be a disaster if a train crashed, so in order to avoid that the train would have to slow way down undercutting it's reason to exist.

I also do not like trenching because is it would divide the City too much ... it's too intrusive. Not fair to bring such traffic, noise and vibration into an area where people paid a lot of money to live, the area is very valuable and it would lower property values and quality of life.

The one train we already have is bad enough ... does it just exist as an excuse to enlarge it?


1 person likes this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Oct 21, 2014 at 12:41 pm

@cheapskate

Elevated would be significantly cheaper, but would also be visible which is apparently a no-no (remember the "Berlin Wall" hysteria?). The Peninsula communities seem to keep backing themselves into corners by taking options off the table.


Like this comment
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 21, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Insisting on a 1% grade is not going to be acceptable to Caltrain, the FRA, Union Pacific ( who owns the right-of-way)
or anyone else who knows anything about operating a railroad. All railroad vehicles are designed to operate on a 1% grade. Tha't how they can advertise that the can run 100 miles on a gallon of fuel.
Unless Palo Alto agrees to foot the bill for a 50 percent increase in railroad operating costs forever, the one percent option won't go anywhere. Mike Canepa is right.


2 people like this
Posted by brooke
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 21, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Trenching for trains is a pretty widely used method of getting trains through an otherwise built-up area. This is the solution in use for the commuter line crossing the length of Long Island as it is going toward New York City. It seems to work quite well and separates the train, track crossings and noise from the surface activities of busy Long Island.


1 person likes this
Posted by concerned resident
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 21, 2014 at 1:07 pm

If we go for the trench option, It is only make sense to do it through all Palo Alto neighborhood, not just the southern portion.


2 people like this
Posted by cheapskate
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 21, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Trenching in the north part of the city is impractical because of the creeks and the existing street undercrossings (Page Mill and University). Tunneling under the creeks and rebuilding the road interchanges could easily increase the cost by 10x.


2 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 21, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Our city council unanimously supported high speed rail. Why?...well, because it was the obvious green-credentialed thing to do. Did they bother to think through what it meant? Of course not...that would be too bothersome. Now our council is hyperventilating about the political cost of a public taking of private properties for grade differentiation...so they get even crazier, and throw out nonsense about spending $1B to avoid the very thing that they created.

And they want us to approve a bond for $30M to pay for needed infrastructure? Beam me up, Scotty!


1 person likes this
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Oct 21, 2014 at 1:32 pm

I think the entire project is silly, but that aside, if it is to be built, trench it the entire length of Palo Alto. Our adjacent communities can make their own decisions unless we can get a large voice from much of the Peninsula to trench it.


3 people like this
Posted by Midtowner
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 21, 2014 at 1:38 pm

I find it ironical that we are discussing a 1 billion dollar trench for HSR in Palo Alto, while ignoring the real noise and environmental problem in this town: the continual roar of commercial jets flying mostly into SFO.


Like this comment
Posted by Brian
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 21, 2014 at 1:44 pm

The trenching in the north part of Palo Alto is made difficult/expensive by the Oregon Expressway and Churchill Ave crossings plus the larger San Francisquito Creek, which is too close to the University Ave station. The at-grade crossings at Meadow and Charleston plus the smaller creeks in the southern part of town are easier to trench under.

Also, a 2% grade is the one that would have to be specially approved by CalTrans and/or SP. A 1% grade is OK. Unfortunately, the consultant said a 2% grade would be needed to trench in southern PA.


1 person likes this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 21, 2014 at 1:52 pm

The City, and the Weekly, has failed to tell the truth about the costs of trenching Caltrain for anylength of Palo Alto. The money will doubtless come from bonds, which will cost the City another $500M to $750M, depending on the financing terms.

So, this project easily comes to $1.75B--not $1.05B.

According to the City, the so-called Infrastructure Backlog was at $550M a couple of years ago, and with this little project, it now jumps to over $1.5B in expenditures, and close to $3B once the dust settles on the financing costs.

No doubt our so-called "leaders" will be lobbying Sacramento, and Washington, claiming that "someone other than Palo Alto taxpayers" should be responsibe. Oh, and let's not forget that the cost of San Francisco Creek mitigation is still unsettled. Palo Alto taxpayers should not be accountable for that.

All-in-all, Palo Alto is claiming that it wants to spend somewhere between $3B-$4B in City-related improvements. And let's not forget the PAUSD, either. It's not long before they will be looking for $500M to $1B to "fix up a few little problems".

Please folks, take a breath and try to figure out just how much you think your taxes can go up in order to pay for all of these projects that are often really more in the realm of "beautification" and not in the realm of essentials.


3 people like this
Posted by cheapskate
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 21, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Lobbying the state or Feds for this money is not going to work. Then every city with train tracks is going to lobby for their $1 BILLION and there isn't that much money to go around. The city could lobby for HSR money, but that doesn't seem very popular with the NIMBYs right now. The city could lobby local companies like HP and Facebook, except that HP is falling apart and Facebook already got kicked out of town. That leaves taxing local homeowners. Who's willing to put up their share of this $1 BILLION?


