Concern rises over restrictions for grade separations

VTA report spells out that rail line would be kept at grade level; roadways to run over or under

As the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority prepares to dole out the first portion of the $6 billion Measure B funds, Midpeninsula cities are raising concerns that the agency could be putting onerous restrictions on projects for Caltrain grade separations.

Palo Alto and Mountain View city officials expressed alarm recently that VTA planners seemed to be setting a rigid template for eight projects from Sunnyvale to Palo Alto that would separate roadways from the railroad tracks. Those concerns centered on a brief outline buried in a staff report for a Friday, April 21, VTA board workshop. The excerpt noted that to receive funding, rail-crossing projects "would maintain the tracks at grade level with traffic and pedestrian access either over or under the tracks."

For transit advocates and city officials, this was reportedly the first time they had heard VTA dictate specific standards for grade-separation projects, which they say could disrupt months of city planning.

For example, Mountain View officials last year decided against a grade separation at the Castro Street rail crossing, figuring that money could be better spent on closing the street and rerouting traffic to Shoreline Boulevard. Meanwhile Palo Alto officials have heavily favored running Caltrain in a below-grade tunnel or trench with road crossings above.

Adina Levin, co-founder of the group Friends of Caltrain, said it was now unclear whether either city's vision for pursuing grade separation would satisfy VTA's guidelines for Measure B funding.

"Does this mean (Mountain View's plans) wouldn't get funding even though they would be less expensive?" she said. "I think VTA has a reasonable intent, but this particular policy is not the right way to go."

Those concerns were echoed by several speakers on Friday morning at a VTA board meeting to discuss allocating just under $300 million next year for the first phase of the new transportation sales tax. This initial allotment includes just $7 million in grants for early grade-separation planning, but a total of $700 million is planned for these projects over the 30-year lifespan for the sales tax.

At the meeting, VTA officials appeared somewhat surprised by the uproar. Scott Haywood, a project manager, emphasized that the VTA would take the cities' concerns into consideration before the agency's full board meeting in June to approve the final budget for the initial round of sales tax money.

"Staff was directed by the board to be flexible where the grade-separation project funding is concerned and to work closely with the cities to come up with alternative language in the proposal," wrote VTA spokeswoman Stacey Hendler Ross in an email to the Mountain View Voice. "There will be at least four more opportunities for public review of the proposal before it goes to the board for a June vote."

Midpeninsula cities have had a complicated relationship with VTA, especially last year as the transit agency asked for support from regional political leaders for its sales-tax initiative. The request stirred up grievances among north county and west valley leaders because they felt VTA had spent the bulk of past tax measures on projects benefiting San Jose, particularly construction of a long-sought BART connection to the city. They ended up supporting the measure after VTA officials pledged to cap BART spending at 25 percent.

By lending their support, Midpeninsula elected leaders came to believe they would have control over how to design grade-separation projects, explained former Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt.

"The VTA staff proposal to only consider designs with tracks at ground level restricts proper alternatives analysis," he wrote in an email. "This may not result in the most cost-effective design and may not best meet the broader set of design issues that are critical to the communities."

In any case, the $700 million earmarked for grade separations is already expected to be inadequate to pay for all eight Caltrain crossings from Sunnyvale to Palo Alto. VTA staff note that the difference will need to be paid by "outside funding sources" -- in other words, the cities along the Caltrain line.

Multiple Midpeninsula cities are pursuing grade-separation projects in tandem to prepare as Caltrain upgrades its system for faster and more frequent service. The train agency is currently working to phase out its older diesel-engine trains for a faster electrified system. Caltrain officials are also planning to eventually use the train corridor for the statewide high-speed rail line.


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39 people like this
Posted by Tax Hike For Nothing
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 24, 2017 at 11:09 am

Aren't you glad we're getting a sales tax hike for nothing? Because we have too many bus shuttles, we won't get the promised bus routes. And now this.

I guess staying on top of the issues and working at coordination is too much like hard work for our highly paid bureaucrats and consultants when sloganeering is so much easier.

14 people like this
Posted by Frequent Flyer
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 24, 2017 at 1:03 pm

I wish we cold get some express bus services to SFO and SJC.

21 people like this
Posted by VTA Is Not A Friend to Palo Alto
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 24, 2017 at 1:07 pm

Write to the VTA Board directly here.

They are also cutting the VTA88, 88L and 88M buses and replacing them with a very limited school service that will only serve Gunn during school bell times. The rest of the service. This will have an impact on paratransit cost and availability because federal funding for paratransit (aka Outreach) is linked to fixed bus lines.

