Cities challenge Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority on transportation funding

Palo Alto mayor, mayors from North County and West Valley call for 'transformative long-range vision'

With the regional push for a transportation tax measure cruising toward November 2016, Palo Alto, Mountain View and other cities in the northern part of Santa Clara County are joining forces to make sure their needs don't get overshadowed by San Jose's.

The unusual alliance between 11 cities in the northern part of the county was prompted by years of complaints about the lack of balance in how the tax funds have historically been allocated.

According to an analysis by the office of Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, whose district includes the northern part of the county, nearly 80 percent of the funds from the past two ballot measures have been spent on the extension of BART from the East Bay to San Jose. This includes the entire $320 million raised so far from the 2008 measure and $3.3 billion of the $4.3 billion raised from the 2000 measure.

Simitian's analysis also showed that District 5, which also includes a portion of West Valley, received just 5.3 percent of the proceeds from the 2000 measure. District 1, which includes the remainder of the West Valley cities, received just 4.5 percent from that measure.

Now, the cities see the 2016 transportation measure as the perfect opportunity to change that imbalance. To that end, elected officials and city managers from these cities have co-written a letter urging the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to consider more comprehensive and integrated transportation solutions that would serve the needs of the entire county. It calls for the VTA, the agency pursuing the 2016 measure, to initiate a comprehensive study to develop a "system-wide plan that integrates future mass transit investments in Santa Clara County with connections to other counties, via such systems as Caltrain, as well as community-level systems and 'first/last mile' strategies,'" the letter reads.

Though the letter doesn't specifically mention the proposed tax measure, its strategic significance is clear. With highway traffic around Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos Hills and Cupertino severely congested during the morning and afternoon rush hours, officials are trying to ensure that a good chunk of the funds raised through the potential tax will help remedy the situation.

During a lengthy discussion that dominated its first meeting after the summer break, the Palo Alto City Council expressed its own frustrations about tax allocations and unanimously approved the letter to the VTA, which calls for the county to focus its attention on commuting patterns along busy Peninsula arteries such as U.S. Highway 101, Interstate 280, Highway 85 and State Route 237.

Signaling the renewed spirit of cooperation, Mountain View Mayor John McAlister and Councilman Lenny Siegel both attended the Palo Alto meeting. Siegel told the Palo Alto council that the root of the problem in Santa Clara County is that "we don't have a transit system in the county that serves our existing commuting patterns."

"A study of our transportation needs throughout the county and beyond is something that has to come out of the current process," Siegel said.

So far, the VTA's approach to the measure has consisted primarily of conducting surveys and soliciting projects from each city in the county. The process, known as Envision Silicon Valley, aims to collect all the data and then use it to figure out which projects to fund.

With San Jose boasting the largest population in the county and the most representatives on both the VTA and the Board of Supervisors, the BART extension is expected to do well once again. Bike projects, bus programs and pothole repairs throughout the county are also expected to win allocations.

Palo Alto's top priority is Caltrain. On Monday night, the city reaffirmed its commitment to boosting Caltrain's capacity and moving the train tracks into a trench so that they would no longer intersect with local streets. The project, which would cost more than $500 million in the southern half of Palo Alto alone, is one of dozens the city is preparing to submit to the VTA — a list that also includes bike boulevards, an expanded shuttle system and the potential widening of Page Mill Road.

In this crowded field of projects, the trenching of Caltrain stands out for its scale, cost and overwhelming popularity. Palo Alto's 4-mile rail corridor is expected to get busier in the coming years, thanks to Caltrain's electrification (which will enable an increase in trains) and the potential arrival of high-speed rail, further complicating the already inconvenient east-to-west journey in the southern half of the city. Recent clusters of teen deaths by suicides on the tracks added urgency to the project, with officials now focusing on "means restriction" as part of the citywide suicide-prevention effort.

Lest the VTA miss the point, Palo Alto supplemented its laundry list of projects with a shorter priority list, which includes Caltrain in the top spot, followed by bicycle improvements; first- and last-mile services from Caltrain to employment centers in north Santa Clara County; and support for "transportation-demand-management" policies, which aim to shift commuters from cars to other modes of transportation.

Councilman Tom DuBois was one of several members to call trenching Caltrain his "one priority."

"I think it has an opportunity to improve Palo Alto in a way that no other option really offers," DuBois said, noting that train frequencies are set to rise in the near future.

The project would "improve quality of life" in the Peninsula cities, and eliminate the train-safety issues and train noise, DuBois said.

"I think this is a time to start really asking for a large amount of money from the sales tax to be for the trench," DuBois said.

