Palo Alto seeks larger benefits from 2016 tax measure

City's support for county transportation measure may ride on Caltrain

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.

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24 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2015 at 8:27 am

This does not go far enough imo. Santa Clara County should not be an island. People in the north county are not only left out, but it must not be assumed that they only want to travel within SCC or even within their own city. How will this help those that need to travel North?

We live in the Bay Area. This sort of thing has to be done at a regional level and innovative ideas.

We have no ferry services, can someone look into this, perhaps with hovercrafts?

We have Palo Alto Shuttles and Mountain View Shuttles. What happens to those who live in one and work in the other? We have Google buildings in both cities, and those employees use Google Bikes. Does the Bike Share program in Mountain View and Palo Alto allow for crossing city borders?

What about fast transportation to SFO and SJC? Most people need a ride rather than public transportation to the airports. Why? Answer, because there are no first class bus routes from transportation hubs. It would be much easier to get a ride to either the Castro Street station or the PA station to get an hourly luxury bus to each airport. Why hasn't there been any effort in getting a reliable transportation system to airports?

Lastly, why are there so many different transportation agencies in the Bay Area? We would do a lot better if they merged into one body. This would cut administrative, ticketing, marketing, advertising, route planning, costs and enable less administrators and managers to enable more money to be spent on actual transportation rather than support costs.

I am in favor of using tax funds to support transportation, but it has to be done wisely. Please be innovative and wise.

5 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 11, 2015 at 9:55 am

You can take bike share from Palo Alto to Mountain View, but this is discouraged by the 30 minute time limit. You need to be a pretty strong rider to bike from California Ave to downtown Mountain View in 30 minutes to avoid the overage charges.

I agree that we need more coordination for non-car transportation between Palo Alto and neighboring cities. Los Altos has bike lanes on San Antonio (south of El Camino), but those end without warning when a bicyclist tries to cross El Camino; a bicyclist was killed at this intersection recently, I don't know if that was caused by poor bike lane connectivity. Similarly, bike routes connecting Palo Alto and Mountain View are very poor (again mostly because of the San Antonio divide). I agree that Mountain View and Palo Alto really need to coordinate their shuttle busses and possibly have at least one large route connecting both cities.

For longer distance transportation (SFO, SJC, etc), electrified Caltrain has a lot of promise, if that can get built quickly. BART connects Caltrain to SFO and VTA connects Caltrain to SJC. Caltrain does have luggage racks.

1 person likes this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 11, 2015 at 11:17 am

Resident (of another Palo Alto neighborhood) wrote:

"Why hasn't there been any effort in getting a reliable transportation system to airports?"

Wake up! The SFO BART extension project cost $1.6 billion and was completed in 2003. Just take Caltrain to Millbrae and transfer to BART. It works great. You are free to flag a cab/rideshare at Millbrae if you don't want to take BART.

Prior to 2003, there was a reliable and convenient free shuttle bus from Millbrae Caltrain to SFO.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 11, 2015 at 11:26 am

You can get to SFO by (1) get a ride to the CalTrain station (2) take Cal Train to San Bruno (3) San Bruno is a joint station for CalTrain and BART--take BART to SFO.

4 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 11, 2015 at 12:26 pm

John's right, you can also transfer to BART at San Bruno Caltrain although it is a half mile walk between the two stations.

At Millbrae, the BART and Caltrain tracks are adjacent to each other and makes transferring easier, especially if you have luggage.

3 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 11, 2015 at 1:57 pm

@Parent -- BART from Millbrae you still must go to San Bruno to catch an SFO BART train, except on weekends when there is direct BART service (or after 8pm on weekdays). The Caltrain/BART connections are not well-timed, and northbound I can never figure out whether I'll be able to directly enter the BART platform or need to climb up and down some serious staircases. Southbound always involves a climb. ps: travelers be advised to think about bathroom planning.

I miss the good old Samtrans 7F from ECR at Page Mill.

Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 11, 2015 at 1:58 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> " In some cases, funds have been transferred out from projects that locals expected to see spent in the north part of the county."

This is an understatement. In tax measure after tax measure, the promises in the ballot measure to the non-San Jose portion of the county have repeated become "inoperative" (Nixonian) shortly after the election. It is not just the North County that gets ripped off, but all the other non-SJ portions.

