Palo Alto's debate over the future of the rail corridor began to rev up Tuesday night, when a crowd of residents joined city leaders in plotting the best path forward for grade separation.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 residents packed into the Palo Alto Art Center to hear a presentation on a recent study that the city commissioned to gauge the feasibility of constructing a trench or a tunnel for Caltrain along the city's 4-mile corridor. Performed by the consulting firm Mott MacDonald, the study considered three underground options (an open trench, a cut-and-cover trench and bored tunnels), listed the engineering challenges associated with each and estimated the cost.
The white paper concluded that building a trench or a tunnel from one end of the city to another would cost between $2.4 billion and $4 billion, depending on the design chosen. The range prompted staff to declare that these options are "practically unworkable" from both political and financial perspectives.
For staff, the Tuesday meeting was a chance to explain how it arrived at its conclusion, get community feedback and bring more residents onboard for what promises to be a complex multiyear conversation. Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada highlighted the main reason for pursuing grade separations: growing train traffic. By 2025, Caltrain expects to run up to 20 trains during peak hours. By 2030, traffic congestion is projected to double from current levels.
"If nothing is done, and (crossing) gates will continue to be the methods through which trains are given priority at intersections; gates will be down 25 percent of the time," Shikada said. "This could cause a doubling of our traffic congestion in addition to the safety and access concerns and constraints created at those grade crossings."
But the city's preferred remedy -- grade separation, or the separation of roadways from the railroad tracks -- entails significant disruptions. These include closing two lanes of Alma Street to create "shoofly tracks" -- temporary tracks that would allow Caltrain to operate during construction; the need to secure environmental permits and Menlo Park's cooperation; relocation of utilities; and the need to dig under San Francisquito Creek. Because of the creek, the trench would need to be at least 50 feet deep in the northernmost segment.
Another obstacle is the sheer duration of construction. Under the current schedule, which Shikada called "aggressive," construction wouldn't launch until 2023 and the project wouldn't be completed until 2028.
Currently, the city is weighing about 40 different options. In the coming months, it plans to narrow down the list to between four and eight. The City Council has set a goal of picking the preferred alternative by the end of this year.
But for all the challenges the project will entail, the mood at Tuesday's meeting wasn’t entirely downcast. Mark Christoffels, chief engineer and executive at San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments, listed the many obstacles his group has had to overcome since the late 1990s, when it embarked on a similar project. Responding to a huge increase in freight traffic and growing train lengths, 31 cities formed a joint powers authority for grade separations at Alameda Corridor.
Similar to Palo Alto, the project in the Los Angeles area had to overcome a host of obstacles. These included digging a trench that could accommodate three Union Pacific tracks (which included the shoofly track), protecting a historic mission in San Gabriel and figuring out what to do with each of the 52 grade crossings along the corridor (the group chose 19 to work on, based on traffic level, safety aspects and other criteria), Christoffels said.
Construction on the $1.7 billion project launched in 2000 and it is still about five years from completion, he said. Yet many of the crossings have already been either separated from the tracks or equipped with new security measures, including quad gates. In five years, the project is set to reach the finish line, he said.
Christoffels noted that each project comes with its unique challenges, though they all take a long time to resolve.
"A lot of agreements have to be put in place before you put in the first bucket of dirt," Christoffels said.
Much of Tuesday's meeting was devoted to residents discussing grade separations in small groups. They were prompted by questions: What one option should remain on the table? Which should be off the table? Do you agree or disagree that a citywide trench or tunnel is unrealistic?
In many cases, conversations strayed to broader issues. At one table, resident Arthur Keller led a group of residents in calculating how much money an employee tax could generate to fund grade-separation work. At another, Steven Rosenberg and his tablemates questioned Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello about the city's decision to abandon the trench -- a decision they deemed premature.
For some residents, the meeting was a chance to offer ideas. A few proposed a formation of a joint-power authority or the creation of a Peninsula-wide plan.
For others, it was a chance to keep the tunnel dream alive. Residents were encouraged to write their answers on the paper tablecloths. "Is this a meeting to steer people away from the trench?" one comment stated.
"Don't be pennywise and pound foolish," wrote another.