His colleagues agreed, though the vote on the priority list split 5-3, with Councilman Eric Filseth, Councilwoman Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid voting no (Councilman Greg Scharff was absent). Though no one disputed prioritizing Caltrain, the dissenting council members wanted to defer the full discussion about prioritization until next month, when the council is set to discuss the city's long-term vision for transportation. The full list, which includes about 50 projects, was approved by all eight council members.

Council members also unanimously agreed that Palo Alto should strengthen its collaboration with neighboring cities and lobby for a regional transportation plan. Filseth pointed to San Mateo County, which created an integrated plan as part of its 2004 transportation measure. Santa Clara County, he said, should follow that model.

"The Envision Silicon Valley measure doesn't feel like that," Filseth said. "It feels like a single-point project wrapped together with a scaffold designed by a political poll to make it more likely to pass a public vote."

Councilman Pat Burt, a long-time advocate for a Caltrain trench, thanked the Mountain View officials who attended the Monday night meeting and said he is "very encouraged by the current Mountain View council's interest in working together with Palo Alto."

"We look forward to cooperating," Burt said.

Mayor Karen Holman, who took part in putting the letter together, said she anticipates more cooperation with neighboring cities in the coming months. She agreed with Filseth and Councilman Marc Berman that the process used by the VTA is "flawed."

"It focuses a lot on pothole repairs, which all the cities acknowledge is not going to solve any kind of major transportation issue," Holman said. "It's going to get someone to punch the card (on the ballot) but it's not going to solve the transportation issues."

Filseth observed that all council members have a "discomfort" with the process being used by the VTA.

"If we submit a list of projects to the VTA by the end of the month, are we inherently buying into a flawed process that's loaded against us? I think we're all sort of grappling with that." Filseth said.

But even with the greater cooperation between cities, success in securing funding is far from certain. Palo Alto has no representatives on the VTA's 18-member board. And four of the five districts in Santa Clara County include sections of San Jose, making Simitian the lone voice representing the northern section of the county. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, a former county supervisor, warned her colleagues that the VTA is "dominated by San Jose."

"I sat there for the first two years desperately trying to get money into north county and away from BART — it's extraordinarily difficult," Kniss said.

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16 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 18, 2015 at 9:05 am

There is no mention in this article of the ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM which was and remains VTA's arrogant, self-serving plan to seize the left lanes on El Camino Real (Palto Alto through San Jose) for its new "rapid transit" buses only. The plan is for one such bus every 10 minutes (3 miles apart) during commute hours. Except for occational emergency vehicles, the left lane in each direction would be empty and the remaining two lanes so packed that other traffic would crawl (including other VTA buses using the right lanes). Even getting across El Camino would be greatly delay. The Palo Alto City Council was told it could and should oppose any VTA tax measure that does not affirmatively bar bus-only lanes on El Camino, but you would not know it from this article.

5 people like this
Posted by Johan
a resident of another community
on Aug 18, 2015 at 9:45 am

Instead of rapid bus lanes on El Camino, I believe we should have BART extended beyond Santa Clara, further into Sunnyvale/Mountain View/... in the corridor of El Camino Real, but on an elevated level so it doesn't impact road traffic.

17 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 18, 2015 at 10:17 am

I think what is needed is an overall system view. We shouldn't have these separate systems. We should have uniform approach where BART and Caltrain are one system, where the light rail and buses connects to train stops. The current system where are there are separate administrations for each is wasteful doesn't serve anyone well.


8 people like this
Posted by rainbow38
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 18, 2015 at 10:23 am

Since VTA choose to have mixed use lanes in San Jose, the option to close lanes of El Camino in other cities should not be an option.

4 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 18, 2015 at 11:27 am

BART and Caltrain are two different organizations with different political organizations and unions. If you watched the PACC meeting last night it was put on that table that politics is a major criteria for decision making - logic need not apply.
BART is an excellent system and needs to run independently from Caltrain - different political groups control these functions. BART should be up in the Foothill / 280 corridor to serve the growing industry base on the west side of the peninsula - that includes Stanford research Park, SU west side, VA hospital, SAP, Tesla, SLAC, etc.

The lite trail in San Jose is not well used - I do not consider that a success. It is slow and clumsy.

The good thing about Caltrain and BART is that they are not competing with cars and buses on streets. Buses are going to take up space on the roads and are competing with cars - not a good investment. You still have to get to El Camino to use the bus so why not keep driving the car.

