Palo Alto's effort to separate the railroad tracks from local streets will, by any account, likely require the seizure of private property, cause years of traffic disruptions and cost more than $1 billion, much coming from who-knows-where.
But at Saturday's city workshop on grade separations, which aimed at narrowing down design alternatives, talk quickly turned to the perils of doing nothing. City Manager James Keene set the tone early when he cited Caltrain's plan to modernize, which will add trains to the city's 4-mile corridor, and the state's looming high-speed rail project, which would share the tracks with Caltrain.
If both of these projects are in place by 2025, the number of trains will rise from the current level of six during the average peak hour (or 10 in the busiest hour) to about 20 per hour. This will require the crossing gates to be closed for 45 seconds every 3 minutes, according to a presentation by Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello.
In other words, during peak commute hours, gates at the city's four rail crossings would be closed 25 percent of the time. The change is projected to lengthen the vehicle delays by 60 percent during the morning commute. During the evening rush, the already insufferable delays would be about twice as long by 2025, according to Mello.
At the city's three busiest grade crossings — Churchill Road, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road — cars looking to cross the tracks or to turn left from Alma will line up in "unclearable queues," and the capacity of the local roadways will decrease by 20 percent over the current levels.
That, in a nutshell, is Palo Alto's "do nothing" alternative — one that city officials and residents alike are willing to do anything to avoid.
"In the not too distant future, as Caltrain electrification proceeds and potential high-speed rail looms, as we shall see, our town can be impossibly divided if we do nothing," Keene told the roughly 90 residents who assembled at the Palo Alto Art Center. "We're here to remedy that."
Palo Alto isn't the only Peninsula city grappling with the future of its rail corridor, though it may be the only one where the most bitter debate hasn't been about the actual design but about the process of choosing one. Earlier this month, the council squabbled over whether a "stakeholder group" should be appointed to help shepherd the process along (council members ultimately opted, by a split vote, not to form the group) and over whether the process they are pursuing can rightly be described as "Context Sensitive Solution" even without the stakeholder group. (They decided, by another split vote, to keep the description.)
Some of the residents most engaged in the debate, including former Mayor Pat Burt and members of the local watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, have been calling on the current council to change course. He and others argued that a stakeholder group involving both technical experts and community stakeholders is vital to ensure community buy-in.
Councilman Tom DuBois, who chairs the council's Rail Committee, agrees. At a Sept, 5 discussion, DuBois said he was troubled by the concerns that he's already hearing from the community about the project, which he said will be bigger than the construction of Oregon Expressway in terms of its disruption.
"I worry if we continue in this way, it's going to blow up on us," DuBois said.
But for all the bickering about the process, residents and city leaders appear to be in a remarkable lock-step about the change they would like to see. Palo Alto's menu of options may still include everything from submerged roads and permanently closed grade crossings to "hybrid" options that include a combination of somewhat lowered trains and slightly raised roads (or vice versa), but the answer that keeps resurfacing at every discussion of grade separations is one the council has been favoring for nearly a decade: a Caltrain trench.
In fact, if there was one key takeaway from Saturday's workshop it's that this remains the residents' preferred alternative, by a wide margin, even if takes the council another six months of meetings, design workshops and consultant studies to officially adopt it as such.
Even after hearing about the drawbacks of building a trench — the high price tag, the years of construction, the potential impact on groundwater — residents overwhelmingly picked it as their preferred design for each of the four city's rail crossings, with roughly 90 percent choosing this option over others, according to surveys taken at the event's conclusion.
The idea of a putting trains underground surfaced in late 2008, when the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced plans to build elevated tracks along the rail corridor, triggering a ferocious citizen backlash. The rail project prompted the council to create a Rail Committee, which adopted a preference for an underground rail system as its official guiding principle and which commissioned an engineering study evaluating the costs of the project.
The city also launched in 2010 a rail-corridor study and appointed a 17-member committee to explore ways to improve local grade crossings. In 2012, a specially appointed citizens committee issued a report that identified as a preferred alternative "a trench option through Palo Alto with opportunities for trench covers in key locations."
The workshop suggested that public attitude hasn't changed much since then, despite the fact that a trench now comes with an estimated $1.15 billion price tag — roughly six times the cost of going "hybrid" with tracks slightly raised and a road slightly lowered or submerging the road under the rail tracks. The cost of raising roads over the rail corridor is a comparative bargain at $43 million.
The city expects to get some help for funding the project from Measure B, which Santa Clara County voters approved last November and which allocates $700 million for grade separations in Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto. The funds from the measure are being administered by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), and some Palo Alto officials, including Mayor Greg Scharff, have been adamant about the need to move faster on picking a design alternative so as not to fall behind the other two cities in a race for county cash.
Some of those anxieties were quelled on Sept. 5, when VTA board Chair Jeannie Bruins assured the council that the agency does not intend to distribute the funds on a first-come-first-served basis. Bruins, who is a member of the Los Altos City Council, said VTA staff is still putting together the framework for administering the funds.
"We're trying to avoid this rush to be the first in line," Bruins said. "This is not about who gets to be the BART of grade separations and consume all the money — and then anyone at the end gets nothing."
Even the VTA funding will not be enough, however, to fully pay for a trench. Ultimately, the project would require additional contributions, potentially from local residents.
Council members also acknowledged this month that the project will require significant sacrifices by those who live near the tracks and whose lives and properties will be affected by the project.
"We're going to talk about disrupting Alma Street for two years or more," Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said at the Sept. 5 meeting. "We're going to be talking about asking people if they would mind leaving their homes. We're really embarking on an incredible process."
Given the significance of the project, Councilman Greg Tanaka offered another idea: letting the broader community choose a preferred alternative. He proposed having the council narrow down the options to two or three and then letting the voters decide.
"No matter what decision we make, there's going to be some really hard trade-offs," Tanaka said. "The best way to get a community buy-in is to get it validated by the voters."