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."