24 people like this
Posted by Supporter
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2015 at 11:42 am

Opponents of BRT don't understand that the reason El Camino is gridlocked now is because of all of the people driving cars there! There are no meaningful alternatives to driving alone, so there is bad traffic. As we continue to add thousands and thousands of jobs, and as our population grows, the traffic is only going to get much, much worse -- because all of those people are going to drive alone, too.

Imagine if we gave those people a meaningful alternative. If 50 people took a bus, that's 50 cars less than now. That's 50 fewer people slowing YOU down.

So, opponents of BRT, what do you propose that we do about this? Use eminent domain and steal property to widen El Camino? Or do you like the gridlock that is there RIGHT NOW?

10 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 18, 2015 at 1:24 pm

Using an entire lane in each direction on El Camino for one bus at most every 10 minutes (perhaps one bus every 3 miles) is a waste of roadway designed to (1) get people out of their cars and (2) secure future financing for the VTA and its novel new invention called a "bus." Mixed but prioritized use of lanes would be another matter entirely. But if the VTA bureaucracy and its South Bay liticians on board do not place in their proposed tax measure that there can be no bus-only lanes on El Camino, the measure (if it requires a two-thirds) will properly be defeated.

12 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 18, 2015 at 1:41 pm

Back when HOV lanes were constructed, one of the justifications for using taxpayer money was that drivers were not losing lanes that already had at the time. Drivers gained a lane, albeit restricted during commute hours, but still a gain.

VTA wants to use taxpayer money to take away what taxpayers have already paid for. I think they call this theft. I would back a lawsuit on this issue if VTA tries to do this.

1 person likes this
Posted by Robert Neff
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2015 at 2:15 pm

I think Eric Filseth is right about the 2016 proposed sales tax and the "Envision Silicon Valley" effort. It is a means to fund expensive programs already identified by VTA, and the Envision SV effort is a PR campaign intended to get citizens involved in a process with a pre-determined outcome. For example, the top value has been determined to be "Safety". "All programs must enhance safety." A goal like that must be designed to make us all feel good, but it does not help guide development. I guess that rules out eliminating traffic with demolition derbys?

Part of the reason for the BRT program's existence was it's inclusion in the 2000 tax measure, as a benefit for other parts of the valley that won't get BART. Unfortunately the money was fairly specifically programmed for Bus Rapid Transit, not for just improvements to the bus system in general, like a higher frequency bus network from Cupertino to Palo Alto. That tax created a bureacracy in VTA with a goal of implementing BRT, instead of a goal of moving more people. One suggestion last night was to have more flexible spending options, so that the measure does not have to define the specific use, but could dedicate a fraction for bikes, a fraction for pedestrians, and a fraction for better bus connectivity, without assigning specific projects. I hope Palo Alto and other communities can drive VTA to adopt that kind of language, but the Envision SV process gives me little hope.

8 people like this
Posted by They take
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 18, 2015 at 2:42 pm

The express lanes in BRT will not work for inner city transport. With minimal stops and the removal of other routes, the in-town user will be punished.
How many think gridlock on ECR is from SJ commuters? That's what VTA is suggesting, that there won't be anymore traffic because they can get people from SJ/Gilroy into PA faster. That's how they look at it.
So the reality will be the same amount of cars and 1/3 less lanes.

*Tree removal is another horrific part of this plan. The MV section will be leveled. No trees allowed in VTAs new world.

5 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 18, 2015 at 3:15 pm

As I understand it, the sales tax increase to fund transportation projects is not a done deal and that the Council's recommendation is just that: a recommendation to PA residents on whether or not to support the tax increase.

Also, the CC's long list of projects is just that: a list. With a laundry list of projects like that, it's hard for it to be taken seriously.

Finally, what priority are they giving to fixing the El Camino/Embarcadero light / bottleneck?

Like this comment
Posted by Joe Bloe
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2015 at 3:25 pm

A subway under El Camino Real which begins at the Palo Alto Caltrain station, swings by Mountain View Caltrain and turns south at the 85 and on into Cupertino.

Like this comment
Posted by P.A. Native
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 18, 2015 at 3:28 pm

"Recent clusters of teen deaths by suicides on the tracks added urgency to the project..."

I wish this was true. Sadly, this is not urgent enough to come up with an agreed plan and end all of the bickering. Palo Alto will drag this out as long as possible while the price balloons and the trains keep rolling at street level.

Like this comment
Posted by Commentator
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 18, 2015 at 4:50 pm

"So the reality will be the same amount of cars and 1/3 less lanes."

Squelch this silliness quick: Make VTA pay CalTrans full market rent for its exclusive-use lanes.

