News

County funds boost effort to modify rail corridor

City plans to launch fresh outreach effort focused on 'grade separation'

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.

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Comments

17 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 1, 2017 at 2:36 pm

Every employer needs to pay a grade separation fee for each employee. Every developer needs to pay a grade separation fee based on square footage.


16 people like this
Posted by tomaha
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 1, 2017 at 3:08 pm

They should be comedians: "Let's come up with a plan so we can plan faster in the future". "Ok. Sounds good. Perhaps we can also spend some money on some useless study that we don't use anyway. Let's talk again in a month. Perhaps we can then vote about a plan to make a plan to make planning more efficient.". Perhaps they should do the same 'plan' they executed for the bike bridge over 101 which will be done shortly after Caltrain electrification...

I'm always amazed how a high-tech region like the Bay Area can be so behind on so many fronts. Trains and crossing cars don't mix well and if you have as much traffic as we have here you'll get chaos.


18 people like this
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 1, 2017 at 3:54 pm

Hilarious. They're behind other cities and have not timeline or ideas on how to get it done, but Fine wants to expand the scope and look at the East Bay.


9 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 1, 2017 at 4:34 pm

It's easy, if people don't demand too much:

- Close the Alma crossing. Option: connect our Alma to Menlo's Alma.

- Enlarge the existing Embarcadero underpass to 4 lanes.

- Close Churchill.

- Dig Meadow and Charleston under both Alma and the tracks; no connection to Alma.


17 people like this
Posted by Bill Ross
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 1, 2017 at 5:28 pm

This action relates directly to the Council action of January 30th stripping the implementation provisions from the Comp Plan Land Use Element. Grade crossings whether at grade or separated grade must be set forth on the Circulation Element which MUST be internally consistent with and coordinated the Land Use Element (and the other Comp Plan required elements). The process exists right now! Put it in the Comp Plan Circulation Element with the required implementation measure--a development fee (enacted on an urgency basis). The fee would be determined on a nexus basis as suggested by others and would be of an amount commensurate with the benefit and actual cost. What is that cost? There are plenty of examples right now all within the 15 to 20 million range. PUC approval is required and experienced practitioners before that agency will say that it will generally expedite review and approval assuming agreement from the involved rail line. Why the Mayor wants a complicated review process is simply beyond any rational approach--a separated grade crossing enhances safety, improves traffic circulation, reduces greenhouse gases and increases productive worker time. Once again understanding the facts, the actual approval procedure and the cost are by passed in favor of some hidden agenda. Just do it and do it right it is in the best interests of the City.


5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 1, 2017 at 7:35 pm

"Why the Mayor wants a complicated review process is simply beyond any rational approach..."

It's a proven way to smother something in red tape.


4 people like this
Posted by Train Neighbor
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 1, 2017 at 8:15 pm

The Council report on grade separation (10/20/14 update from rail consultant Hatch Mott McDonald) compared the options of having the train go in a trench ($0.5B - $1B) or have the road drop below the train ($0.27B - $0.48B. With road below the train option, there would be between 45 to 65 total parcel takings and 10-12 partial takings to separate Churchill, Meadow and Charleston depending on whether turns from Alma are maintained or not.

Either way it is very expensive and there will be controversy over taking private property and/or increased traffic due to restricted turns from Alma or grade closures.
Source: Web Link
Additional Information: Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 1, 2017 at 8:36 pm

Any chance of a mixture of both. A slight rise of one and a slight dip of the others? I would suggest that trenching, elevated or a mixture of both should all be considered.

I also suggest that they should be looked at in conjunction with our neighbors or else we may end up with a roller coaster instead of a railroad.


2 people like this
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 1, 2017 at 11:46 pm

Meanwhile the federal government just cost the electrification project $20 million thanks to the delay. That's some great fiscal responsibility. Web Link


3 people like this
Posted by Robert Neff
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 1, 2017 at 11:57 pm

Train Neighbor - Thanks for the links.

