Palo Alto's elected leaders have been talking for years about the need to separate the rail corridor tracks from local streets, a goal that is becoming increasingly urgent as Caltrain prepares to electrify its fleet and as California's high-speed-rail project advances toward the Peninsula.
But when it comes to actually planning for "grade separation," everyone acknowledges that the city has fallen behind other Peninsula communities, including Burlingame to the north and Mountain View to the south. Later this month, the city will try to play catch-up when it unveils a new plan for engaging the community in the complex endeavor -- an exercise that is sure to pit Palo Altans' penchant for a drawn-out process against the need to move quickly so as not to get left behind when Santa Clara County dishes out Measure B funds for grade-separation projects.
In the coming weeks, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, a special City Council committee and, ultimately, the full council will consider staff's latest plan for both developing a solution and getting the community on board. The three bodies would also approve the "problem statement" for the endeavor and evaluation criteria that would be used to develop a design alternative.
For Palo Alto, the drive toward grade separation is far from new. Officials have been talking about the need to separate the tracks from the roads -- preferably by putting the train into either a trench or an underground tunnel -- since at least 2008, when California voters approved a $9.95-billion bond for the project. In 2013, the city completed a Rail Corridor study that involved a citizen stakeholder committee and that made a number of recommendations, including increasing the number of grade crossings and considering a below-grade solution for the tracks.
Since then, however, the planning effort has run out of steam as the California High-Speed Rail Authority shifted its focus away from the Peninsula segment and toward the Central Valley. The council's Rail Committee, which was active during the early days of high-speed rail, disbanded and the Rail Corridor report was effectively shelved.
"When the high-speed rail project became less urgent, unfortunately the grade-separation work also became less urgent," the city's Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello told the council's recently reconstituted Rail Committee at a June 28 meeting. "And some of the follow-through items that were identified in the corridor study didn't come to fruition because the urgency of the high-speed-rail project fell off a little."
Now, things are again changing. With Caltrain's electrification plan speeding ahead and Measure B allocating $700 million for grade-separation work in north Santa Clara County, rail crossings are once again a top infrastructure priority. And because the city is competing for the Measure B funds with Mountain View and Sunnyvale, time could be of the essence.
With that in mind, the city held the first of a series of community workshops in May to bring the topic back to the forefront. Over the summer, it sent out online surveys to gauge residents' opinions about what should be done on the rail corridor. Now, it's planning for subsequent workshops, with the next one set to take place on Sept. 16 and the one after that on Oct. 21.
But before the city can identify the solution, officials first hope to get a clearer grasp of the problem. One of the first tasks that the planning commission, the Rail Committee and the council will take on is adopting a problem statement. A new report from Planning Director Hillary Gitelman stresses the importance of having a "common understanding" between the community and the city's decision makers about both the problem and the evaluation criteria that would be used.
"While some may find it frustrating to dwell on these points and want to simply embrace and pursue a specific solution, the adoption of a Problem Statement and Objectives (which lead to evaluation criteria) will pay dividends as the community begins to evaluate trade-offs inherent in any complex capital project with the potential to affect the long-term future of Palo Alto," Gitelman wrote. "The trade-offs don't just relate to the physical form of improvements along the rail corridor but also to specific engineering, financing, phasing and construction considerations."
To develop the problem statement and the evaluation criteria, the city relied on both past reports and resident feedback from the May workshop and subsequent survey. According to the surveys, the residents' top three concerns are bike/pedestrian circulation; auto/truck congestion; and pedestrian safety.
Given this feedback, staff's proposed evaluation criteria includes as the most important factors east-west connectivity, traffic congestion, bike/pedestrian circulation and support for continued rail operations. Secondary factors that will be considered are things like reduced noise and vibration along the corridor and improved access to neighborhoods and local destinations. Other factors considered "somewhat important" include minimizing disruption caused by construction activities and right-of-way acquisitions.
In preparation for the upcoming discussion, staff also drafted a problem statement that reads:
"The Caltrain corridor creates a physical and visual barrier to east/west connectivity within the City of Palo Alto, and is also the source of safety concerns for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists, especially at existing at-grade crossings. The rail corridor also creates issues in surrounding neighborhoods such as noise, vibration, traffic and visual impacts. While the City of Palo Alto benefits from Caltrain service and supports Caltrain modernization (including electrification), some of the issues experienced along the rail corridor will continue to get worse in the future with increases in Caltrain service traffic due to Caltrain modernization (including electrification) and the possible addition of high speed rail."
Throughout the planning process, city officials have signaled their support for "context sensitive solutions," a deeply collaborative process that has traditionally been used by the state Department of Transportation to design highways.
But while Palo Alto's plan calls for engaging the community through a series of workshops, some say it falls short of the type of stakeholder engagement that the "context sensitive solutions" process typically entails. Former Mayor Pat Burt and Nadia Naik, a co-founder of the rail-watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, have each criticized the city for omitting what they see as a crucial component of the process: a stakeholder group.
Both had characterized the approach proposed by staff as the classic "DAD" approach -- "design, announce and defend" -- rather than a true collaboration.
"Public participation best practices and the CSS process adopted by the City require a collaborative, consensus-driven dedicated stakeholder group as an essential part of a public process that seeks to collaborate and empower its citizens," Naik wrote in a statement she submitted to the planning commission.
The omission of a stakeholder group in the proposed plan, she added, goes directly against the recommendations of the International Association of Public Participation (a group that the city's consultant, Circlepoint, cited as a source for its proposed process) and therefore does not serve the intended purpose of the "Citizen Engagement Plan."
Burt, who had served on the Rail Committee before terming out last year, also submitted a memo arguing in favor of a stakeholder group. The approach proposed by staff, he wrote, is led by staff and consultants, with some community input -- not a true "context sensitive solutions" process.
"In a true CSS process, there is front-loaded community participation where stakeholders influence outcomes by raising issues early in the process when they can still be addressed and help avoid wasted time and resources studying alternatives that might make sense from an engineering/transportation perspective but are at odds with community concerns," the memo states.
The planning commission will consider staff's new plan for engagement and proposed problem statement and evaluation criteria on Wednesday, with the Rail Committee scheduled to follow suit on Aug. 16 and the full council on Aug. 28.