4 people like this
Posted by Richard C. Placone
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 18, 2015 at 5:34 pm

I have commented on the issues raised in this article and by some of the commenters here before, but perhaps my thoughts are worth repeating:

1. Re the VTA's BRT proposal, i have attended one of the VTA's public meetings, talked to one officials about the the matter and studied the BTA report. My conclusion is that along with many of the issues other commenters have raised, and my own observations of the public's non-use of the present VTA buses along ECR, I think this proposal is a waste of millions of tax dollars. I can see no way that this will not result in massive traffic jams along ECR, all day long and especially during commute hours. Drivers will inevitably divert to side streets to try to avoid the jams. One official of the VTA told me it has already been decided that the BRT program will not include Palo Alto. I hope that is true. I also hope Los Altos and Mt.View remain steadfast in their opposition to the BRT. If the VTA/BRT program is not specifically excluded from the tax measure, my wife and I intend to vote against the measure.

2. Re the suggestion, being made over and over again, to either trench or tunnel CalTrain, the suggested budget of $500,000 seems impossibly low to me. I recall reading more than one engineering report during the early discussions about the proposed High Speed Train, intended to share the CalTrain right of way one way or another, that trenching or tunneling the system through Palo Alto - a distance of about 4 miles - is likely to cost close to one billion dollars per mile,or four billion dollars in Palo Alto alone. There are several difficult technical problems to overcome:

A)The water table in parts of the right of way is so high that 24hour pumping of the water to the bay would be necessary to keep the trench/tunnel from flooding. How is that justified, given the scarcity of water? Yes, this may not be potable water, but the aquifer from which this water comes does keep the trees in the area alive, drought or not.

B) There there is the matter of San Francisquito Creek. How is that managed with a trench or tunnel?

C. Finally, there is the existing Oregon Express Way under-crossing. Would the present overpass be retained with the HST temporally emerging from the trench?

There are probably other issues to face, hence the multi-billion dollar cost projected. I can't see Palo Alto residents footing that kind of tax liability. Unless all the billionaires in Palo Alto are prepared to chip in a billion here and a billion there, I don't see this being done in any of our life times. At this point, I'd almost settle for the elevated system for the HST, assuming it ever materializes at all.

Richard C.Placone

3 people like this
Posted by Joe Bloe
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2015 at 6:34 pm

I agree with Mr. Placone; $500,000 is an impossible lowball figure. Treble that number due to the inevitable "cost overruns" and it might get you a tunnel from San Antonio to Charleston.

Here is another complication: if Caltrain/HSR/Union Pacific is in a trench/tunnel at the Palo Alto depot, even if you can figure out how to get across the creek without disrupting El Palo Alto, once you cross the creek you've crossed the city limit and the county line and you're faced with getting the trains out of the trench/tunnel and back to the surface, assuming Menlo Park/San Mateo county don't plan to continue the trench/tunnel.

You would also have to completely re-engineer the crossings at Oregon, Embarcadero and possibly University, and now the cost really starts to climb. Add the costs associated with dealing with the water table and you can see where this is headed.

The Devil is in the details.

2 people like this
Posted by Richard C. Placone
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 18, 2015 at 7:46 pm

To Joe Bloe: Thanks Joe for the response. You are the first person to acknowledge that there are serious problems with under-grounding CalTrain/HST. I am now trying to get Tom DuBois to engage in a conversation with me about this issue. I've sent him a shorter statement re just the HST.

Richard Placone

3 people like this
Posted by Ben
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 18, 2015 at 7:59 pm

Barring specific legally enforceable terms in any future bond or tax measures to prevent yet another BART high-jack of public funds, I'll be voting NO. Ripped off twice now; Elected 'leaders', why are you letting this happen?

2 people like this
Posted by Joe Bloe
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2015 at 8:14 pm

Grade separations would be wonderful in Palo Alto. The only way I can see to do it at Alma and El Palo Alto is to have the automobile traffic go under the tracks a la Oregon, Embarcadero and University. This brings up the issue of the water table with the creek nearby. Assuming Menlo Park doesn't likewise trench the trains, they would have to be at the surface by the time they got to the creek.

Trains in a trench is a nice dream but in reality would be ghastly expensive and fraught with engineering problems.

3 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 18, 2015 at 9:30 pm

One poster claims to have been assured that the VTA will not extend bus-only lanes on El Camino to Palo Alto. The VTA's plan a couple of years ago was for bus-only lanes that ended at Showers Drive (short of San Antonio) in Mountain View. But it was a trick. Divide and conquer is the VTA's game. The real plan in the Grand Boulevard Initiative is for bus-only lanes starting in San Jose (already) and ending in South San Francisco. The current VTA plan has a version that includes Palo Alto. If Palo Alto is excluded from phase one, Palo Alto will be next. Wake up folks. Here is my prediction: The VTA will delay any (disclosed) decision until after its 2016 sales tax election.

