The Menlo Park City Council is pursuing two options to separate Menlo Park roads from the Caltrain tracks.
One option would separate Ravenswood Avenue from the tracks by tunneling the road beneath the rail line. The preliminary estimated cost of that option is between $140 million and $190 million.
The other option would elevate the Caltrain tracks at three crossings: Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood avenues. Three of the five council members – Rich Cline, Catherine Carlton and Kirsten Keith – expressed support for this option at Tuesday night's council meeting. The preliminary estimated cost of this option is between $280 million to $380 million.
A third option has been dropped. That would have separated Ravenswood and Oak Grove avenues from the Caltrain tracks at a preliminary estimated cost of between $230 million to $310 million. Councilman Peter Ohtaki said he preferred that option because it would cost less than adding Glenwood Avenue to the project.
"I think we need what we can get that has most likelihood of happening in our lifetimes," Ohtaki said, pointing out that the current administration in Washington, D.C., is not likely to offer funding support.
For the two options selected to move forward, the study will factor into the equation the possibility of an added third rail line, or "passing" track, through the city.
While Menlo Park has a policy that it does not support a third rail line, the study was funded, in large part, by a grant from the San Mateo County Transportation Authority via Measure A, a countywide half-cent sales tax. Considering a third rail track was made a condition of the grant.
There had been some ambiguity as to how far that grant requires Menlo Park to go to meet the requirement to plan for a possible third rail line. City staff consulted legal experts including Caltrain representatives, but not those from the transportation authority.
Council members Carlton, Keith and Ohtaki voted to add a potential third track on the outside of the existing tracks, likely the east side, rather than between the tracks. People would board and exit trains from a central platform between the existing two tracks, rather than having separate north- and south-bound boarding platforms, that exist now.
That would minimize the amount the rail area would have to be expanded, and would enable simpler plans if a third rail line ends up not being necessary, according to staff. That said, Menlo Park resident Steve van Pelt pointed out in a public comment that if plans for a passing track move forward, Menlo Park will have to coordinate with neighboring cities to make sure those track lines connect; the city may not have much say where the third rail goes. Councilman Rich Cline said in a message to the Almanac that he supports whatever option will fit with neighboring cities' rail lines.
Councilman Ray Mueller did not vote on either measure because he said he does not support the a third rail track through Menlo Park and wanted the council to meet in a closed session to talk about what exactly the legal requirements of the grant are with the transportation authority.
Not 'bold' enough?
Councilman Rich Cline said he has spent a lot of years on this subject, said the project isn't the far-sighted "50- to 100-year project" staff claim it is. "If we were to really consider this seriously as a 50- to 100-year project," he said, "we would be talking about tunneling right now."
"We're not being bold," he said.
Trains should go underground, not above ground, he told the council. Yet in his experience, he said, proposals to tunnel trains underground "died at the dais every single time," mostly because they're very expensive and funds are hard to come by.
"Wouldn't it be fabulous," suggested Councilwoman Carlton, "if Menlo Park were to join with neighboring cities to somehow find a way to tunnel the train beneath the road, and have a continuous bike and pedestrian path above the tracks. But she noted that her preference, of the options presented, was to study three crossing separations.
Menlo Park resident Chris Kilburn said in a public comment that he lived in Boston during its "Big Dig" project, which was under construction between 1991 and 2006. He admitted it was a pain while under construction (and cost billions and took years more than expected), but since it has opened, it has transformed and reconnected the city.
Similarly, Robert Cronin said in a public comment said that although people were inconvenienced by the construction of five grade separations in San Carlos and Belmont in years past, now, locals there say they appreciate it.
"If we don't tunnel this route - we are fools," Councilman Cline later wrote in a message to the Almanac.
Mayor Kirsten Keith said she would "love" to put the rails underground, but added: "I don't see that happening. … These are tough decisions. That's why nothing's been done for decades on this."
If the roads were no longer in conflict with the train tracks, then, theoretically, Caltrain wouldn't have to toot its horn at those crossings. That would improve quality of life for many, Bicycle Commissioner Cindy Welton said in a public comment.
That brought up the question: What about Encinal Avenue, Menlo Park's fourth rail crossing?
If it were not also separated from the tracks, then would Caltrain still have to blare at that spot, sending its reverberations through the city?
Some suggested that the crossing could be shut down, which, according to Mueller, might not be an undesirable alternative for some residents, given its likelihood to become a cut-through route with development growth nearby.
Others suggested installing a special "quad" gate at the crossing, such as what Atherton has done, which would enable Caltrain to skip the horn there. However, such gates can cost about $1 million, according to Nikki Nagaya, assistant public works director. The city might also have to take on liability if something bad were to happen on the tracks, she said.
According to Cline, the driver of the train always has the discretion and right to pull the horn – "nobody can change that," he said. "I don't think there ever is a quiet zone."