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.