5 people like this
Posted by Johan
a resident of another community
on Aug 18, 2015 at 9:34 pm

Instead of trenching caltrain, they can also have the train ride on elevated tracks with sound walls. We see similar things done in Asia public transport.

Like this comment
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 18, 2015 at 9:59 pm

Johan: The idea of elevated trains has been discussed in the past in connection with High-Speed Rail. I predict it would be met with a great deal of public resistance and comparisons to the Berlin wall.

If grade separation could be achieved at just four intersections, rather than the entire 4-mile corridor, it would be beneficial.

14 people like this
Posted by P.A. Native
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 19, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Anyone who compares a train wall in Palo Alto to the Berlin Wall, needs to have their head examined. I've seen it before and it drives me crazy. It's hyperbole plain and simple.

Like this comment
Posted by Pangloss
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 19, 2015 at 4:10 pm

We won't need grade separation when the system is electrified and the trains become super agile. Then they can obey the traffic signals at crossings. Grade crossings will be as tame as any intersection downtown.

2 people like this
Posted by BRT
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 19, 2015 at 4:22 pm

El Camino is already regularly packed. Assuming the same steady population growth we've already seen, it will become a parking lot soon enough. So, when it does become a parking lot, what are we going to do? Because as far as I see it, the only way out is to reduce the number of cars on that road and the only way to do that is to offer people alternatives to driving. Bus today isn't a good alternative because you're not only in the same traffic as everyone else but you're also making stops. So it's slow. A BRT lane would make going by bus as fast as going by car, and you don't have to look for parking. Given that it's much cheaper and faster to add a BRT lane than it is to extend Caltrain or BART or build a new system, it seems inevitable that when El Camino becomes unbearable, we need BRT. I just don't see a way around it in the next 10 years that's actually practical.

7 people like this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 19, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Sorry - I see no advantage for adding a bus lane on El Camino. The bus is competing with a car for the same space. The bus is not going where the people in cars want to go - like the market, work, picking up or dropping off children for school.
Quit with the bus stuff - it is so useless and a waste of time and money. It is an encumbrance. Someone wants to spend money on buses - the bus lobby. I am so tired of all of these lobbies trying to sell their products by telling everyone what a great idea it is - no it isn't.

2 people like this
Posted by Joe Bloe
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 19, 2015 at 6:56 pm

Any transit solution on El Camino clearly needs its own right of way. That means either a subway or an elevated train/roadway.

1 person likes this
Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Aug 19, 2015 at 8:29 pm

BRT in College Terrace has it right. What we have now isn't working and population growth is inevitable -- it's only going to get worse! We are desperate for fast, frequent, and dependable bus service along El Camino that is also linked to east/west local shuttles. When you travel in NYC you hop on the bus or subway, then walk a few blocks (or transfer). Is that different that the mess we have in the Bay Area -- yes. Do we need to change? Yes. We desperately need BRT. And it will involve adjusting, but I have no doubt that we will adjust and end up loving it. Once we had stage coaches instead of walking or riding a horse. Now it's time to enter the 21st century and develop our rapid transit. Imagine relaxing on BRT and using its wifi to work or read while you bus to work.

12 people like this
Posted by Joe Bloe
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 19, 2015 at 11:12 pm

Rose: New York City and San Francisco are geographically compact and have had mass transit in place for decades. Silicon Valley has much more sprawl when you count the cities of Palo Alto, Los Altos, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Santa Clara and San Jose. The area used to be largely agricultural with large expanses of fruit orchards. With the exception of Caltrain, mass transit has for the most part been an afterthought here. In addition, the area's population has exploded in the past 35 - 40 years. Comparing Silicon Valley to New York City is very much an apples-to-oranges comparison.

When I went to college in San Francisco you could get around more easily without a car than with one, similar to the way you describe in New York City.

4 people like this
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Aug 20, 2015 at 12:40 am

It shouldn't be a big revelation to anyone here that trenching and / or tunneling the Caltrain line would be a very expensive proposition with plenty of complications due to existing streams and other below grade conflicts such as current underpasses ect. In addition there are operational disadvantages of piecemeal trenching and tunneling creating a roller coaster effect.

