Menlo Park opts for Ravenswood Avenue-only rail separation

Despite 'selecting' favored option, council vows to keep researching better options

The Ravenswood Avenue rail crossing in Menlo Park, seen above in the top left corner, is about a mile north from the Palo Alto Avenue crossing. Map by Kristin Brown.

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.

Better alternatives?

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.

Unresolved questions

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.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Kate Bradshaw writes for The Almanac, the sister publication of

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2 people like this
Posted by former MP resident
a resident of another community
on May 17, 2018 at 10:53 am

I wonder how many of us remember when the MP Council turned down federal funds to do precisely this? Such a short-sighted decision ...

2 people like this
Posted by Richard Placone
a resident of Barron Park
on May 17, 2018 at 11:14 am

I want to make just one comment about the elevated viaduct: There need not be power towers on top of the viaduct. The transition from on ground towers to the elevated viaduct can be done by having the train automatically switch to a third rail, as is done with BART.

1 person likes this
Posted by Pete Farmer
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 17, 2018 at 12:32 pm

Councilman Rich Cline: "The only thing that keeps us from [tunneling] is a natural inclination to eye roll..."

Sure, if you set aside the minor issue of cost at a couple billion dollars. Let's just clap our hands and say, "I believe! I believe! I believe!"

20 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2018 at 1:01 pm

Let's start calling the "viaduct" approach what it really is. The "viaduct" is an elevated freeway for trains.

Nobody would even think of putting an elevated freeway for cars through the middle of Atherton, Menlo Park, or Palo Alto but we are supposed to believe an elevated freeway for trains will be a beautiful addition to the community?

7 people like this
Posted by bob.smith
a resident of another community
on May 17, 2018 at 3:21 pm

@Richard Placone "The transition from on ground towers to the elevated viaduct can be done by having the train automatically switch to a third rail, as is done with BART."

The Caltrain overhead cable will use international standard 25,000 volt AC, there is no way you can put that amount of juice any where close to the ground.

Bart third rail uses a feeble 1,000 volt DC, making BART trains small and slow.

Adding cost, weight, and complexity to add 2 different power systems to every train to get over a small hump in MP isn't going to happen.

Like this comment
Posted by Hindags
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 17, 2018 at 5:40 pm

Please clarify: Does Ravenswood need separation because it carries more traffic? What happens at Oak Grove and Encinal if there is no grade separation at those intersections? Do they close these crossings altogether forcing everyone to cross at Ravenswood? I doubt that that is the proposal. Perhaps they are thinking about installing four quadrant gates to enhance safety without the need for those loud horns every 5-6 minutes.

if it is the traffic load at Ravenswood that is mandating separation, is there any new grade crossing that could be constructed, south of the Menlo Park train station between Ravenswood and Palo Alto Avenue? Then if the traffic/congestion is split between Ravenswood and a new crossing, perhaps it would not require grade separation after all, maybe just four quadrant gates for safety and noise abatement.

As someone who fled from the West Meadow grade crossing in Palo Alto after four years of dealing with crazy and misleading claims on the part of Caltrain, the organization that invited High Speed Rail to the Peninsula in order to get money for electrification, I find it ironic that the problem has followed me to menlo Park.

Public transportation is very important. Bike routes are important too. But I am a senior citizen whose only reasonable choice for getting around is an automobile.

BTW. I think the idea of putting an bike path along the train ROW is brilliant. Some of the new bike paths in this area are creating a lot of tricky lane changes for cars. Not safe for anyone.

3 people like this
Posted by Poor planning
a resident of Downtown North
on May 17, 2018 at 10:31 pm

Menlo park is adding massive amounts of office and retail space along El Camino and surrounding areas west of the train tracks and then essentially cutting off all traffic from the 101 freeway.

How do they expect people to get to the new office space?

It is time for all cities who are going to over build office space to figure out how the cars will get people to work. Are they going to drive through other cities to get there? Maybe the other cities should close off their roads?

More poor planning on top of poor planning. Seems to be the way these days on the peninsula! Too many people, too much development, too many cars, no way to get them where they want to go.

Like this comment
Posted by @ Poor planning
a resident of another community
on May 18, 2018 at 2:03 am

"How do they expect people to get to the new office space?"

Other cities have figured out the solution, it called Transit Oriented Development: Web Link

5 people like this
Posted by Menlo Park should handle Menlo Park traffic - Not Palo Alto
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 18, 2018 at 3:02 pm

Menlo Park should handle Menlo Park traffic - Not Palo Alto is a registered user.

Willow Road should be extended to El Camino keeping traffic for people who work in Menlo Park in Menlo Park. As it is now, coming from 101, too much Menlo Park traffic goes through Palo Alto.

11 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 18, 2018 at 11:55 pm

@Poor Planning,

"Transit Oriented Development" turns the relationship between the community and transit upside-down.

Transit is supposed to serve the community. "Transit Oriented Development" means the community serves the transit.

2 people like this
Posted by @Ahem
a resident of another community
on May 19, 2018 at 11:34 am

That's nice, but in reality, different modes of transportation ferry people to and from destinations with varying levels of efficiency and top capacities, and community growth can be planned and channeled in such a way to effectively utilize mass transit as earlier modes (cars and busses on roadways) reach their capacity. That's serving the community.

2 people like this
Posted by Are you kidding?
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 19, 2018 at 12:02 pm

All the traffic coming from 101 through Palo Alto for people working in Menlo Park? You're kidding, right? Where do you think all those West of El Camino jobs are?

Might it be . . . Stanford and all the companies on its various properties?

Like this comment
Posted by Tim Buck Ii
a resident of Downtown North
on May 19, 2018 at 3:55 pm

"Other cities have figured out the solution, it called Transit Oriented Development"

What transit?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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