When pressed to make a decision – since allocated consultant funding has dried up and then some – Menlo Park's City Council on May 8 finally bit the proverbial bullet of pragmatism and picked a favored option to separate the Caltrain rails from city roads, even while advising staff to research better options.
The council voted 3-1-1, with members Ray Mueller opposed and Catherine Carlton abstaining, to move forward with Option A: a proposal to build a single underpass for vehicles at Ravenswood Avenue, tunneling the road 22 feet below the train tracks and restricting access to Alma Street, estimated to cost up to $200 million. Next, the city will work with consultants to develop plans that now are considered "15 percent" complete for the project.
The decision came with assurances that the council could still change plans, should a better alternative emerge.
More than anything, the council's action ruled out the second of the two options staff and AECOM consultants had proposed, Option C: raise the Caltrain tracks up to about 12 feet and lower the roads at Ravenswood, Oak Grove, and Glenwood avenues. This proposal came with some serious downsides: a price tag of about $390 million, a berm across much of the city, and an estimated construction duration of nearly five years, during which time traffic could dwindle to a single lane at the affected east-west thoroughfares.
The option was met with staunch opposition from a group of residents in northern Menlo Park, specifically the Felton Gables neighborhood, who rejected any plans to elevate rail lines, saying it would create negative visual and auditory impacts through their neighborhood and the city.
According to staff, the majority of the east-west traffic carried on those roads comes through Ravenswood Avenue, with about 24,000 trips a day. Oak Grove Avenue carries about 11,000 trips per day; Glenwood Avenue, 6,000; and Encinal Avenue, about 5,000.
Felton Gables resident Marcy Abramowitz calculated the cost per vehicle trip per day, breaking down options A and C and arguing that Glenwood Avenue came at a much higher cost per car trip generated and advising against installing a grade separation there.
Developer Steve Pierce of Greenheart Land Co. added that Option C would have major adverse impacts to the Station 1300 development under construction now. Grade separation construction for that option would cut off access to the development's underground garages on Garwood Way, funneling all traffic through the already log-jammed El Camino Real, and a berm would visually separate the planned retail on Oak Grove Avenue from El Camino Real, making it harder to draw customers, he said.
Loath to relinquish dreams of a multi-jurisdictional train trench or tunnel without due diligence, council members also advised staff to follow in the footsteps of Palo Alto and pursue a financial analysis of what it might cost to dig a trench or tunnel to lower or bury the rail line.
Palo Alto's recent white paper analysis priced a trench or tunnel through that city at between $2.4 billion and $4 billion, depending on the design – so expensive it was described as "practically unworkable," politically and financially.
"I think it's fair to say we haven't looked at data on it," said Councilman Ray Mueller. "I'm not prepared to pick an alternative this evening."
Councilwoman Kirsten Keith said the city may as well work up a financial white paper on the trench and tunnel option.
"I don't think we'll ever be able to put this to bed if we don't," she said.
Councilman Rich Cline, who has spoken in favor working with other cities to dig a tunnel or trench for the rail line, told attendees, "You will regret not tunneling the tracks. … It's not beyond our ability. The only thing that keeps us from doing it is a natural inclination to eye roll, like it's re-creating life all over again. It's not. It's just tunneling."
He continued, "I guess I'll just be that crazy tunnel guy."
The council agreed to send one more round of letters to neighbors in Atherton and Palo Alto to gauge interest in a multi-jurisdictional trench or tunnel.
Another group of residents, including Housing Commissioner Henry Riggs, former councilwoman Mickie Winkler and residents Adrian Brandt and Verle Aebi, had a different solution in mind. In public comments, they spoke in favor of building a viaduct, or fully elevating the rail tracks above the roads, along Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood avenues. They argued that there are designs that are not ugly, concrete structures; that viaducts can create safe pedestrian and bike passage beneath them; and that the noise impacts could be mitigated. Compared with Caltrain's current horn blares, the sound of an actual train traveling overhead – sans horns – might actually be quieter, Riggs said. The option, at the very least, deserves further study, they insisted.
Staff said that the construction process, while it might not require changing road elevations, would likely be similarly extensive because it would require a "shoofly" – setting up a temporary set of parallel Caltrain tracks – while it's being built. And stacking 30-foot electrification poles atop a roughly 22-foot elevated rail line would yield very tall structures very quickly, they said.
Even as several council members voted for the Ravenswood Avenue-only underpass, they acknowledged its drawbacks.
Mayor Peter Ohtaki summarized his decision in favor of the Ravenswood option: "I don't want to be the council that could have gotten something."
"I have concerns about (option A) that are not resolved," said Councilwoman Cat Carlton. "I am deeply concerned A is going to create traffic problems." Traffic is like water, she said, and if the only way to easily traverse the city from east to west and vice versa becomes Ravenswood Avenue, the street will only draw more traffic.
Keith added, "If we only do A, we will not have addressed all the safety issues." "If you don't (install grade separations) you will have collisions."
Mueller pitched another idea that the council agreed to inquire about. Would Caltrain be open to allowing a bike and pedestrian route along its right-of-way as part of grade separation plans? Doing so could provide a safer north-south bike route to connect to neighboring cities than the installation of bike lanes on El Camino Real through the city now being discussed, he said.
The council agreed to dedicate about $85,000 more in funding for consultants to follow through with the additional research. (About $31,000 of that has already been spent on researching the viaduct and trench or tunnel alternatives, staff said.)
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story inaccurately reported the council vote and misspelled Marcy Abramowitz's name.