I agree it is likely to be contentious, but I was dismayed by the previous council direction that we would want to sacrifice the fewest residences, regardless of the cost. Losing 50 more parcels is bad, but the project cost being $250M to $500M more is bad, too. Would an outside funding source, like Santa Clara Co. Measure B money, be likely to fund the higher cost of lowering the train tracks, or would that all fall on Palo Alto, and will we just twiddle our thumbs because that is an awful lot of money for the City of Palo Alto to fund.

I look forward to a future when our California trains meeting east coast and european standards of the 1950s (or is it earlier?) for grade separation and electrification.


3 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 2, 2017 at 2:34 am

@Robert, Measure B money is VTA money, and even if Palo Alto ever sees a dime of it, the funds could only be used for VTA-approved designs. Last I heard, lowering the tracks is not VTA approved. Let me know if anyone has heard different.


3 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Mar 2, 2017 at 5:38 am

We already have undercrossings - where cars go below the train tracks. Why not make more?

o Add an undercrossing at Alma that connects to Sand Hill.
o Widen University Ave Undercrossing
o Add a road and widen Homer undercrossing
o Widen Embarcadero undercrossing


Like this comment
Posted by Train Neighbor
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 2, 2017 at 7:52 am

The costs used in the 2014 report will all be higher, esp. since the consultants estimated $2 million per full parcel take.

Cheapest option costs ~$300M for taking >50 parcels and no turns from Alma!

Does anyone know how the $900 million from Measure B is to be allocated across the 3 cities? Even split?


9 people like this
Posted by Idea
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 2, 2017 at 8:08 am

A tunnel would reduce noise and while more expensive, would make a throughway for bicycles from Mtn Vw thru Palo Alto, with easy access to rail. That could be such a great benefit and traffic reducer, it's worth paying the extra cost.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 2, 2017 at 8:39 am

@Mike, widening the University and Embarcadero undercrossings makes no sense to me without widening the entire stretch to 101 -- that'll never happen. Not sure where you'd want Homer to go as a road rather than a bike/ped path.

An Alma undercrossing I do think is very feasible. Would need to begin lowering Alma and Palo Alto Avenue about 200 feet before their intersection, and continue ramping down the final 100 feet to the tracks. No driveways to relocate. And there's 300 feet of unimpeded straightaway for ramping back up on the El Camino side. Surface elevation is about 70 feet above sea level, and ground water is quite a ways down, so I see no problems there but would defer to any hydrologists in the audience. I'd leave the Sand Hill/ECR connectivity as is. Could have been considered while the area was all dug up for the reservoir and El Camino Park reconstruction.

@Idea, define tunnel. Do you mean covered trench?


1 person likes this
Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 2, 2017 at 11:24 am


To foster rational discussion and sober thinking City Council and Staff must soon convey the basic scope of the grade crossing costs.

What are the high/med/low range of costs just for Palo Alto's crossings?
Then what are the probabilities that sufficient outside funding will be available? For example,, 100%, 75% or less.

Then we as a city can ponder another unfunded liability. To be realistic won't Palo Altans have to dig into our pockets within another bond measure of some amount? It is naive to expect that the recent VTA sales tax as a solution.

Personally I cant imagine any "outside" source of funds completely bailing out each of the cities facing gridlock created by electrification of CalTrain.


5 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 2, 2017 at 11:29 am

- Close the Alma crossing. Option: connect our Alma to Menlo's Alma.


Menlo will never agree to that --- significant increase in traffic. Plus the Ravenswood/Alma intersection is already a huge mess.


1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 2, 2017 at 12:06 pm

My beef with Alma is the whole intersection with ECR. It is ludicrous that we are expected to do a U turn to go straight. This would be so much simpler than going up Churchill to get to Sand Hill area. Talk about impeding traffic!


4 people like this
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 2, 2017 at 12:42 pm

There is a reason the official council preference is for undergrounding the trains - it was decided years ago by community outreach, workshops, forums, etc. There are designs mouldering in the archives of the planning department. No one has any institutional memory. To do this all over again is a colossal waste of time and money.