VTA is not a friend to Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 24, 2017 at 5:52 pm

Am I dreaming or was there an article that I responded to on bus lanes on El Camino this morning?

Where is it now?

4 people like this
Posted by stanhutchings
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 24, 2017 at 6:23 pm

stanhutchings is a registered user.

I've said it before, underpasses are the way to go at Churchill, E. Meadow and Charleston and north end of Alma. Get Elon Musk as a consultant/engineer. We already have several underpasses: Homer, N. California and near Mayfield. They are bike/pedestrian only, but a little wider and a little higher would handle autos. It would be MUCH lower cost than overpasses or trenching Caltrain! Maybe not high SUVs and certainly not trucks and buses, but that's OK with me. There are still San Antonio, Oregon, Embarcadero for too-large vehicles. Connecting with Alma would be tricky, either ramps down, as at Oregon, or no direct access from Alma: the tunnel would underpass Alma and the tracks. Drivers would quickly figure out the best access, even if the designers don't do a good job. I'd certainly try to remove the left-turn lights at the crossings.

7 people like this
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 24, 2017 at 6:24 pm

Someone needs to bring order and unity to the grade separation process, and it might as well be VTA. Caltrain apparently has no authority in the matter. We can't have Sunnyvale lowering the tracks, Mountain View raising them, Palo Alto lowering them, Menlo Park raising them, etc. It would be like a roller coaster, but I don't think that they could charge extra for the thrill. Somebody needs to act as referee and make sure that the cities act in ways that make sense when put together, not just look at their own section of track.

8 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Apr 24, 2017 at 7:25 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Someone needs to bring order and unity to the grade separation process"

Donald - You are right because the cities involved don't have the courage or enough wisdom to work together to solve this problem.

13 people like this
Posted by VTA watcher
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 24, 2017 at 9:29 pm

First, VTA has the dubious distinction of being one of the worst run mass transit Web Link and elsewhere. Extraordinarily poor leadership, and a track record of excessively costly poor business practices. Look no further than their light rail which SJC will be paying for for decades. It cost a fortune, earns about 10% of it's keep from fares, and tax payers foot the rest of the bill. As always, the tax payers are left holding the bag for VTA.

This grade separation rule is classic VTA bait and switch. There was no mention or discussion of this when VTA negotiated with north county cities for their support. VTA has a history of swindling tax payers to funnel tax, and probably bond revenue, to the cherished BART extension. Why should anyone have expected anything better from VTA when it comes too their north county source of revenue and receiver of little service?

The idea that the tracks can't be moved up or down is none-sense, and VTA has some explaining to do. Personally, I favor the approach Rich Cline (Menlo Park) it taking with respect to grade separations: Web Link and Greg Tanaka (Palo Alto). Put the train underground between RWC and Sunnyvale and develop the 'new' space above. Once the trains are underground, they are out of sight for ever. No grade crossing could ever come close to that.

10 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Apr 24, 2017 at 9:33 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Feb 25, 2015 at 2:36 pm
Peter Carpenter is a registered user.
If this is done one crossing at a time it will be very expensive, take a long time and result in a dis-integrated design.

Please at least think about a more comprehensive and integrated approach.

Why not see this as an opportunity rather than a problem?

One thought is the put the trains underground, use the surface rights above it for housing in the stretches between stations and use the surface above the stations for transit connections and parking. The surface area of the current right of way is very valuable land - particularly in Atherton - and could generate a lot of the needed capital.

Why not take this as an opportunity to design a multi-dimensional, multi-purpose system that uses the existing right-of-way that includes CalTrain, HSR, utility conduits for telephone and internet cables, surface housing with high density housing around each station. And add pedestrian path and a separate bicycle path on the surface along the entire right of way. And include 3 or 4 12" conduits for the technology of the future.

We should think of this right of way as an integrated multi-modal communications spine for the peninsula.

A piecemeal approach will be very expensive.

Do it once and do it right.

3 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 24, 2017 at 9:34 pm

Once the trains are underground, they are below the water table for ever.

Once the trains are underground, they are inaccessible to emergency vehicles for ever.

20 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Apr 24, 2017 at 9:37 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Train tunnels run under rivers all over the world.

BART is under the Bay.

Properly designed tunnels easily provide for emergency access.

