Palo Alto to weigh new designs for rail intersections

City prepares to hire new 'rail program manager,' launch circulation analysis around rail crossings

Should Churchill Avenue be closed to car traffic and limited to bikes and pedestrians at its intersection with the Caltrain corridor?

Should East Meadow Drive be submerged under the Caltrain tracks -- or vice versa?

Should the Embarcadero have fewer driving lanes or more as it dips under the tracks?

These are some of the questions that Palo Alto officials hope to tackle as they move ahead with a detailed "circulation analysis" of each of the city's rail crossings -- a project that promises to be extensive, expensive and driven in large part by the community.

The City Council endorsed the idea of a broad circulation study in October 2015, during a broad discussion of Caltrain electrification and other transportation issues. On Wednesday morning, the council's Rail Committee considered the staff proposal for commissioning the study and tentatively endorsed the hiring of a "rail program manager" devoted exclusively to rail issues. The manager's duties would include, among other things, overseeing the multi-year circulation analysis and the accompanying community conversation.

"This would be a step back for Palo Alto, where we look at every single grade crossing within the city and analyze how important it is to maintain motor vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian circulation at each of those," the city's Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello told the committee Wednesday. "If we did not have circulation for motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians (at a given rail crossing), how would that affect remaining crossings in other (locations)?

"The ultimate outcome is a prioritization of our grade crossings," Mello said. "How important are they?"

The community discussion is made more complicated by unresolved questions about the city's vision for the Caltrain corridor. With Caltrain preparing to electrify its tracks and to send more trains up and down the Peninsula, and with the California High Speed Rail Authority planning to use the Caltrain tracks for its own bullet trains in 2029, Palo Alto officials have been adamant about the need to "grade separate" the rail tracks from the crossings streets by submerging the former beneath the latter in a trench.

As part of a separate but related discussion Wednesday, the Rail Committee endorsed an "advocacy position" from a coalition of North County and West Valley cities that would dedicate $400 million in funding for grade separation from the upcoming Santa Clara County transportation sales tax.

While both the circulation analysis and Palo Alto's exploration of grade separation are expected to take several years, committee members suggested on Wednesday that removing some alternatives from the get-go would shorten the process and prevent unnecessary community angst.

Vice Mayor Greg Scharff and committee Chair Marc Berman both voiced opposition to the two grade-separation proposals that analysis has shown would require significant property takings.

"If you take off the table the most extreme version of things, you often get a better process because you don't have people really freaking out," Scharff said.

Berman agreed and referred to his comment from last year, when he called the possibility of taking 50 parcels "devastating" and an "absolute non-starter."

"That hasn't changed," Berman said Wednesday. "We should make it clear that it's not one we're considering."

One question that the council will have to figure out is the extent to which it should involve other jurisdictions.

Councilman Tom DuBois suggested that the city would have a much better chance at implementing significant rail projects if it works with neighboring cities like Mountain View, Atherton and Redwood City on a "regional solution." By focusing on solving Silicon Valley's problems, rather than just Palo Alto's, the city may be able to tap into more resources.

But Scharff said he was concerned that if Palo Alto creates a long process that involves other cities, the city might end up accomplishing nothing. The goal, Scharff said, should be to improve circulation around local grade separations and the city should be "laser focused" on Palo Alto, he said.

"I don't see how you open it up to the community to talk about other people's grade separations," Scharff said. "I'd advocate for keeping it centered in Palo Alto and focusing on that."

The scope of the circulation study will ultimately be shaped by the full council, with the help of the new rail program manager. The manager, who would be hired on a contract basis, would be charged with overseeing the study, shepherding the city's engagement-heavy "context sensitive solutions" process and representing the city on dealings with the high-speed rail project.

The Rail Committee generally supported the creation of the new position but stopped short of approving the issuance of a request for proposals for the new position. The committee will discuss the position further next month.