I talked about some of these examples last summer in my blog "Public Transit Follies" (July 1, 2014) (Web Link) in the section "Practical Politics of Transit". This is over 15 years of "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me", or rather "fool me consistently time after time after time..."

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2015 at 2:01 pm

Yes, a very convoluted system does exist with separate fares to get to airports. Have you ever tried taking as much luggage as many people travel with on and off a Caltrain and onto a BART, let alone walk half a mile?

I was talking about buses that leave from Palo Alto or Mountain View and drop off outside the terminals.

I have taken buses from Heathrow to various towns. These buses are regular, efficient, comfortable and have wifi. They are far superior to anything available around here for either SFO or SJC. Transportation to airports does not have to be by rail.

2 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 11, 2015 at 2:34 pm

The difference is that everyone knows that London public transportation is heavily supported by public monies beyond the fares received. London's bus/train/underground transportation system is superior - but it doesn't come close to paying for itself. Only 40% of the revenues come from fares...

Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by coooper
a resident of another community
on Aug 11, 2015 at 2:35 pm

This yet-another-county tax is being pushed by a group of businessmen in San Jose, where it's described as money for potholes. If Palo Alto wants to discuss fund allocation, it would be folly to jump onto this measure.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2015 at 2:50 pm

CP Dad

London Transport is not the only agency that operates buses (and trains) into Heathrow.

Many other companies serve places like Reading, Oxford, Swindon, etc.

Airport transportation is important because not only does it work for those who fly, but also for those who work at the airports. When you see the number of people flying into and out of SFO on a daily basis of course the majority will be going to San Francisco or points north or east. Likewise, most at SJC will be going south. Those of us who live inbetween deserve to have first class options to get to the airports. At present, trying to get to either airport will take more than one fare and more than one transportation mode. Therefore for most of us, we use our own cars or get a ride. A few will get a taxi or one of the shuttles that come to your home.

If some of the airport traffic on 101 was reduced, it would make a big difference to volume on the Peninsula. Buses from selected cities on the Peninsula could work well if they were designated as airport transportation and not regular buses.

Taxes paid to transportation agencies to make them more efficient would benefit every single Bay Area resident. It would enable our teachers to get to class, our doctors to get to their offices, students to get to their classes, food to get to our stores with less traffic holdups.

I would much rather see taxes for transportation than for more lanes on highways and bridges.

I also think that anybody who has free parking where they work should consider that a perk and a benefit, not a given. If you work downtown San Francisco/San Jose/NewYork or London, you would not expect free parking. It is wrong to think that employees should expect free parking in a congested semi-urban area.

5 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Aug 11, 2015 at 3:03 pm

@Douglas Moran

You realize this probably has more to do with the fact that the majority of Santa Clara county lives in San Jose? Also, it makes sense to invest very scarce transportation monies into the areas actually willing to accommodate growth.

3 people like this
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 11, 2015 at 4:01 pm

Several times when similar topics have come up, I have suggested installing several "Park and Ride" type lots/small bus depots off 101 to assist with transit to/from the airports.
For example, for us in the Palo Alto area, we could have a small parking lot with drop off route through it and small bus terminal on the east side of 101 at Embarcadero Rd. The idea would be to have once- per -hour busses, they would go two directions - one to SFO and one to SJC. Drivers could drop off and pick up people who would use the busses to get to/from the airports, a straight shot either way on the freeway. This would take numerous cars off of 101. Yes, there would be a few stops, like three, but not many.
This is like what you have in the Boston metro area and it works great.
There ARE some situations where busses really do function well for lots of people.
I never will drive someone to a Caltrain station (I do not live near one), have them go up to Millbrae, then transfer to BART to get to SFO. This is REALLY clunky compared to lots of other places in terms of airport transit.
Yes, I know there are commercial ride sharing vans to the airports; they seem a bit costly and involve long transits in our/our friends' experiences, yes I know they are in many cities. However, there are also functioning BUS schemes in many cities, too, and select, reliable, timely implementations of such a scheme would be a godsend.

Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 11, 2015 at 4:14 pm

I agree that it makes sense to combine our multitude of transit agencies into one unified system to avoid the problems that occur at the interfaces, but that is NOT going to give Palo Alto a higher priority. In fact, it is likely that we would sink farther down the priority list if MTC experience is any indication.

