For nearly a decade, Palo Alto's elected leaders and residents have advocated for construction of underground rail tracks to accommodate California's high-speed rail system and Caltrain, which is planning to add more trains as part of its electrification project.
But with a new study highlighting the high costs and steep engineering challenges of the project, city officials are preparing to pull the plug on the idea and to consider less ambitious and less costly methods for separating the train tracks from the city's roadways. Instead, they are focusing on the idea of digging an open trench only in the southern half of the city, which would affect the railway's intersections with Charleston Road and Meadow Drive.
The strategic shift was prompted in large part by a new study from the city's consulting firm, Mott MacDonald, which identified the constraints for constructing a city-long trench or tunnel as well as estimated the costs of moving ahead with either project. The white paper made the case that while a trench going through the entire city is technically feasible, the project would face a series of significant obstacles in the northern half of the city -- issues that could push the price tag to well above $2 billion.
Among the biggest obstacles is the San Francisquito Creek. The city would need to go through a rigorous process to obtain permits from various agencies and then dig nearly 60 feet underground to accommodate the new rail system. Digging in the north would carry political challenges because of the proximity of the Palo Alto Avenue intersection to Menlo Park, where the train tracks would need to return to street level.
According to the Mott MacDonald study, it would take the tracks 2,975 feet in distance to climb back up in Menlo Park. To accommodate this ascent, the city would need to get approval from Caltrain to have a 2 percent slope for the tracks (the agency has a design standard of 1 percent).
Yet the biggest issue is cost. The study estimates that building an underground rail system from one end of the city to another would cost between $2.4 billion and $4 billion, depending on the design. The two most expensive options are a cut-and-cover tunnel (between $3.3 billion and $4 billion) and two deep-bored tunnels ($2.8 million to $3.4 billion). But even the cheapest alternative -- an open trench through the entire city -- has an estimated price tag of $2.4 billion to $2.9 billion.
By contrast, digging a trench only in the southern half of the city would cost between $500 million and $700 million if the trench only goes to Charleston, and between $750 million and $1 billion if it goes under Charleston and Meadow.
The City Council has yet to officially rule out a tunnel or a trench along the entire city. But after receiving the study, City Manager James Keene made a case in a memo that moving ahead with such a system could be very difficult and "practically unworkable." In his memo, he noted that the cost estimates in the Mott MacDonald report don't include key components of the project, including reconstructing the overpasses at University Avenue, Embarcadero Road and Oregon Expressway crossings to accommodate the new train alignment.
He also noted that the project would require approval not just from Menlo Park, where residents would see significant construction impact from work on the north end of the line, but from various state and regional agencies, including the California Public Utilities Commission, Caltrain, Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara Valley Water District. Staff doesn't not believe it can secure all these approvals, Keene wrote.
"Our staff believes that while trenching and tunneling under the entire City of Palo Alto may be technically feasible as demonstrated in the white paper, there are significant issues that make these options practically unworkable from a political (interagency) and financial perspective," Keene wrote. "However, trenching under a portion of the City -- specifically the Meadow and Charleston crossings or just the Charleston crossing -- could appear to merit further analysis as we move forward with our planning process."
Not everyone is sold on this approach. One resident, Steven Rosenblum, strongly objected to the staff conclusion that most underground options are too expensive. The analysis, he said, didn't sufficiently consider the revenue potential of going under and selling development rights over the right of way. He argued that staff's conclusion about the cut-and-cover trench and twin tunnels being cost-prohibitive is premature.
"Isn't that a decision for the people of Palo Alto and the council to make?" Rosenblum asked.
But two members of City Council's Rail Committee said Wednesday that they largely agree with staff's conclusion. Councilman Greg Scharff argued Wednesday that given the cost estimates and regulatory challenges, it's time to abandon these options.
"I fear this notion of a citywide trench or tunnel is distracting from the real work that needs to be done," Scharff said.
Committee Chair Cory Wolbach also said he is inclined to abandon the costliest alternatives, though he was reluctant to do so immediately. Though he acknowledged that these once popular alternatives now appear highly unlikely, he said he wanted to give residents who feel strongly about the topic an opportunity to make their case. Wolbach suggested delaying the decision on eliminating the most expensive option until the committee's next meeting, which is scheduled for March 21.
"It's on the chopping block," Wolbach said, in reference to an underground system stretching through the entire city. "You can get a reprieve, but you have to make the case. We need a chance to, as a community, consider our real options really thoroughly."
The committee voted 2-1, with Lydia Kou absent and Adrian Fine dissenting, to concur with staff's conclusion that citywide options for going underground "do not look promising," but that open-trench options for the West Meadow and Charleston crossings "merit further study."
Fine, in expressing his opposition, said the city needs to do more analysis and get more community feedback before it eliminates some of the more ambitious alternatives. The city, he said, needs to do more analysis on "value capture" -- selling development rights to pay for the underground structure -- before completely abandoning the idea.
"I know it's a complex issue in itself, but I don't think we have the ability to take things off the table unless we've done due diligence in explaining why they should be taken off the table," Fine said.
The Rail Committee's discussion came at a time when the topic of grade separation is becoming increasingly urgent for the council, which has committed to reaching a decision about a preferred design before the end of the year. Palo Alto officials are preparing for significant increases in Caltrain service -- to about 10 trains in each direction during peak hours.For drivers looking to cross the tracks, this will mean significant delays, with gates coming down roughly every three minutes.
In addition, Palo Alto is hoping to tap into funds from Measure B, a 2016 county measure that allocates $700 million for grade separation work in north Santa Clara County. The funding would presumably be split between Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto. To date, Palo Alto has lagged behind the other two cities in identifying its preferred alternative and council members are now playing catch-up.
Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello said Wednesday that his staff is now in the process of winnowing down the roughly 40 alternatives on the table to somewhere between four and eight. The goal is to bring the final options to the City Council for consideration by November, according to a schedule released this week.
Staff plans to present the white paper and solicit community feedback at March 6 meeting, which is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road.