Even as Caltrain's electrification project faces fresh financial hurdles, Palo Alto officials signaled on Wednesday that they plan to stay on course with their own rail priority: the separation of train tracks from local roadways.
The topic of grade separations, which involves reconfiguring the rail corridor so that trains would run under the streets (or vice versa), dominated the first meeting of the City Council's reconstituted Rail Committee. All four committee members agreed that even with all the recent Caltrain setbacks, the project remains urgent and should warrant a thorough community-engagement process, which may be launched as soon as next month.
While Palo Alto officials have been talking about this for nearly a decade, the effort has been picking up urgency and momentum over the past two years, thanks to Caltrain's electrification project and to California's proposed high-speed rail. Both projects would bring more trains to Palo Alto's rail corridor, potentially causing longer delays and worsening traffic jams at the city's four rail crossings.
Caltrain's project suffered a setback last month, when the federal Department of Transportation decided to delay an expected $647 million grant. Conversely, the grade-separation effort received a boost last November, when Santa Clara County voters approved Measure B, a transportation measure that would provide $700 million for grade separation in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale.
In Palo Alto, council members have consistently referred to grade separations as the most urgent priority when it comes to transportation infrastructure. But for all the talk, the city remains far behind other Peninsula cities when it comes to crafting a new vision for its share of the rail corridor. According to the city's rail consultants from the firm Mott MacDonald, the cities of Burlingame and San Mateo are fairly far along with their design efforts, while Menlo Park has recently identified three preferred alternatives for grade separation at the Ravenswood Avenue crossing.
For Palo Alto, progress has been slow. Though the city had commissioned in 2014 an engineering study to analyze the cost of grade separation, the council has not yet identified a preferred alternative or a funding plan (outside the Measure B money). Councilman Eric Filseth, a member of the Rail Committee, said he was "struck by the fact that other cities in (the) region are already moving on grade separation strategies and we're still sort of congealing on how we're going to approach this."
"This is the highest level of urgency," Filseth said. "We need to proceed expeditiously."
Past councils in Palo Alto have overwhelmingly favored a below-grade rail alignment, with trains running under the streets in either a tunnel or a trench. The Rail Committee's guiding principle explicitly states that the city "supports a non-elevated alignment of high-speed-rail/Caltrain in Palo Alto" and that the city's "preferred vertical alignment of fixed rail in Palo Alto is below grade."
Yet members of the Rail Committee argued on Wednesday that the community conversation shouldn't elevate these options over others. Mayor Greg Scharff said the council should approach the community with no "predetermined outcomes."
"At the end of the day what we're looking for is to have community buy-in and have an understanding of what grade separations will look like," Scharff said. "That's the goal. The question is how do we get there? How do we get to these tough choices?"
One way to get there, the committee agreed, is through "context-sensitive solutions" (CSS) process, which has been used for highway construction and which generally requires intense stakeholders' engagement, a clearly established set of objectives and a set schedule for key decision points. Yet staff and committee members also acknowledged that they need to pick up the pace.
"Our standard approach tends to take a lot of time and takes a lot of money," DuBois said. "I'm up for trying something different."
Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada said the challenge for the city is to find a process that promotes engagement, but doesn't take too long. The committee voted 4-0 to request that staff come up with a new engagement plan, which would be reviewed at its next meeting on March 22.
"How do we strike a balance between the CSS process, which could stretch this out in terms of time, while at the same time recognizing a sense of urgency in an approach that allows the engagement to come together?" Shikada said.
The committee also agreed Wednesday that it should take a fresh look at its guiding principles, which are still largely focused on opposing high-speed rail. Scharff called some of the guiding principles "outdated" and worthy of revision. Councilman Adrian Fine proposed expanding the committee's charter so that it goes beyond the Caltrain tracks and considers connections to the East Bay.
"I'm persuaded we should be looking at things like Dumbarton also," Fine said.