2 people like this
Posted by neighbors
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 21, 2014 at 2:06 pm

what will our neighbors do? Both Menlo Park and Mountain Vie have at grade crossings, if we trench and they elevate, that will make for a really silly plan


Like this comment
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 21, 2014 at 2:33 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Trenching is the way to go, IMHO, based on what I know now. To make a decision, however, we need to know the true cost. We need to know the cost of construction and of land acquisition if the tracks are elevated. We need to know the value of developing some of the land above the tracks. Wasn't the cost of Grand Central Station in NY offset by the sale of development rights above it? Let's get creative.

As a homeowner on Alma, I support CAARD, and high speed rail done right. So far, all we've seen is proposals for doing it wrong. Trenching offers the possibility of improving the quality of life in Palo Alto, connecting the city instead of dividing it. This would be a win-win.


2 people like this
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 21, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Not trenching...tunneling!! Run deep, run silent.


1 person likes this
Posted by m2grs
a resident of another community
on Oct 21, 2014 at 2:47 pm

How about having the roads above the train tracks, like San Antonio?

Trenching is not realistic.


1 person likes this
Posted by Christine
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 21, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Craig Laughton paints exactly the right picture, and asks the right questions. Why did our city council lead us down this path?

I probably shouldn't ask this question, but does anyone know if he is single?


Like this comment
Posted by Dream On
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 21, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Another idea.... with several years of discussion ....
Have fun Palo Alto...


1 person likes this
Posted by cheapskate
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 21, 2014 at 3:31 pm

@m2grs - there are many problems with the San Antonio Road bridge. A big one is that bridges like this require a huge amount of land for all the cloverleafs and that means condemning existing homes. Another problem is that tall bridges are really difficult for pedestrians and bicyclists, both of which are banned from San Antonio Road, effectively banning non-driving citizens from some parts of the city. This is why elevating the tracks is much simpler than elevating the crossing roads.


Like this comment
Posted by LotsChangedIn6Years
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 21, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Craig,
Many people supported high-speed rail before the 'decision' was made to come up the peninsula (and terminate in San Francisco) as opposed to the east side of the bay (going near Oakland and then on to Sacramento and beyond). Most of us never considered that anyone would believe high speed rail was appropriate for the peninsula. The high speed route was supposed to be the backbone. But that is not what happened. And as much as I wish I could believe that sanity will prevail and the peninsula route will be trashed, I don't think that will happen now.
So don't go the route of badmouthing the Council 6 years ago for what they (and most of California voters) thought was a reasonable idea.


Like this comment
Posted by m2grs
a resident of another community
on Oct 21, 2014 at 4:02 pm

@cheapskate, Mathilda bridge over the train tracks was built very recently. It has separated walk/bike paths. I admit biking is hard over tall bridges. But it will not be a stopping factor. There is also a bike-only bridge for Stevens Creek Trail over the train tracks in Mountain View. So you argument is unlikely to hold up against those who propose this alternative.

As for affected properties we need to investigate in the context of the overall cost.

Trenching is better. Tunnel is the best. Everyone knows. But we need to consider realistic scenario.



3 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Oct 21, 2014 at 4:02 pm

@Craig Laughton

Regardless of what happens with the high speed rail project, Caltrain projects and simple growth will mean an increase in the number of trains running through Palo Alto. You can either deal with that by building grade separations, or deal with the traffic that results from increasingly frequent railway crossing gates.


1 person likes this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 21, 2014 at 5:28 pm

@ LotsChangedIn6Years: I understood that it was coming up the Peninsula six years ago. It was a pipedream hope that Palo Alto, and other Peninsula cities could force it over to the East Bay. Guess what?...the East
Bay didn't want it, and they had the political clout to prevent it. This basic political picture was well known, when our city council decided to support HSR. There are no reasonable excuses for what our city council did...they just wanted to seem green.

@Robert: I basically agree with you, regarding our own grade separations. We have done it before (University, Embarcadero, Oregon). The problem is that HSR is coming down the tracks, and that prevents a local solution to local commute problems. Palo Alto politicians, of various persuasions, could sniff that HSR money, and thought they could get a freebie...then they fell into to the trap that they set.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 21, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Geologists have promised us another 1906-scale earthquake in the not-too-distant future. I've seen claims that we are overdue. Maybe we should wait until after the devastation to solve these problems, when eminent domain would be cheaper and we have to rebuild everything anyway. I'd hate to spend a billion now and see it all cave-in a day after it opens.


1 person likes this
Posted by m2grs
a resident of another community
on Oct 21, 2014 at 8:11 pm

It seems to me in the end the result will be a compromise. Tracks are half-trenched. Bridges are built over the tracks. Sunken tracks make the bridges lower and easier to drive/walk/bike across. But full trenching is too costly.

Light-weight fiberglass walls can be installed along the tracks to reduce the noise.