5 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 11, 2015 at 5:05 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> "You realize this probably has more to do with the fact that the majority of Santa Clara county lives in San Jose?"

1. If you had bothered to read what I cited [portion removed] you would have seen that this was the first point there.

2. That SJ has majority of residents does not entitle it to a hugely disproportionate amount of the spending.

> "Also, it makes sense to invest very scarce transportation monies into the areas actually willing to accommodate growth."

Most of the opposition to the current rate of growth in Palo Alto comes from it having overwhelmed the infrastructure, and part of the reason for that is that the SJ power-brokers have consistently viewed the rest of the county as a cash cow for the projects that profit them. For example, to fund BART-to-north-SJ, VTA dramatically reduced bus service to much of the county. For example, to fund BART-to-north-SJ, VTA looted the funds for a rail link along at the Dumbarton corridor. For example, many of the long-overdue improvements to Caltrain have been repeatedly promised as part of previous transportation tax measures but been looted by the SJ interests.

We are now in a situation where VTA is actively working to make congestion much worse in this area. For example, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) that will dedicate two lanes of El Camino for buses that will carry far fewer people than the autos being displaced. The VTA managers for the BRT program admit that this will push vehicles onto parallel arterials that are already congested and on to residential streets. For example, Caltrain electrification without grade separation--because it is intended to increase frequency of trains--will increase congestion not only on streets crossing the tracks, but the parallel streets that that congestion backs up onto (El Camino, Alma/Central Expressway,...)

1 person likes this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 11, 2015 at 6:19 pm

Would there be any benefit to Palo Alto leaving Santa Clara County and joining San Mateo County? Our interests are probably better aligned with cities like Belmont than cities like Gilroy. If there's a benefit is there any format to explore how to do it?

2 people like this
Posted by Ben
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 11, 2015 at 7:55 pm

The last tax measure was high jacked to pay for BART. That was not what the ballot measure 'promised'. I'm inclined to vote no for future measures because it seems that the fix is in, and it's almost certainly not going to fund what ever the promis(es) might be.

If there is a large pot of funds available, I would support trenching Caltrain in Palo Alto, at least the Charleston and Meadow crossing. I'm not sure why Churchill seems to be excluded in these lists, but it could really benefit from a grade separation too. Once the train is in a ditch, it's mostly out of sight, and out of mind. The gate crossing hazard for cars and pedestrians and cross traffic traffic problems disappear. Train horn noise, disappears. Much of the other train noise, disappears. It's unlikely that CAHSR will materialize, but if the tracks are in ditch, HSR goes in the ditch too, where it belongs.

2 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Aug 12, 2015 at 8:04 am

@Douglas Moran

"Most of the opposition to the current rate of growth in Palo Alto comes from it having overwhelmed the infrastructure"

Which is why you're so open to growth in the areas that are already well served (Downtown/Cal Ave)? Didn't think so.

2 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 12, 2015 at 4:32 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

@Robert: "Which is why you're so open to growth in the areas that are already well served (Downtown/Cal Ave."

Ignoring the facts:

1. Vehicle commutes to University Ave face major congestion and projections based on growth already in the pipeline have multiple intersections in the U Ave area getting failing grades with no proposed remedy.

2. Parking: If U Ave is so "well served" why is there commuters orbiting residential blocks looking for parking spaces? Why is there an Residential Preferred Parking Program?

3. Caltrain is near capacity and electrification won't allow for much increase in schedule without eliminating at-grade crossings.

4. The ideas of the Traffic Demand Associations have been a priority for at least two decades, and have come up time and time again. Yet, the current advocates say "This time will be different" (because the speaker is involved and so superior to all those who preceded her).

As to the Cal Ave area, very similar.

If this is "well served", I would hate to see "badly served".

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Aug 12, 2015 at 7:17 pm

Doug, what you're describing is any bustling downtown, though I always forget, Palo Alto is special and other cities have these issues. Personally I never have any problem going to or parking downtown because I don't drive if I'm going there during a busy time, its easily accessible by transit to the majority of Palo Alto, but if your litmus test for "appropriate" places for development is abundant free parking, then everywhere but downtown or Cal Avenue should be built up first. I'll keep that in mind.

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

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