As Caltrain prepares to electrify its trains and potentially share space with California's new high-speed rail system, Palo Alto is moving ahead with its own ambitious plans to address the impacts from these regional projects.
For city officials, the complex task comes with a sense of urgency. Last November, Santa Clara County voters approved Measure B, a transportation measure that includes (among many other things) $700 million in funding for grade separation in the northern part of the county. There is also a general recognition that while Palo Alto is dithering on its preferred design, other cities that are eligible for the funding -- namely, Sunnyvale and Mountain View -- are moving ahead.
Mountain View has been evaluating plans for grade separations at Castro Street (which would entail closing the street to traffic near the grade crossing) and Rengsdorff Avenue, while Sunnyvale is doing the same at Bernardo and Mary avenues.
In its bid to catch up, Palo Alto kicked off on Saturday a new community effort to redesign the grade crossings along its 4-mile segment of the corridor. More than 100 people flocked to the Mitchell Park Community Center to learn about the rail projects and to express their own goals and priorities for the rail corridor. The workshop is the first event in what promises to be an extensive community-engagement process known as "context sensitive solutions," that officials hope will ultimately lead to viable resolutions to the city's transportation problems.
Councilman Tom DuBois, who chairs the council's Rail Committee, said in his introductory remarks that the potential solutions will impact everyone who lives and works in the city. He compared it to the city's 1962 debate over the creation of Oregon Expressway, which voters approved by a slim margin.
"You are here on an important day in Palo Alto history," DuBois said. "This has the potential to be the most transformative change in our city -- perhaps ever."
Mayor Greg Scharff said the city is starting the process with "an open mind" when it comes to what types of solutions residents would like to see. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has indicated that it will not be doling out the money on a first-come-first-serve basis, he said.
"But frankly I'm concerned that if we take forever, other communities will use up the money and we won't get the opportunity to do so," Scharff said.
This isn't Palo Alto's first community-engagement process focusing on the rail corridor. In 2012, the city adopted a new "vision" document for the corridor that recommends, among other things, creating new grade crossings and grade separations, particularly in south Palo Alto.
The new process promises to be both larger in scope – with more audience participation – and tighter in focus, given the availability of funding for design work.
One thing that became clear at Saturday's workshop is that even if the city does nothing, travelers should expect major changes. Chris Metzger, an engineer with Mott MacDonald, the city's consultant, said that today, there are about eight to 10 trains traveling on the Caltrain corridor in both directions during peak commute times. By 2025, this is projected to go up to 20 trains an hour – which means more waiting time for the roughly 51,000 cars that cross the tracks on a typical day.
For Palo Alto officials, the most promising solution is also the most expensive. Grade separation is expected to cost more than $1 billion, requiring a hefty supplement to the Measure B funds.
During Saturday's workshop, residents broke into groups to discuss their top track priorities. Sally Bemus, summarizing her group's discussion, said her group couched the need to fund grade separation in terms of "a moonshot."
"We should not be just looking at Measure B funds, but thinking outside the box about how we can get the money and dream big," Bemus said.
Other groups reached similar conclusions, with residents favoring big solutions over small, piece-meal ones. One attendee proposed an assessment district to help pay for improvements; another suggested a bond.
Most, however, focused on broader questions: What are the biggest problems you're trying to solve? And what would you like to see?
Martin Sommer, who had worked on the 2012 rail plan, said his table really focused on a "context-sensitive design" that recognizes the particular conditions of each grade crossing.
"A solution for Churchill may not be the same solution you'd use on Meadow or Charleston," Sommer said. "Churchill, which is the entrance to (Palo Alto) High School may be heavier on the pedestrian solution, while Meadow or Charleston may be heavier on the auto solution."
A survey taken at the meeting indicated that the residents' biggest areas of concerns were, "safety" and "bicycle/pedestrian access." Robert Neff, who chairs the Palo Alto Pedestrian and Bicycle Committee (PABAC), said his group's priorities included better management of traffic lanes near the rail and improvements to bike and pedestrian safety. And, like every group, they also heavily supported grade separation at all four existing at-grade crossings.
"We think it will make traffic more efficient along the rail corridor in Palo Alto and we think this will be very effective," Neff said.