Calling it a critical project not just for Palo Alto but for commuters throughout the Santa Clara County, city officials on Tuesday night made a fresh pitch for grade separation of the rail corridor throughout the county and argued that at least 15 percent of the proceeds of a proposed countywide transportation-tax measure should be dedicated to this effort.
The council voted 8-0, with Liz Kniss absent, to direct staff to advocate for inclusion of Caltrain grade separation in the package of transportation improvements that would be funded by the November 2016 ballot measure.
The tax measure is expected to generate about $6 billion over a 30-year time frame. While Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is still in the process of figuring out which projects the money should fund, one project that will almost certain win a good share of the funds is extension of BART to San Jose.
That project has drawn close to 80 percent of the funds from the prior two countywide VTA tax measures, in 2000 and 2008, prompting concerns from Palo Alto and other North County cities about not getting its fair share of improvements for its tax contributions.
The council has advocated for grade separation in the past, though the expected increase in Caltrain service and the prospect of high-speed rail coming to town has elevated the project's urgency.
Councilman Pat Burt noted that these two projects will send about 20 trains through the city every hour, closing the crossings across the corridor every three minutes and creating traffic congestion. Given how much money VTA has put into the BART project, it's time for the city to request similar improvements for Caltrain, a service that is just as critical for commuters, Burt said.
"The dollars spent here on transit predominantly serve workers from throughout the county who work here and have to get here," he said. "It's not principally local residents who will utilize those benefits. It's the workers who will use that system and free up the other roadways between San Jose and elsewhere."
Grade separation (an under- or overpass) of Caltrain is already included in the list that Palo Alto submitted to the VTA as part of the planning process for the tax measure.
According to Palo Alto planning staff, the list of projects that the cities across the county have contributed to the VTA totals about $40 billion. A trench for Caltrain in the southern half of Palo Alto is expected to cost between $500 million and $1 billion, according to a preliminary engineering study the city commissioned last year.
But it's far from clear whether any funds for the projects will actually be included in the tax package. Carl Guardino, CEO of Silicon Valley Leadership Group, told the council last month that in addition to the BART extension, the measure will fund such projects as expressway improvements, transportation options for low-income seniors and improvements to Caltrain.
A Palo Alto staff report noted that in preliminary discussions, the measure will consider Caltrain improvements such as long trains, platform enhancements and an investment in grade separation.
Joshuah Mello, the city's chief transportation official, wrote in the report that given all the other competing projects, "it is unlikely that Palo Alto grade separations could be expected to receive more than $50 million from a VTA sales tax measure."
The council for its part, advocated that grade separation should be considered apart from the other improvements, which should be shared by all three of the counties which Caltrain serves.
Councilman Greg Scharff said the city has to "clearly advocate for grade separation" and request that $1.5 billion from the tax proceeds be devoted to the project. He also recommended that staff returns to the council for more discussion, once it becomes more clear what the VTA measure would look like. The council can then consider whether to support the countywide tax and whether to pursue a local tax measure devoted to local needs.
Councilman Tom DuBois said the council needs to be "hard-nosed and clear" about what the city wants to see and demand that the measure include specific percentages that would be spent on grade separations, street improvements and highway projects. Like Burt, he argued that building a trench for Caltrain is not "just about Palo Alto residents."
"It's about Palo Alto being a major job center for the entire county and a lot of these projects would benefit a lot of people," DuBois said.
Vice Mayor Greg Schmid noted that even if the sales tax moves ahead and allocates some funding for grade separation, the amount the city receives would likely fall far short of what's needed to make the project a reality. The city needs to consider financing "packages," he said.
Other sources could include federal and state grants or a local tax measure. Another idea that Schmid championed Tuesday is seeking contributions from the business community by imposing fees earmarked specifically for transportation improvements. Separating city streets from the Caltrain tracks and improving commute routes would benefit employees in the city more than residents, he said.
"How do we get the business community to participate in the cost of making this effective in the future, either through fees or taxes?" Schmid asked during the Tuesday discussion.
Burt, meanwhile, proposed moving forward with a business license tax that would be based on the number of employees. He specified, however, that these funds should be used for the city's transit services and traffic-reduction measures and not for regional projects like Caltrain.
It's important, he said, for the city to reframe the conversation about Caltrain's importance to the region. He noted that BART has gotten the lion's share of the proceeds in the last two measures and that it will likely get a big share again. He characterized the two rail agencies as "externalizing the impacts of more trains" and acting as if they "have no responsibilities for the related impacts of that action." That, he said, is wrong.
"We've allowed others to frame how we should be talking about this," Burt said. "We've allowed it for years on the BART-to-San Jose question. We're talking about not even being allowed to consider an open trench, and BART-to-San Jose has a tunnel under a lake."