Faced with busy streets, congested expressways and a rail corridor that is seen at once as essential and perilous, Palo Alto has no shortage of transportation projects on its wish list.
Now, with the county speeding toward putting a transportation-tax measure on the 2016 ballot, city officials are looking to make sure local needs don't get left behind.
In its first meeting after its summer vacation, the City Council will discuss a county tax measure that many see as the best hope for solving some of Silicon Valley's most gaping transportation deficiencies. The council will also review a list of projects the city is either pursuing or wants to pursue. The list will be submitted to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which is now updating its broad vision document for the region, a document known as the Valley Transportation Plan 2040. The 2016 tax measure would potentially fund some of the projects in the plan.
But which projects would get funded should the tax measure pass? That's the question that Palo Alto now hopes to influence. Given past history of how county tax funds have been distributed largely to cities south of Palo Alto addressing that question is taking on a degree of urgency.
The city's 13-page list includes more than 50 projects. These include locally funded projects such as the recently approved expansion of the city's shuttle system; $20 million worth of new bike boulevards (and another $20 million for "enhanced bikeways," which don't quite rise to the golden bike-boulevard standard); and the $11 million to $13 million new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek.
There are also county-led projects in Palo Alto, such as the proposed reconfiguration of Page Mill Road, and state-administered ones, such as the $55 million upgrade to the 101/Embarcadero/Oregon Expressway interchange.
Yet one item, with no identified funding sources, dwarfs them all: separating city streets from the Caltrain tracks.
Palo Alto officials have been talking about under- and overpasses at Caltrain crossings for years, a conversation that took on more urgency when voters approved the high-speed rail system in 2008. Since then, two separate clusters of suicides on the rail tracks have raised the priority level even higher. In recent years, the council formed a special committee to discuss rail separation and commissioned an engineering study to consider the project's cost. With the city's suicide-prevention strategy now including restricted access to the tracks as a key component, council members are looking at the 2016 tax measure as a key opportunity to get started on a trench for the Caltrain tracks.
The project could prove a tough sell, both in town and on the funding level. The price tag could top $1 billion if the track was built at a 1 percent grade in just the southern half of the city. A steeper grade of 2 percent, which requires a shorter trench, would drop the cost to $527 million and would involve the submerging of Caltrain below Charleston Road and Meadow Drive. The latter cost was estimated in a 2014 analysis performed by the firm Hatch Mott MacDonald.
The city is also considering submerging Churchill Avenue under the Caltrain tracks. That $196-million project assumes that Alma Street would also be lowered at Churchill, according to the project list.
The topic of separating tracks from streets and obtaining funding for doing so came up in February. In response to residents' complaints over train-horn noise, the council discussed establishing a "quiet zone" near the tracks downtown. Council members generally agreed the quiet zone would be an interim step while the city pursues its dream of grade separation. Councilman Tom DuBois, however, argued that pursuit of the quiet zone would distract from the greater goal. The city should "urgently support grade separation," he said.
"I think we should be laser focused as a council on the transportation ballot measure in 2016 and see if we can get money from that for grade separation," DuBois said.
Others agreed that submerging tracks or roads is a top priority.
Councilman Cory Wolbach said at meeting that he would support an economically feasible way do so. Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, speaking for the majority, said that the "priority of the city in the long run should be trenching or grade separation, and this should be the focus and attention of staff."
A new staff report, which proposes a set of principles for Palo Alto to take in guiding its positions for future transportation projects, shows city staff following the council's lead. The first two points on the report's list deal with Caltrain: The first stresses the need to ensure Caltrain has sufficient capacity to meet demand and match the capacity of BART; the second focuses on grade separation.
"To improve safety and operations and capacity (traffic and transit), a program to fully grade separate Caltrain in Santa Clara County should be included," the proposed principle states. "If specific locations cannot be included, significant funding should be set aside for future project selection."
So far, the VTA has included "increased capacity for Caltrain" as one of the many projects it is considering for the tax measure, with others including a long-awaited expansion of BART to San Jose, expressway improvements and various bike projects throughout the county. Given the recent history of transportation measures, it's far from clear how much funding Caltrain improvements will actually get.
Palo Alto officials have tried to make the case in recent years that with Caltrain ridership on the rise and the regional economy ticking along, improvements are crucial. Yet in both the 2008 and 2000 transportation measures, most of the funds raised went to the BART expansion. According to county Supervisor Joe Simitian, whose District 5 includes Palo Alto and the north county, the lion's share of the tax funds from the two prior measures were spent on bringing BART to San Jose.
This fact has brought little comfort to Palo Alto, where council members have long expressed concern about not receiving equitable transportation funding from the county. Former Councilman Larry Klein echoed this sentiment last May, when the council first discussed the transportation measure. The perception in Palo Alto, Klein said, is that "we haven't gotten our share of the money." In some cases, funds have been transferred out from projects that locals expected to see spent in the north part of the county.
"The perception is that BART is great, but so are a lot of other things that don't come to Palo Alto," Klein said.
Councilman Pat Burt, a long-time proponent of Caltrain grade separation, noted at that meeting that for Silicon Valley, "Caltrain is more important than BART, and its capital needs are less."
Simitian's recent analysis of how the funds from prior measures have been spent back up the council's concerns. His figures show 79.6 percent of the revenues from the 2000 and 2008 transportation measures going to fund the "BART to San Jose" project. This includes the entirety of the $320.8 million sum that had been collected between July 1, 2012, and March 31, 2015, from the 2008 Measure B proceeds. It also includes $3.3 billion of the $4.3 billion collected from the 2000 measure.
Palo Alto and the northern part of the county didn't fare much better in prior measures. Only 11.3 percent of the funds from the 1996 transportation measure (a half-cent sales tax increase) went to District 5 the smallest share among the five districts. From the $4.2 billion raised through 2000 tax measure, only $226 million or 5.3 percent went to District 5.
The largest share of the funds from the 1996 measure went to District 3, which includes a portion of San Jose, Sunnyvale and Mipitas and which received 35.2 percent of the funds. District 4, which includes another portion of San Jose as well as Campbell and Santa Clara, received 21.5 percent. These two districts also made the biggest contributions to the tax base, comprising 21.8 percent and 28.46 percent of annual collections, respectively.
However, Simitian's district has consistently contributed 16.35 percent of the tax revenues and more than two-thirds of voter support for the new taxes.
Funds from the 2000 measure also ended up going mostly to the southern part of the county. According to Simitian's analysis, 84.7 percent of these funds were spent in District 2 (which is in San Jose) and District 3.
"We all must keep an open mind but also certainly keep in mind the need for real congestion relief in the north county and West Valley," Simitian wrote in a letter accompanying the new analysis.