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8 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 27, 2016 at 6:27 pm

Yikes! Now we have a director for the Palo Alto Process. A chief lip flapper director. Good luck on this one. Problem is we all get to pay the bill.

15 people like this
Posted by Stan
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 27, 2016 at 7:29 pm

This is amazing. Almost exactly 3 years ago to the day, then council members Berman, Burt, Holman, Klein, Price, Scharff, Schmid, and Shepherd all voted to approve, and signed off on the resolution approving the Palo Alto Rail Corridor Study Report: Web Link and links within to the documents. There appears to be no mention, or collective memory of this study, Why? Is that previous rail corridor study flawed? I would really like to hear what "Palo Alto officials" hope to gain by hiring yet another consultant, no doubt at great expense and time, to rehash what been stirred, poked, flipped, scrutinized, and finally it seems, ignored.

To refresh city council and "Palo Alto officials", this is the executive summary from that report:

The Palo Alto Rail Corridor Study was initiated in 2010 as a component of the City’s response to planned rail investments along the Caltrain rail corridor, specifically the California High Speed Rail project and potential modifications to Caltrain operations. To provide guidance for the Study, the City Council authorized the appointment of a 17-member Task Force in July 2010. The purpose of the Task Force was to:

generate a community vision for land use, transportation, and urban design opportunities along the Caltrain corridor, particularly in response to improvements to fixed rail services along the tracks through Palo Alto. The study may address some High Speed Rail (HSR) issues in a timely manner, but it is not limited to the HSR effort and would provide a vision and context for other rail improvements (even without HSR) and the City’s land use, transportation and urban design response to those actions.

The study area encompasses approximately 1,000 acres, and is bounded by Palo Alto Avenue on the north, San Antonio Road on the south, one half block east of Alma Street, and one half block west of El Camino Real.

Based on the position of the current City Council, combined with likely economic and physical impacts, the Task Force concluded that instead of considering the full range of options that has been discussed for rail configurations, only two alternatives would form the basis for the study’s analysis: a Below-Grade Open Trench configuration and a Two-Track On-Grade configuration. These two options represent the full range of is-sues and opportunities confronting the rail corridor largely because one of the con-figurations, the Below-Grade Open Trench, provides opportunities to grade-separate all crossings of the rail corridor while the other, the Two-Track On-Grade, requires solutions to the many issues that already confront at-grade Caltrain operations.

It should be noted that the Task Force, City staff, and consultants did not undertake a comprehensive analysis of all the potential impacts of the rail alternatives, such as noise and air quality. Such an effort was beyond the scope and resources of this study and will be conducted as part of CEQA and NEPA analysis of the rail project itself. The focus of Task Force efforts was to identify issues, a vision, and strategies for the corridor and its adjacent areas, which can be used as input to the preparation of any future rail improvement program and assist in the update of other City policy documents, such as the Comprehensive Plan, regardless of the selected rail improvement alternative

2 people like this
Posted by dsp
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 28, 2016 at 10:42 am

I think the reason for the redo is that the previous analysis, resulted in two proposals that would require significant property takings (50 residential parcels I believe).

"Councilman Greg Scharff and committee Chair Marc Berman both voiced opposition to the two grade-separation proposals that analysis has shown would require significant property takings."

Hopefully a solution can be found that will not result in taking peoples homes.

11 people like this
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jan 28, 2016 at 11:39 am

The reason that the rail corridor study was forgotten is that it has fallen into the black hole of Palo Alto studies. It's like the scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant, where the ark goes into government storage. One could name many such studies.