2 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 24, 2017 at 10:44 pm

The article captures the concerns that several of us brought to the VTA Board last Friday. As a result, VTA staff has agreed to develop different funding guidelines, now in full collaboration with the three impacted cities.
There were also positive elements to the staff proposal. They committed to using the $700M as the backbone funding for all eight grade separations between Palo Alto And Sunnyvale, four of which are in Palo Alto. This means that the three cities can work collaboratively rather than competitively toward solutions. The Board was also clear that these dollars remain committed to grade separations as was the commitment that the north county cities negotiated throughout last year to be included in Measure B.
Palo Alto now has ample time to proceed with the full community engagement and multi-stakeholder process that the city council has promised the community for the past seven years.
This project will probably be the most complicated, expensive and difficult in Palo Alto since the Oregon Expressway was built over 50 years ago. There will be no easy solutions with many trade-offs and more funding required before we're done. That's why the public will need to be engaged directly and through their stakeholder representatives as we move forward.

17 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 24, 2017 at 10:45 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

Trains underground are a solved problem, Palo Alto doesn't need to invent a solution or have a design contest.

Web Link

Of course, it will never happen - too expensive. Redwood City style berm is the best practical solution, but unlikely to even get that. The VTA pulled a pretty slick bait and switch. hope people remember next time they come asking for money.

18 people like this
Posted by NotRocketScience
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 25, 2017 at 12:52 am

Tunnel the trains from 5th Ave. in RWC down to Sunnyvale and put the space above the tunnels to multiple uses- including a full length walking and bicycling path through the 12 miles of linear green zone. Housing could be included and would be delightful to live in because of this linear "park-like" atmosphere. It would reduce the ever present dangers of level crossings to cars, pedestrians and distraught persons. And without level crossings, there would no longer be a need for crossing whistles, thus an extreme reduction of train noise!
This is the train solution for the long term.

26 people like this
Posted by Lydia Kou
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 25, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Please remember that this would be a long term solution, it may cost more to under ground the rail system, but the solution will be a sustainable solution unlike what is in place now...bandages.

Time to also speak up and consolidate all the transportation agencies, then the right hand will know what the left is doing. More transparency and accountability of the money and actions.

Like this comment
Posted by Matt Austern
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Apr 25, 2017 at 2:04 pm

I can't tell exactly what the people who are pushing for a tunnel are actually advocating. A few possibilities:
1. They believe it's possible to build a tunnel from Sunnyvale through Palo Alto for $700 million, which is the amount of money we have available from Measure B.
2. They believe that it might be a little more $700 million, but that it will be reasonably straightforward to find the extra funding and that insisting on a tunnel will at worst be a small cost increase and a small delay.
3. They think a tunnel will be so expensive that building it is out of the question for the foreseeable future, and they're fine with that. It's a good long term solution, and it's OK if we don't address the grade separation problem until the late 21st century.

My own opinion: if what people are saying is either 1 or 2, I believe it's completely unrealistic. I don't know what a tunnel would cost, and neither does anyone else in this discussion since there hasn't been an actual engineering study, but we can at least get a ballpark figure by looking at past projects of this sort: something on the order of a billion dollars a mile. The money we have available from Measure B comes nowhere close to covering that, and I don't see any obvious source of an extra $20 billion any time in the next couple of decades. Do you?

If the argument is #3, that we should leave the existing at-grade crossings as is in the hope that someday decades from now either we'll find someone willing to give us $20 billion or civil engineers will find a way to reduce construction costs by a factor of 10, then I wish that argument would be more explicit. Some people might prefer incremental progress, others might prefer holding out for a much better solution that perhaps none of us will live to see, but at least we'll know that that's the question we're talking about.

3 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 25, 2017 at 2:21 pm

Whatever the final solution is, don't expect any federal grants. We will need to pay for these grade separations with local funds and, possibly, state funds. Tunnels are very expensive...are we willing to pay for them?

5 people like this
Posted by Sanctimonious City
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2017 at 8:39 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by @Sanctimonious Poster
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 25, 2017 at 8:48 pm

[Post removed.]

7 people like this
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 25, 2017 at 11:52 pm

I'm calling Shenanigans here. What authority does VTA have over the Caltrain ROW? The ROW is owned by the Joint Powers Board, a consortium of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. VTA can't possibly have standing to dictate that the trains remain at grade in Santa Clara county -- they don't own the ROW! I smell the stench of the CA HSR crowd here.

Re: tunneling the trains from RWC to Sunnyvale: all you have to do is get the two counties together, raise taxes in BOTH counties to fund it and work out a design. It's just that simple. By the time you get through all the political machinations and in-fighting, you'll be ready to break ground in aother 50 - 75 years.