The longer we fool around with the process, the more expensive the work becomes.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 2, 2017 at 12:58 pm

@Resident -- in the olden days Sand Hill Road was called Willow Road, because it was meant to connect through Menlo Park to 101 and the Dumbarton. Willow Road (Sand Hill) was never meant for direct access to downtown Palo Alto. We have too much traffic on University already. Before my time, 60 years ago, but I understood that Willow Road was supposed to be Menlo Park's Oregon Expressway/Page Mill. Evidently somebody over there had more sense.


4 people like this
Posted by Stan
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 2, 2017 at 9:14 pm

If the still ongoing bike bridge over 101 quagmire is any indication of how the city will proceed with grade separations, a far more complex and costly affair, it's possible that no one alive today will live long enough to see the job completed, let alone started. A tip to city council, from a lesson probably not learned, do NOT have a contest to see who can cook up the biggest ego stroking grade separation design, pick a winner, change your mind, change plans, and then repeat.

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.

Good grief Adrian, what in the world does east bay traffic and the Dumbarton bridge (or the fantasy resurrection of the burned out rail bridge) have to do with grade separations in Palo Alto? Nothing! that's what. Are you for real?


3 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 3, 2017 at 12:56 am

Fremont, say Fremont Blvd at Hwy 84, is 17 rail-miles from downtown Palo Alto, which would take 30 minutes at the speed of a Caltrain local, maybe half that as an express. It's 14 miles by automobile across the Dumbarton, 40 to 80 minutes in rush hour traffic according to Google. If BART went all the way around the bay, Fremont-Palo Alto would be 35 miles, a distance that requires nearly an hour on existing BART lines.

Resurrecting Dumbarton rail should be a no-brainer, especially with Facebook on its doorstep. Though I suspect any initial passenger service would entail a transfer at the Redwood City Caltrain station.


1 person likes this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 3, 2017 at 8:37 am

The Dumbarton Bridge rail section is in San Mateo County and it was thought that it would connect to the Redwood City Caltrain station. I am all for resurrecting the existing bridge with a train - the bridge and right of way is there and needs to be updated to be compliant with current standards. However I do not see why our CC's ability to manage outside of Palo Alto is a reality. We have no political reach beyond our own city at the CC level - and can only provide assistance through group committees. Those group committees have their own funding and requirements and points of contact. Mr Fine is in overreach mode and we do not have the budget within the city to fund overreach. Overreach is funded by the organizations established for specific purposes at the county level - and at this point we are still not in San Mateo County. We need FB's help here as thier facilities are in San Mateo County.


10 people like this
Posted by peninsula resident
a resident of Atherton
on Mar 3, 2017 at 9:38 am

"The Dumbarton Bridge rail section is in San Mateo County and it was thought that it would connect to the Redwood City Caltrain station. I am all for resurrecting the existing bridge with a train"

There is already funding to do precisely that. It's called "Regional Measure 2", and it is a measure which targets resurrecting Dumbarton Rail as one of the primary projects. See here:

Web Link

Dumbarton Rail was projected to come online in 2010, 7 years ago.

So, you're ALREADY paying for Dumbarton Rail. So, why don't we have dumbarton rail???? Because the MTC defunded it, because the MTC has a love affair with BART and BART calls the shots on funding public transportation projects, and BART prioritizes BART.



(by the way not only did the MTC defund Dumbarton Rail, it violated RM2 and illegally removed what little funding Dumbarton had and gave it to BART)



Bottom line: we're already being taxed for Dumbarton Rail, we just don't have it.


12 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 3, 2017 at 10:04 am

The story above is consistent with all tax measures that we vote on for a specific purpose and then gets directed elsewhere. In today - year 2017 - it is time to reign is the lack of accountability at the city, county and state level and dog every "approved" effort and hold people accountable. We have major voting coming up in two years and business as usual is going to stop. And as to BART we voted for a tax to take this around the bay and it got stopped in San Mateo. I was told it was because the owner of the Hillsdale Shopping Center stopped it because he thought people would go to SF instead of his shopping center. Sorry - this has gone on too long and we are left paying in and holding the bag. The San Jose mayor admitted that some specific tax generated funds got redirected to pensions. That is the story of where we are at now.