The CA HSR Authority came to the same conclusion over 5 years ago and likewise they proposed cheaper grade separation options that either kept the trains at grade with underpasses beneath, fully elevated tracks or a combination of both to minimize both the depth of the underpasses and height of the elevated tracks. Of course the city of Palo Alto and most people here chose to ignore the the HSR Authority's recommendations as apparently back then the "cool thing to do" was vilify every suggestion they made if it didn't involve trenches or tunnels. And so that's what brings is to where we are now.

And just an end note: I repeat this for the benefit of those that are new to Palo Alto and the peninsula. I expect most other people know this already, especially the neighborhood groups and organizations that were most vocal in bringing about this disfunction. Thanks to them the peninsula has a rail infrastructure that is only a little more advanced than in the days of the "Old Wild West". The city of Atherton is even suing Caltrain to prevent electrification saying "diesel is the answer". What's Atherton going to ask for next? A return to steam locomotives perhaps?

6 people like this
Posted by topper
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 20, 2015 at 10:30 am

All Palo Alto needs to do is grade separate four crossings: Charleston, Meadow, Churchill and Alma. At each of the crossings, raise the tracks by 6 feet, lower the roadway by 6 feet and now you have 12 feet of clearance for cross traffic. This is called a hybrid crossing. The trains could easily handle it as it wouldn't create a roller coaster. There would be no conflicts with underground creeks or existing grade-separated crossings.

There are already three grade-separated crossings in Palo Alto: Oregon, Embarcadero and University. It makes no sense to pour billions into completely rebuilding these crossings and building a four-mile trench with all of the associated impediments, when all you have to do is separate four crossings. Other communities on the peninsula have managed to accomplish this but Palo Alto can't get out of its own way and continues to overthink such a simple proposition. This could have been done years ago.

No at-grade crossings means the trains won't have to sound their horns when they approach the crossings. Yes, the trains will still be above ground. You won't have a multi-billion-dollar bike path and won't be able to develop the ROW commercially. Deal with it, as 150 years of peninsulans have before you. If you really can't tolerate the presence of trains, consider moving to Woodside.

If Palo Alto is itching to spend millions of dollars on a project, perhaps a small desalination plant would be a more practical investment.

Like this comment
Posted by Guy_Fawkes
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 20, 2015 at 10:59 am

Guy_Fawkes is a registered user.


Perhaps possible if we didn't have something called Alma running along the tracks. With roads at two different levels you need clover leafs at each grade crossing - cost estimates have been done and it's over $500M plus seizing via eminent domain about 100 homes to make room for these roadway connections. Bike and pedestrian crossings at the intersections of 2 roads plus train will not be pretty either.

When you're looking at that kind of impact on our city, the alternative of trenching starts to look a lot more attractive as a long term solution - you don't split the city in half, you have easy car, bike and pedestrian linkages, you don't have to seize private property, noise impacts are reduced, and safety is greatly improved. This is a long term solution for Palo Alto.

Throw in High speed rail, which you mentioned, and forcing them to help pay for a tunnel or trench makes even more sense given the number of trains and speeds at which they will be cutting through town. Tunneling occurs where you have expensive land and we have some of the most real estate in the world. We could recover the land where the train is today and put it to better use.

9 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Aug 20, 2015 at 12:34 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

Trenching Caltrain through the city is a multi-billion-dollar pipe-dream wildly popular among some Palo Altans which is standing in the way of community consensus much more rational, achievable, affordable, feasible grade separation "split" grade separation designs in which the rails go up some and the roads dip down some.

There is absolutely ZERO additional transportation benefit to show for the extra billions to trench the railroad ... so the opportunity cost of trenching is HUGE.

The sooner Palo Altans stop holding out for the never-going-to-happen fantasy that other people's money will someday magically flow into Palo Alto so that it can be the only Peninsula city to build a "gold plated" grade separating solution for the Caltrain/UP/HSR line, the sooner Palo Alto will be fully grade-separated, eliminating horn-blowing, crossing-associated traffic jams and crashes.

3 people like this
Posted by topper
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 20, 2015 at 2:00 pm

Best of luck "forcing" HSR to do anything, much less pay for a multi-billion-dollar train trench through Palo Alto. The notion is absurd.

RealityCheck is right. Alma street would dip at the crossings and be at the same level as the cross streets -- problem solved. That is far more feasible than the myriad obstacles involved in crossing creeks and dealing with the water table. You also wouldn't have to completely rebuild Oregon, Embarcadero and University for a trench. I notice you didn't cite any specifics with these "cost estimates" you claim have been done. If some consultant is telling you there need to be cloverleaves and 100 homes taken through eminent domain, then you need to find another consultant.

