• Watch David Shen, a member of the North Old Palo Alto group, discus this issue with Weekly journalists on an episode of "Behind the Headlines."
A new alliance between Old Palo Alto and Southgate neighborhood residents has formed to influence the city's decision on the railroad reconfiguration at Churchill Avenue and Alma Street.
Some options the city's considering, notably having an elevated rail or a hybrid lowered road grade, could require 36 properties to be seized through eminent domain and significantly disrupt their neighborhood, they claim.
The new group, called North Old Palo Alto, presented a petition with 300 signatures to the City Council Rail Committee on Wednesday morning.
Caltrain is expected to electrify its trains in 2021, doubling the trains each week, which would make crossing the tracks nearly impossible, the residents noted. Separating the tracks from the roads will be necessary.
The Churchill crossing is the first intersection that could be redesigned. It is one of four in the city, including Palo Alto Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road, where vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians must cross the tracks.
As currently configured, the intersections have been the locations of multiple collisions. Vehicles have become stranded on the tracks in heavy traffic or taken a wrong turn after following GPS instructions. Suicides have also occurred at or near the intersections.
Among the dozens of designs the city's been considering is a hybrid underpass, which involves both lowering the rail and raising the road. But the residents' group said on its website that if either a hybrid or full underpass were to be built at Churchill, it would be a concrete eyesore.
The underpass, which might look like the one on Oregon Expressway, would increase traffic through the neighborhood and would result in the destruction of houses seized through eminent domain. Property acquisitions, if eminent domain is needed, could start around November 2021, the residents noted.
Up to 36 homes could be taken through eminent domain at this crossing, the group has estimated. An additional six homes would be partially claimed. A 2014 study by consultants Hatch Mott McDonald noted that up to 65 homes citywide -- at the four crossings -- could be seized if vehicle underpasses were created under the rail line.
The residents calculated that at the Churchill intersection alone, the acquisitions would add $200 million to the project cost before construction even begins.
"Spending a total of $350-400 million for grade separation at a single intersection that is 400 yards from an existing underpass (at Embarcadero Road) is not an acceptable use of taxpayer funds," they wrote.
A Churchill underpass would likely require lowering Alma by 22 feet and all roads feeding into it to the same level, which would wipe out an entire neighborhood by more than 370 feet in both directions and kill hundreds of trees, they said. It could also impact the staff parking lot at Paly and possibly remove part of the school's football field, the residents claim.
The construction work would likely shut down Alma, a main traffic conduit, for years, they added.
Raising the train tracks onto a berm or other structure would also not be preferred, the group states. Trains would be more visible, violate privacy in the neighborhood, increase noise and could be at higher risk of derailment, they said.
The group does support putting the train tracks in a tunnel or trench. A bored tunnel would reduce construction impacts, and it would allow the above-ground right-of-way to be used as a pedestrian and bike parkway that would span the city. To offset increased costs of this option, the land could also be leased for low-income housing or other functions, they said.
This option would "allow the city to realize several of its stated goals that are otherwise very difficult to realize given a lack of available open space. These types of objectives have been proven already in several cities, like New York City, that recently reclaimed an elevated train track to create a public parkway," the petitioners said.
A report by consultants Mott MacDonald in February found that trenching or tunneling at the four intersections is likely to be too expensive, however. A memo by City Manager Jim Keene argued that undergrounding could be "practically unworkable" due to adding overpasses at the key crossings and getting approvals from Menlo Park at the north end.
If a tunnel or trench isn't possible, the group proposes the city close Churchill to cars but build a pedestrian/cyclist undercrossing at Churchill and improve Embarcadero Road with better lights and a pedestrian underpass at Town and Country Village shopping center. The city could widen Embarcadero and Alma to accommodate the traffic no longer crossing at Churchill, they reckon.
These lower-cost solutions would increase daily traffic capacity along the Embarcadero Road underpass without taking any homes. The city could also add bike/pedestrian underpasses underneath Embarcadero Road at the intersections with Kingsley Avenue and the entrance of the high school on existing public lands. These solutions would eliminate an existing traffic signal on Embarcadero Road that currently slows east-west traffic, they said.
Additional improvements would broaden the Embarcadero underpass to four lanes, which would eliminate a bottleneck and add left-turn signals from west- and eastbound Embarcadero to Alma Street, they said.
David Shen, a North Old Palo Alto member, said the group formed in November 2017 after some neighbors on Churchill saw a map that showed the potential seizure of homes by eminent domain should underpasses be built at the intersection.
One resident who had attended the first community meeting on grade separations went door-to-door to alert neighbors to future meetings.
"It started with all the residents whose houses were potential eminent domain targets. This includes houses along Churchill both in Old Palo Alto and Southgate, and also along Alma. We mobilized first in Old PA, then we walked south to notify those Southgate members who were also affected. We have been working together since," he said in an email.
"While we all support the trench or tunnel, we (Old Palo Alto and Southgate residents) both realized that if a city-wide trench or tunnel was not feasible, no one wanted an underpass on Churchill. We both felt that would be irrecoverably damaging to the character of our neighborhoods: more traffic, less pedestrian/cyclist safety, too many homes taken and too much money spent when Embarcadero is only a few blocks away," Shen said.
Nearly 300 concerned residents in both neighborhoods have signed the proposal and have attended one or more group meetings. The number is growing every week, he said. A core group of six to eight members attend every rail-related meeting, produce most of the documentation on the website and solicit signatures, keeping everyone informed, he said.
The group has met with every council member individually, except Mayor Liz Kniss, and had separate meetings with both city Chief Transportation Official Josh Mello and City Manager Jim Keene.
"The city has given us extensive feedback regarding our proposal and it has mostly been positive. It has even been formally included in the master list of 34 proposals that went through a scoring process to determine their feasibility. As of the last rail committee meeting, it scored near the top and is likely to be recommended to move forward when the proposals are narrowed to 16 in the near future," Shen said.
The city this week hired consultants AECOM to help it narrow down the options. The consultant was scheduled to appear at the April 18 council rail committee meeting. The city is expected to narrow its options to by end of June and to decide on a final option in December.