1 person likes this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 3, 2017 at 10:22 am

Great... another "Process"
We are already behind all the other cities on the peninsula.
Get on with grade crossings. Its either "over or under"
see which is the less disruptive. Pay the piper and get on with it.
When Caltrain runs 6 trains an hour you all will regret all the "delay"


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 3, 2017 at 10:34 am

^ 10 Caltrains cross Meadow during the 60 minutes between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. without disruption.


Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 5, 2017 at 3:28 pm

- This would be so much simpler than going up Churchill to get to Sand Hill area.

Why don't you take the University Ave. exit off of Alma and then go north on ECR - you can then turn left onto Sand Hill. Or you can take University/Palm up to Galvez, turn right and then turn left onto Sand Hill.


1 person likes this
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 6, 2017 at 11:05 pm

I've read the H.M.M. study and IMO it isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Taking 50 homes at $2 million each is ludicrous. The H.M.M. study failed to consider HYBRID crossings, where the tracks are elevated by 7 1/2 feet and the roadway depressed 7 1/2 feet, give or take. CPA needs to hire a different engineering firm IMO. I keep coming back to the Holly Street crossing in San Carlos which was beautifully done by a firm other than H.M.M.

The problem with trains in a trench or tunnel is that there are several creek crossings along the right of way, as well as myriad water-table issues. These issues are daunting enough to make a trench or tunnel likely prohibitive.

It looks like having the roadways go under the tracks is the preferable way to go. I like musical's idea of depressing Alma street for a few hundred feet on either side of the roads that need to cross the tracks. For you armchair engineers, it takes 100 feet to raise or lower a roadway by one foot. This is a one-percent grade and is very conservative for both auto and train traffic.

I think there are several tenets associated with this project:

1. Elevating the tracks will lead to complaints of a "Berlin wall".

2. No matter the solution, there will always be someone who thinks it's "too ugly".

3. It will involve compromises every step of the way.

4. You can't please everyone.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 7, 2017 at 1:53 am

My suggestion of lowering Alma was only for an undercrossing option north of University.

The Churchill, Meadow and Charleston crossings need a determination whether to maintain turning movements on and off of Alma.

Grades will be more like 5 percent for roads and 2.5 percent for the tracks.


Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Mar 13, 2017 at 4:24 pm

Currently, a 2.5% track grade is "verboten". And as long as Union Pacific RR (or its successor) provides freight service to the Port of Redwood City and other customers in SSF and SF, the maximum allowed railroad grade will likely remain at 1%.

For in-depth detail, see the following Caltrain-HSR Compatibility Blog postings:

UPRR leaves, sort of
Web Link

And:

The effect of heavy freight (on railroad grades and grade separations)
Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 13, 2017 at 11:31 pm

"provides freight service" vs "provides HEAVY freight service"

Though I feel that 1 percent max is prudent, there is probably room for compromise. Lighter trains can handle steeper grades. We don't have mile-long coal trains on these tracks. While our freight trains are shorter and thus lighter overall, I suspect we do have heavy axle loads on the bulk gravel gondolas, which pose rail problems different from the grade limitations.

Transferring all these heavy loads to trucks on 101 -- well maybe Caltrans could tell us what the extra roadway maintenance would cost. Or we could just live with more pot-holes and cracked pavement, let alone the additional congestion.


4 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2017 at 12:09 am

Union Pacific is a business. Union Pacific was savvy enough to retain the profitable freight business, and unload the loser passenger rail service onto a government entity (caltrain), so it is not likely Union Pacific is going to just concede their current heavy freight business or future options to haul additional heavy freight along the Peninsula.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 14, 2017 at 3:03 am

Much as some here would like to secede from the Union, we still have Federal requirements to maintain heavy rail infrastructure into San Francisco, a strategic port. Similarly our Interstate Highway system is built and maintained to Federal standards with national defense purposes in mind. Even our commercial airliners have Civil Reserve Air Fleet commitments.


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

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