Despite years of discussions about the need to separate the Caltrain tracks from the local streets that intersect the rail line, Palo Alto leaders are still struggling to figure out what the project would look like and how it would be paid for.
On Wednesday morning, the City Council's Rail Committee considered two new studies in an effort to make some progress on both of these fronts. But while the studies provided insight into the scope of the problem, the committee's discussion indicated that Palo Alto is still many months away from getting to real answers.
The city currently has four at-grade intersections -- at Charleston Road, Meadow Drive, Churchill Avenue and Palo Alto Avenue -- and three underpasses, at Oregon Expressway, Embarcadero Road and University Avenue. In addition, two pedestrian/bike tunnels cross under the rail line at California Avenue and Homer Avenue.
One of the new studies, a report by Economic & Planning Systems, estimated the cost of various grade-separation alternatives and looked at possible ways to fund the projects. The low-end estimate for the cheapest project on the list is $500 million, to create an open trench for the railroad tracks at the Charleston intersection. Continuing the trench to Meadow Drive would bring the price up to $750 million.
At the highest end of cost estimates would be the cut-and-cover tunnel stretching from one end of the city to the other. Such a tunnel is typically constructed by digging a trench and then constructing a supporting system to serve as a roof. The new study pegs the cost of such a system as $3.3 billion to $4 billion.
A slightly cheaper approach to building a tunnel through the city is deep boring, which would use a tunnel-boring machine to construct two underground tunnels. An estimate for this approach runs from $2.8 billion to $3.4 billion.
Jason Moody, managing principal at Economic & Planning Systems, stressed that the numbers are preliminary and based only on readily available information. He made a similar disclaimer in presenting a laundry list of potential funding options, which include raising existing taxes, creating a new business-license tax, raising development-impact fees and entering into agreements in which developers who help pay for the project would receive development rights.
The report also considers funding from state, regional and federal sources. The biggest wildcard on this front is the California High Speed Rail Authority, which could potentially provide between $155 million and $179 million for rail crossings. To date, however, the rail authority has not committed to funding any grade separations.
By contrast, Santa Clara County is expected to provide some funding through Measure B, the transportation bond that voters passed last year. These funds, which could total as much as $395.5 million, according to the report, are spread out over 30 years.
Another possible source is Section 190, a state fund that focuses on grade separations and provides about $15 million annually.
Moody noted that some of these mechanisms are mutually exclusive, given that the council is unlikely to ask voters to approve two tax increases. The funding landscape, he said, is always changing based on politics, laws and the economy.
"People's appetites for raising taxes may change," he said.
The largest variable in cost lies in the fact that Palo Alto has yet to settle on a specific plan -- a major decision that the city hopes to reach through a lengthy community-engagement process referred to as Connecting Palo Alto. So far, the vast majority of residents who have shown up at community meetings and answered surveys on the topic have favored building a trench for the train.
But how long should the trench be? And what should the city do at those intersections where it's not possible to build an over- or underpass? These questions are contemplated in the second study, which was conducted by the engineering firm Mott MacDonald.
The draft Rail Corridor Circulation Study looked at eight different scenarios, two of which keep the rail crossings exactly as they are now. Called "no build," one scenario assumes existing rail-service levels; the other factors in additional commuter trains and a new high-speed-rail system.
The study also considers six scenarios that would add or remove crossings and have varying ambitions and objectives.
Scenario 1 would close the current at-grade crossings at Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill and Meadow. It would widen the underpass at Embarcadero, which is currently used by cars, bikes and pedestrians. It would also create a separated crossing at Charleston -- the only constant among the six scenarios.
Scenario 2 would close the Palo Alto Avenue and Meadow crossings. It would create a separated bike-and-pedestrian crossing in north Palo Alto (near Everett and Lytton avenues) and south Palo Alto (near Loma Verde Avenue and Matadero Creek). It would also institute a "quiet zone" at the current Churchill crossing. It would also create a separated crossing at Charleston.
Scenario 3 would widen the Embarcadero underpass and create separated bike-pedestrian crossings at Churchill and Meadow. It would also create a separated crossing at Charleston.
Scenario 4 would build a bike-pedestrian crossing at Loma Verde/Matadero Creek. It would also create a separated crossing at Charleston. This scenario is considered the first phase of a "full build" and would be followed by either scenario 5 or 6, which include additional separated crossings.
Scenario 5 would create separated crossings at Meadow and Charleston, as well as separated bike-pedestrian crossings at Churchill and Loma Verde/Matadero Creek. It would institute a quiet zone at the Palo Alto Avenue at-grade crossing.
Scenario 6 calls for new separated crossings at Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill, Meadow and Charleston, along with bike-pedestrian crossings at Everett/Lytton avenues and Loma Verde/Matadero Creek, plus and a widened underpass at Embarcadero.
The study projected how traffic would be affected in each of the scenarios. It found, among other results, that separating the crossing at Meadow would increase traffic flows on the street by about 50 percent; doing so at Charleston would increase it by even more than that.
By contrast, building a separated Palo Alto Avenue crossing would increase traffic by about 30 percent. Doing so at Churchill would have little effect, the study states.
Closing Churchill to through traffic, however, would cause a "considerable diversion" of vehicles to Embarcadero.
The council committee found the draft study informative but not entirely satisfying. Members noted that many potential options were not included in the six scenarios. Councilman Eric Filseth wanted more information about the impact of these projects on Embarcadero and Alma Street, while Councilman Adrian Fine requested a table detailing how traffic would end up diverted in each option.
Joshuah Mello, the city's chief transportation official, said the study will be updated to address these suggestions as well as other concerns from the council and the public.
As for the rail-crossing finances, the committee didn't get to fully delve into that study Wednesday, though committee Chair Tom DuBois told the Weekly after the meeting that he believes the study may have underestimated the revenue potential of adopting a business-license tax, as well as the scope of assistance the city can expect from state and federal sources.
He also noted that the study's cost assumptions are very broad and generic and, in that way, aren't terribly useful.
"We really need to get into the assumptions that are driving costs and see which of those can be avoided or changed to lower the costs," DuBois said.
One idea that he said is worth exploring is coupling a property-tax increase with a new business license tax, a proposal that came from Elizabeth Alexis, member of the rail watchdog group Californians Advocating for Responsible Rail Design. Citing revenue figures from San Francisco, Alexis suggested that the Palo Alto's potential revenues from a business tax may far exceed what the study projects.
"If you want to find a way where people and employers share costs, this seems like a nice combination: property tax and business tax," Alexis said.
DuBois said the city can also consider longer time frames for various taxes (the report assumes a 10-year time frame). The report estimates that a per-employee business license tax would net between $851,304 (if the tax is $10 per employee) and $3.4 million (if it's $40 per employee).
• View the six rail-crossing alternatives.