Confining the discussion to Palo Alto, the only place VTA's plan is even remotely feasible is at Palo Alto Avenue. Palo Alto would save itself a lot of aggravation by leaving Churchill Ave. just as it is now and putting up with the crossing trains.

9 people like this
Posted by VTA is not our friend.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 26, 2017 at 1:58 pm

This thread is so full of misinformation it is disturbing.

1). If you leave the tracks at grade and have streets fly over or tunnel under, you will either lose turning movements for autos and other wheeled transport or you will need a clover leaf of some kind. Please consider the scope of property-taking in nearby neighborhoods that would be necessary before you jump on board with that one. (Remember Paly is a neighbor of the Churchill rail crossing.

2). $700M will not come close to covering the cost of tunneling. That's not to say that tunneling or trenching is the wrong solution. It is simply very expensive.

3). VTA cannot control Caltrain right-of-way, so they cannot "take control" of this process. Thank goodness. VTA is a hot mess. We don't want that organization in control of something as important as grade separation.

4). I have to interact with VTA. They are not interested in delivering excellent service to Palo Alto. They view us as a revenue source, and they minimize resources they give us. VTA staff panders to the interests of San Jose and cities near San Jose because they understand that their board is controlled by that coalition. Sometimes they don't even realize they are doing this. Why? Because they are located in these areas and they rarely come here. They constantly refer to Palo Alto as being on the fringe of their service area--an "outlying" area. They consistently are dismissive of our transportation challenges, but they love to collect our sales taxes...and we deliver those very well.

The challenges related to grade separation are essential problems that Peninsula cities must solve, but they are not simple. Get fully engaged, people. And please be more careful about the information you put out there as "facts". VTA must be watched by informed citizens. Read their reports and budgets. You will be very surprised by what you learn.

2 people like this
Posted by Old Steve
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Apr 26, 2017 at 3:41 pm

For "VTA is not our friend"

Since most of our County's population is in San Jose and "environs", those folks are in fact VTA's main job. Since much of their sales tax revenue is generated in north county, that is also their job. Through grants they can certainly influence what is constructed. Berkeley had to pay extra to underground BART. VTA can dole out their 700 million based on "Caltrain at Grade" with other local jurisdictions paying "extra" if necessary. Caltrain owns their right of way, and so has the final say. Except, that whatever they do needs to handle UP's freight. The cost of trenching or tunneling is escalated by UP's freight needs. VTA believes they are protecting a taxpayer investment at grade in the current electrification project. If U.S. DOT sticks to their guns, we'll need at least a new President to build ANY upgrade to Caltrain.

2 people like this
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2017 at 4:52 pm

VTA's "demand" would so severely limit the options for grade separation that the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale should haul VTA into court and battle it out there if necessary. The crux of the problem is that the tracks are so close to residential neighborhoods.

In Palo Alto, if it becomes necessary to take a residential parcel for grade separation, figure $2 million per parcel taken in addition to the basic construction costs. Then multiply the "cost estimates" my 2x to 3x for the inevitable "cost overruns" (c.f. Bay Bridge). On the other hand, the proposed trench solutions involve NO parcel takings.

Like this comment
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2017 at 9:16 pm

One home taken for grade separation is one home too many. No family should be forced to abandon their home for grade separation. That makes any proposal involving a cloverleaf structure a non-starter. It leave the trench option which requires no parcel takings -- more expensive, maybe, but remember that $2-million-per-parcel-taken figure drives up the cost of other proposed solutions.

Tunneling under Palo Alto Avenue makes sense because you've got El Palo Alto, a creek which is also the county line, a park and a state road all nearby. There just might be enough room to squeeze in an automobile underpass.

1 person likes this
Posted by Robert Neff
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 26, 2017 at 10:54 pm

I think full grade separation is at least 50 years overdue. Train lines with CalTrain's level of service had full grade separation at least that long ago in Philadelphia and New York City.

I wonder if it is worth taking a fresh look at the street circulation. Do we need auto crossings at all of the current locations? What about converting Meadow and Churchill to bike and pedestrian only, and focusing on big improvements at Charleston and widening Embarcadero? Could we rebuild University, radically improve El Camino/University, and abandon the Alma crossing for cars?