If I were a real estate developer who had his eye on a 4-mile (albeit narrow) stretch of potentially developable land, I would be spreading the cruft that no other solution is possible and trenching is the only solution, so I could build my apartments, condos and retail space on the land.

1 person likes this
Posted by topper
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 20, 2015 at 2:30 pm

If Palo Alto tries to "force" HSR to pay for a train trench through town, every other municipality on the Caltrain ROW from San Jose to San Francisco will want HSR to buy them a train trench through their town. At a couple of billion dollars each, you can see how far that scheme will get.

6 people like this
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Aug 20, 2015 at 2:36 pm


You said: "Tunneling occurs where you have expensive land and we have some of the most real estate in the world."

That's a major oversimplification and in most cases I would say it's dead wrong. Tunneling occurs for a variety of reasons but the primary reasons are typically for engineering or operational necessity. Secondary reasons for tunneling are due to economic reasons such as tunneling under major downtown business districts such as in San Francisco or Manhattan so the train itself does not destroy the critical economic activity it was built to serve. Other reasons for tunneling are to protect critical environmental or cultural / historical resources where they occur.

Property values in Palo Alto may be high but they are not THAT high. There is absolutely no reason or justification for Palo Alto to get a $4 billion PER mile tunnel while that kind of expenditure is not even being considered anymore to connect Manhattan to the mainland and replace the tunnels that are currently failing. The original subject of this story was Palo Alto claiming it was being short changed by the VTA and left out of transportation improvements. The obvious problem here is that whenever a project is proposed Palo Alto's demand are ridiculously expensive and unreasonable. No wonder CA HSR turned it's attention elsewhere 5 years ago.

Some people need to recognize we live in a democracy and not a series of city state fiefdoms. Based on all other conditions being equal there is absolutely no reason Palo Alto deserves special privileges over San Jose (or Fresno) and other "lower value" communities without Palo Alto's high property values. People in Palo Alto who bought property by the tracks made a personal decision with their own calculated risks when they made their purchase. By no means at all is it the responsibility of the rest of the state to insure that risk. That being said there is latitude for negotiation and community input but it needs to begin at a rational starting point.

1 person likes this
Posted by outoftowner
a resident of another community
on Aug 20, 2015 at 5:47 pm

In Los Angeles, railroad tracks used to run adjacent to Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A., just as they run adjacent to Alma street in Palo Alto. At Beverly Glen there used to be exactly the type of crossing that should be in Palo Alto. Santa Monica boulevard is the main thoroughfare. The cross street is Beverly Glen which runs perpendicular to Santa Monica Blvd. Both streets dipped a few feet, the tracks were elevated a few feet and Beverly Glen went under the tracks. It is 100 percent doable without cloverleaves or taking 100 buildings in the surrounding area. There are structures on all four corners of this intersection.

The tracks were taken up when Southern Pacific abandoned the right of way several years ago. It is the intersection where Ernie Kovacs was killed in 1962. The railroad crossing had nothing to do with the accident.

2 people like this
Posted by Richard Placone
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 20, 2015 at 8:01 pm

To SouthBayResident: The engineering study I referred to,that seems to have started this thread, quoted $1 Billion per mile for tunneling, not $4 billion.

1 person likes this
Posted by Carlito Waysman
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 22, 2015 at 11:43 pm

I don't see VTA changing its ways, they will get the lion share of the money to use for BART, subsidizing their most of the time empty trolleys, subsidizing their bus operations, while doling out enormous amount of money in union employees pay and benefits, consequently buying union support for the politicians du jour.

Caltrain already has said that they are not doing any grading , trenching, tunneling and what not, that Palo Alto wants; they told the city very clearly, if they want to do something like that, they should do it with their own money . You can read it in Caltrain's environmental report for track electrification.

Is funny how things played out for the City that was fighting tooth and nail against the separate tracks for the High Speed Rail. Oh! the noise, Oh! how unsightly, Oh! how they dare to divide the city of Palo Alto in two.
So, they convinced their State Representatives to change the language of the Voters Approved Measure for HSR, instead of having separate tracks they now will share decrepit, nearly bankrupt Caltrain tracks; Caltrain was on its death bed, but with this "ingenious " move by a State Representative with a stake in Caltrain, old decrepit, money sucking Caltrain came back to life thanks to hundred of millions of dollars infusion , money that the voters had initially approved for HSR.
All the reactionary cities against HSR were so in love with the idea of shared tracks with Caltrain, they said it was a win win situation, that Caltrain was an honest entity to back up, they were promised the moon, comets and stars, they said would keep their word of working along with the cities regarding concerns and potential problems.