1 person likes this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 21, 2014 at 8:32 pm

Musical, you bring up some fundamental issues with HSR. HSR is not redundant...a disruption of the line (natural events or terrorist actions)stops the entire system until repairs are made. A derailment in an urban area could be tragic for dozens of people, if not more. HSR runs on electricity, which comes, primarily, from coal...hard to figure how it is 'green'...especially when inefficiencies like artificial grades are introduced.

Of course, there are secondary issues like ridership, construction costs and security. Private takings through eminent domain. Construction disruptions/delays/noise. Weren't we promised that private investment would jump in to absorb the risks?...where are they? Operational costs... let's not forget the public unions that will control the thing...they will go on strike and shut the thing down when they feel like it.

Please remind me why we need HSR?


1 person likes this
Posted by QuietAndInvisible
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 21, 2014 at 8:58 pm

Tunnel under the creek and trench the rest. Split it with Menlo Park (they will need to do something similar to join up.

Stick the Feds and State with the bill.


1 person likes this
Posted by coooper
a resident of another community
on Oct 22, 2014 at 12:32 am

A billion dollars (or several times that when the northern half is included) is just an insane amount of money to spend on this infrastructure. Of course people expect the feds to kick in. But when you also include the fed's contribution to other pet projects nationwide then the cost is still $50,000/resident. It is possible that improved property values near the trench (and citywide in terms of improved traffic flow) will ameliorate some of this expense, and I'd like to see a study of that, but I doubt it will come anywhere near a billion dollars.

Why is the council auto-rejecting raised streets when, for the cost savings, each homeowner who gets bought out could be paid, when you do the math, up to $3-4 million? It is a good deal.

To Brooke, I looked it up and the LIRR in my old home town of Kings Park, NY is not trenched. Perhaps segments of Long Island are trenched, but not the whole length.

To Craig Laughton, rail was not so much pushed out of the East Bay by their politicians as it was pulled through San Jose by Rod Diridon and friends. San Jose has a lot to answer for.


1 person likes this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 22, 2014 at 1:50 am

@coooper - Check out the Alameda corridor project for trench project here in California. 20 miles of triple track, 10 miles of that is trenched. That was only 2.4 billion, so 1 billion for a couple miles in Palo Alto seems grossly overpriced.

Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 22, 2014 at 2:53 am

$50,000 is about my share of the National Debt (18T$/360M). Like @cooper says, if the Fed kicks in for everyone's pet projects on this scale, it simply raises the National Debt to $36 trillion. I don't see a problem.


2 people like this
Posted by grade separation
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 22, 2014 at 8:17 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.


1 person likes this
Posted by stuck at the crossing
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 22, 2014 at 10:51 am

The road goes underneath at University, Embarcadero, and Oregon. Why then is it
sacrilegious to contemplate doing the same at Meadow and Charleston?

I don't understand the notion that every house in Palo Alto has inalienable rights.


Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Oct 22, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Palo Alto is entertaining the idea of pissing away $1 billion for 2 measly grade-separations? At half a billion dollars each, this takes the cake. If Palo Alto is willing to pay this and all the tunnel pumping infrastructure upkeep costs in perpetuity (the gift that just keeps on giving) to keep them from flooding, then fine, that's their business. But if Palo Alto expects other people to pay, then no way!

The most sensible solution is a blend of raising the tracks about 10 feet or so and slightly depressing the roads by 4-5 feet. No permanent parcel takings, no blockec driveways, easy for bikes and peds to negotiate, and way, way cheaper. With proper design and landscaping, this solution is also esthetically pleasing. As an added bonus, you can easily punch through a few extra bike/ped tunnels where there previously were none (and away from cars & roads) as was done on the San Carlos/Belmont Caltrain grade separations -- so you have improved east/west community connectivity as well.


1 person likes this
Posted by Another Robert
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 22, 2014 at 3:44 pm

I'm glad to see the city council at least looking at options. For most of the previous 20 years we've apparently been pleased with four 19th century grade crossings in town. I look forward to our infrastructure moving up to early 20th century standards and eliminating at-grade crossings on caltrain.

How to pay for it? San Mateo has a dedicated sales tax increment going to grade crossings. They knock off one every year or two. Palo Alto's transportation sales tax increment is going mostly to BART, and some to new bus plans (Bus Rapid Transit).


Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2014 at 11:09 am

I am wondering how the acquisition of 32 private parcels is devastating to the community. If the average home size is 3 people then we are talking about having 100 people move or relocate. 100 people leaving Palo Alto is hardly devastating, and the law allows them to take their prop 13 tax basis with them when buying a replacement property. Certainly lowering the roads beneath the tracks would benefit thousands of Palo Alto residents not to mention residents of surrounding communities.


Like this comment
Posted by citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2014 at 12:00 pm

What is the differential cost between trenching and tunneling? Because it seems to me that if we're going to spend the money to trench, we may as well tunnel, because that way we reclaim a huge strip of land and right of way that could be quite valuable. Just having a pedestrian/bike boulevard all the way up Palo Alto would be amazing -- no just for recreation, but in the event of emergencies -- you couldn't buy that, and yet here we can.


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

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