30 people like this
Posted by Five Coats
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 28, 2016 at 11:49 am

Closing Churchill Avenue between El Camino Real and Alma except for walkers and bikers would further impact the already heavy, heavy vehicular traffic on Embarcadero, Oregon Expressway and University Avenue. Its the shortest, least traffic bound route for reaching the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, Gamble Garden, the lawn bowling, the Rinconada library, Lucie Stern Center, and downtown Palo Alto for we residents who live in the neighborhoods south of Churchill Avenue on the El Camino Real corridor. There is little traffic except at Paly High commute hours. When flooding occurs at the Oregon and Embarcadero underpasses no alternate route would be available for vehicles coming from 101 to El Camino. All traffic would have to be routed to Middlefield Road and Alma to the Meadow railroad crossing. What a mess that would be.

6 people like this
Posted by Jonathan Brown
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 28, 2016 at 12:13 pm

It makes sense to study these issues in a thoughtful way (although why has this not already been done?). Eliminating safety and traffic issues due to at-grade crossings should be a City Council top-5 priority. Longer term, burying the tracks is far superior to other solutions I've read about (i.e., elevated tracks, taking people's homes, increasing noise and train traffic at or above ground level). If only voters could reallocate some of the billions that have been paid to overseas HSR consultants. Thank you, Jerry Brown! :(

4 people like this
Posted by Kerry
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2016 at 12:59 pm

Yes, close Churchill at railroad tracks. The street was never designed for all the unsafe cars, traffic, bicyclists, pedestrians,short-cut to El Camino, etc. The safety of our school children should not be exposed to unsafe conditions every day of their lives for walking/bicycling to school.What was once a back entrance to Stanford and Paly has become a major thorough fare to El Camino, instead of using the Embarcadero/Alma underpass. It seems to me that a safety study for Paly high school students should be the number ONE priority. If this were to become the designated entryway to Paly, traffic student access would be much safer than the mess on Paly's Embarcadero entrance. A new redesign and access to El Camino is definitely needed!!!

4 people like this
Posted by ltr
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jan 28, 2016 at 2:00 pm

There were studies to change these intersections over 50 years ago (1959) as shown the proposed county expressway planning diagrams.

Someone scanned them an posted them in Flickr. The link below is the one for Alma/Central Expressway from the north end to East Meadow:

Web Link

Even back then, they proposed closing Churchill and East Meadow and a overpass (similar to the one at San Antonio) at Charleston.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2016 at 3:12 pm

Churchill is the main route to Stanford Shopping Centre or PAMF and Stanford for anyone living in south Palo Alto, particularly those using Alma. In fact, many Mountain View people use Central to Alma to Churchill for the same destinations.

If Alma/ECR/Page Mill intersection was opened up to cross traffic, I suspect Churchill would have less traffic particularly at school commute times.

The truth is that Alma, although not an Expressway, is much faster than ECR or Middlefield due to less lights. If you want to close Churchill then work out that it might also affect traffic on ECR and Middlefield also.

As usual, expecting traffic to disappear into thin air won't happen if you close down arterials. They just find alternative methods to get where they are going.

1 person likes this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 28, 2016 at 5:38 pm

Put stop signs for the trains at each of these crossings. Problem solved inexpensively.

4 people like this
Posted by Stan
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 28, 2016 at 7:11 pm

@ dsp

The grade separations Scharff and Berman appear to be opposed to are the road over the tracks, or the road under the tracks. The now 3 year old Palo Alto Rail Corridor Study I referred to made trenching the tracks their top suggestion, as per the executive summary in my previous post. One real benefit of trenching the tracks is the very real likelihood that no private property along the tracks is taken at all. Road over passes or underpasses require a lot of land on both sides of the tracks, as exemplified at Embarcadero and Oregon Expressway. Trenching would be more expensive, but also offers a permanent solution to the growing problem of trains vs cars vs pedestrians.

This 'new' look at the rail crossings seems to be a giant step backwards in terms of time, effort, and money. Another giant fail of our city government in so many ways, in my opinion.

Like this comment
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 28, 2016 at 9:59 pm

@ Stan,

How do you dig a trench along side an operating railroad? Do you lose half of Alma for temporary tracks for the years that this would take?