For the tunneling option, I find it difficult to believe that real estate a few feet over an active train line will be desirable. When I wait at the crossing gates for the train to pass at the Meadow crossing, the noise and vibration of a 60 mph calTrain takes your breath away. If you lived over the line, it would be a train every 5 minutes or less every morning and evening. Electric will be better, but still big and heavy.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 26, 2017 at 11:22 pm

When we talk about a trench, how deep? 35 feet?
Not to the top of rails, but to the very base of the rail-bed.

When we talk about a tunnel, how deep? 100 feet?

What happens to University, Embarcadero, and Oregon?
Do they become 4-way traffic signals at Alma? Or overpasses like San Antonio?

Will the escalators into the stations be any better maintained than BART's?

1 person likes this
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 27, 2017 at 2:19 am

Read the Hatch Mott MacDonald study and focus on the 2% grade trench starting on page 6:

Web Link

Trench depth depends where along that 2% grade you measure. The trench would go under Adobe and Baron creeks and come back to grade just south of Matadero creek where it would go over Oregon expwy which is already grade separated, as are Embarcadero and University.

Building a tunnel gets complicated if you try to develop the land above the tunnel. First, the land above the tunnel would be owned by the Joint Powers Board (Caltrain) because they own the right-of-way. Second, in addition to any creek and water-table issues, the tunnel would have to be constructed to support the weight of whatever structures you might build on top of it, and those structures would require proper footing, i.e. foundations, etc. These things would all add to the cost of a project which will be plenty expensive to begin with.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 27, 2017 at 2:58 am

I've seen the roller coaster proposals. It's the "from RWC to Sunnyvale" trench or tunnel scenarios that I'm curious about. I guess we can disregard them completely, and assume Churchill and Alma/Palo Alto Ave will be simply closed to vehicular traffic.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 27, 2017 at 4:40 am

ps: here's an aerial photo of southbound freight approaching Meadow crossing.
3:15 last Friday afternoon -- Web Link
Two engines and at least 50 filled hopper cars.

1 person likes this
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 27, 2017 at 12:35 pm

The more roads you close to automobile traffic, the worse automobile congestion will become, the very thing grade separation is supposed to solve.

Dig the 2% trench under Charleston and Meadow. Leave Churchill as is. You could probably tunnel under the tracks at Palo Alto Avenue.

Like this comment
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2017 at 3:12 pm

@ Larry Cohn--

So, coming north on the train, you're at ground level at San Antonio, then down into the trench under Charleston and Meadow, back up to ground level through the California Avenue station, Churchill crossing and the Downtown station, then down into a tunnel under Alma and the creek?

Like this comment
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 27, 2017 at 4:10 pm

WilliamR -

Read the Hatch Mott MacDonald study, page 6, 2% trench.

Web Link

Going north, the trains would be at grade at San Antonio, into the trench, under Charleston, Meadow, Adobe and Baron creeks, back at grade south of Matadero creek all the way to the northern city limit. Cross Oregon expwy over existing grade separation, Cal. Ave. station, Churchill, over existing grade separations at Embarcadero and University. The trains would be at grade beyond the Palo Alto station, across Palo Alto Avenue and the creek/trestle. There would be an automobile underpass going under the tracks at Palo Alto Avenue. The tracks would stay put.

The trench is more or less a no-brainer, but grade separating Churchill is far more complicated due to the close proximity of residential properties and to Oregon expwy and Embarcadero. Figure a 2% grade is the maximum Caltrain will allow and that requires an exemption in addition to input from Union Pacific, who have perpetual rights to haul freight.

Never lose sight of the fact that the Joint Powers Board (Caltrain) owns the entire right-of-way from S.F. to San Jose. Union Pacific owns the ROW south of San Jose.

Like this comment
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 28, 2017 at 10:21 am

"Never lose sight of the fact that the Joint Powers Board (Caltrain) owns the entire right-of-way from S.F. to San Jose. Union Pacific owns the ROW south of San Jose."

I understand your concern about the JPB ROW, but it's one of many things to consider, not the most important. If there's opportunity for revenue generation for the JPB, I'm sure they might consider coming to the table. Air rights and building over transit is not a new thing - just look at New York City. They build skyscrapers (and arenas!) over tunnels.

Building over tunnels isn't rocket science.

Like this comment
Posted by Alice Schaffer Smith
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 28, 2017 at 10:02 pm

Veterans and seniors use VTA services outside of school times. I know that home helpers who can't afford any other transportation are dependent on the cross city bus service which is not solely for the benefit of Gunn High School students.

3 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 29, 2017 at 3:01 pm

Excuse me, but once again, who is going to pay for all these dream schemes of trenches/tunnels for Caltrain?

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

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