And then, the Environmental Impact Report for Caltrains Track Electrification came out; win-win situation for Caltrain; the mayor of Palo Alto crying foul, and so the other reactionary city mayors as well.

I hope it was a teaching moment for them ; but at the end they are just temporary squatters in this City, today they are here, tomorrow they are somewhere else, not much skin in the game.
Paraphrasing the great Harbaugh: " Who has it better than US?"

1 person likes this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 23, 2015 at 6:44 am

SteveU is a registered user.

I would like to see the EIR that makes the now to be stalled traffic less polluting than what currently exists.
Did they cook the numbers, by reducing the number of cars per mile simply because they no longer have a place to drive on ECR?

What will this do to Alma traffic which is already narrow (compared to the junction to Mountain View and Central Expressway)?

3 people like this
Posted by No Significant Impact
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 23, 2015 at 8:12 am

Alma and Foothill are not included in the EIR other than basically footnotes along the lines of, expect some increase in traffic, but not our job to study the actual impact of this increase. Sorry, not sorry. Same is said of residential streets which parallel El Camino Real... basically, "no significant impact".

It's a government "project", first we will be taxed to pay for it, then perhaps some will spend additional money for lawsuits to fight against it (if necessary) and then we will pay for it again with additional tax hikes to pay for cost overruns related to poor planning, etc. Ultimately, many will pay for it in physical ways...loss of quality of life for the residents the present day quiet streets which are soon to become thoroughfares for cars trying to avoid El Camino Real.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2015 at 8:46 am

I have a question.

How come highways cannot put in a carpool lane without adding that lane as an extra lane. e.g. we are told that a carpool lane all the way to SFO can't happen for that reason?

But a bus lane on ECR can take away a lane from the existing traffic lanes?

I have been on buses in Europe which use bus lanes, sometimes the only traffic going in that direction on the street. These bus lanes work, but they work because there is a high volume of buses that use them e.g. local city buses, long distance (greyhound type buses), airport and similar shuttles, private buses, hotel shuttles, etc. In none of these bus lanes have they been used primarily by one bus service with limited routes. The other reason they work is because people use them knowing that their commute or trip will be quicker than by car. As an example, the bus lane going into Heathrow airport from the M4 is moving quicker than the regular car lanes. There are even traffic lights that give priority to the buses. This means that getting into the airport complex is quicker by bus than by private car or taxi.

ECR does not have the volume of bus traffic to make this a viable idea.

4 people like this
Posted by It breaks my heart to say this, but
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 26, 2015 at 1:24 pm

I have supported past transportation tax increases. I subsequently have been disappointed by the disparity of distribution of those taxes between north and south county.

I will actively campaign AGAINST any tax that does not spell out in the ballot language how much money will go to each north county community--specifying what projects will be supported by those dollars.

We need grade separation of Caltrain to enable increased frequency train service without completely disrupting surface street operations for all modes. Bike and pedestrian projects in Palo Alto will be high on my list. In addition, I think it is unwise to have BRT compete with Caltrain. Bus transit should support, rather than undermine, train service.

We need our transit agencies to collaborate. It's time to break down the silos to create a more functional multi-modal network across the region. If major change is not clearly evident in the ballot language, I will actively campaign and vote against this.

1 person likes this
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Aug 26, 2015 at 7:52 pm

to It Breaks My Heart...

BRT will be complementary to Caltrain not in competition with it. Yes they are roughly parallel but with a few exceptions they serve different housing and business clusters.

BRT with stops spaced every couple miles serves a nice middle zone between local bus service stopping every 1/4 to 1/2 mile and Caltrain that may stop every 4 to 8 miles or 20+ miles with express service. Unless Caltrain had 4 tracks the whole length there is no way it would have the capacity to provide the same type of service as BRT without significantly slowing down it's whole operation.

If you want grade separations in Palo Alto please please please take your message to the Palo Alto city council. Attend the city meetings and speak up about it. Your city council are the ones that need to be convinced of that. Caltrain and the VTA are already convinced of the need. It's your city council that isn't. Just try not to be intimidated by your fellow residents in attendance. Those people have already exerted a lot of energy and influence to maintain the status quo. They may not appreciate your suggestions.

1 person likes this
Posted by Joe Bloe
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 27, 2015 at 3:56 pm

San Carlos has already done a nice job of grade separating the tracks and roadway. Palo Alto is way behind other peninsula communities yet continues to p*ss and moan and can't seem to get it together.

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

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