1 person likes this
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2016 at 10:34 pm

I have carefully read the original grade-separation study. Palo Altans should be glad this matter is being revisited, as the original study was woefully and dreadfully inadequate IMO.

Many, many posts have addressed this matter in recent months. Palo Alto should consider what I call the "San Carlos solution" of hybrid grade separation, which the original study did not even address. Whether people like or do not like the San Carlos implementation of hybrid grade separation, it should nevertheless be given due consideration. Palo Alto should not make the costly mistake of constructing poorly-designed and ill-conceived grade separations.

7 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 28, 2016 at 10:55 pm

About 40% of Paly's parking is accessed via Churchill. And it's not just students. The PAUSD corporation yard can only be accessed via Churchill...buses, maintenance, landscaping vehicles, etc. Plus don't forget athletic events.

Closing off Churchill is not a good idea IMHO.

Like this comment
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2016 at 11:03 pm


The original study only considered grade separation by trench as far north as Matadero Creek. This would not achieve grade separation at Churchill or Palo Alto Avenue/Alma. Part of the justification for this was that Oregon, Embarcadero and University are already grade separated and should be left alone, which is the most prudent approach.

There are, for example, myriad issues involving the high water table at Oregon. That underpass is pumped 24/7 and has been since it was constructed in the '60s.

Like this comment
Posted by Johnny
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 4:26 pm

What will it take to shrink this City government which spends money to deliberately worsen traffic. All these meetings they have, the decisions they make, their very existence is a negative.
[Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 1, 2016 at 12:26 pm

Marie is a registered user.

It is inevitable that two to three lanes of Alma will be closed during the electrification of Caltrain. I only hope they stage it so only small parts of Alma are closed at one time. This was in all the environmental impact statements. In fact, I think the last straw was when they Railway Authority modified the impact from temporary to a permanent reduction of lanes on Alma to facilitate the four track solution. It was after that that local politicians, notably Mr. Simitian, negotiated the blended solution, of only two tracks for the foreseeable future. The HSR authority has never agreed to a permanent blended solution, and tried very hard to get an environmental impact statement approved that included a reduction of lanes of Alma. Look for this to come up again as they have now revived the effort to approve an environmental impact statement for the northern stretch. Perhaps, to avoid controversy, they will focus only on Bakersfield to Gilroy.

The only solution proposed by the HSRA was to raise the railway and lower the roads. I'm pretty sure this is the solution referred to above that would require taking 50 properties. I fully support rejecting these solutions. Unfortunately, I think this is what will continue to be proposed by the VTA and HSRA and any other regional transportation authority. I hope the city council can prevail. A trenched train, which would require coordination with surrounding cities (thank you Mr. Dubois), would be a huge win-win for the residents in cities along the train. I'm even willing to give up the pathetic remains of El Palo Alto, our emblematic tree, which would almost certainly destroyed if we trenched in Northern Palo Alto.

The City of Palo Alto Planning Department insured that Alma would be affected by allowing developers to build very close to the railroad right of way off Park. While this would make the four track solution even more difficult, it also means any major construction along the railroad, that does not close down the existing tracks, will require the narrowing of Alma for significant amounts of time. Since I live on Alma, I am looking forward to finding out more about how this will all work out.

PLEASE NOTE: I do support the electrification of Caltrain and responsible high speed rail development, although so far, all I've seen is very irresponsible high speed rail development. Anyone who cares, should check out the CARRD website, Californians for Responsible Rail Development.

All trolls who want to attack anyone for questions about ways and means of the railway electrification as a nimby - please go elsewhere. This is not a nimby issue. It is an issue of how to move forward, in a context sensitive manner, to make this development a win-win for everyone and to burden the local residents as little as possible. Those of us who own rentals along this corridor, should not have to lose their tenants, because the most important goal is to minimize the cost of construction. I expect some disruption and am ok with it, as long as I can still get out of my driveway.

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

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