As Palo Alto approaches a key decision point in selecting new designs for its four rail crossings, residents are increasingly waking up to the harsh trade-offs that the expensive, multiyear endeavor will entail.
Their fears were confirmed Tuesday night, when city Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada noted that all 10 alternatives on the city's existing menu of options could require property purchases or the exercise of eminent domain, the government seizure of partial or whole properties to accommodate redesigned rail crossings.
More than two dozen speakers addressed the council Tuesday night, many voicing concerns about the prospect of losing their properties near the crossings at Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road.
Others, like Barbara Hazlett, spoke to a different worry, namely that a proposal to widen Embarcadero Road in conjunction with closing the Churchill rail intersection to cars would worsen the traffic conditions outside their homes.
Like many others, Hazlett said she too was concerned about the potential taking of properties, which the city had to do in the 1950s when it constructed Oregon Expressway.
"This is the canary in the coal mine for our neighborhood," Hazlett said. "We definitely do not want Embarcadero Road, a residential arterial, to become Embarcadero Expressway."
She is not alone. More than 450 residents signed a petition by Old Palo Alto resident David Shen urging the city not to seize properties as part of the effort to separate the railroad tracks from the roadways.
• Watch Shen discuss the city's plans for rail redesign and the petition on an episode of "Behind the Headlines."
Carolyn Schmarzo asked the council Tuesday to eliminate design options that would entail property takings, which she said would destroy the neighborhood.
"To lose your home for any reason is hideous," Schmarzo said. "But to watch it bulldozed against your will is a soul-bludgeoning experience and another reason for a lawsuit."
Parag Patkar, who lives in south Palo Alto between Charleston and East Meadow, handed out his own petition with signatures from about 300 people. Much like the Southgate-led petition, Patkar's states a strong opposition to eminent domain and a preference for an underground tunnel for the trains over alternatives that would elevate the railroad tracks.
"We strongly oppose all the raised option," Patkar said. "No raised rail. No raised road. No berm. No viaduct. No Berlin Wall."
The citizen appeals against eminent domain were enough to sway two council members. Councilman Greg Tanaka made a motion to take grade-separation options that require eminent domain completely off the table.
"I can imagine just how devastating it would be that your house is (taken through) eminent domain," Tanaka said.
Most of his colleagues supported his sentiment but not his motion, particularly after Shikada noted that he doesn't believe any of the 10 options would survive if eminent domain were taken off the table.
He also noted that taking eminent domain completely off the table would empower a single property owner on Alma Street to dictate the outcome of the entire project.
"If all (property owners) were willing to sell and one holds out, by taking (eminent domain) off the table as described we would put the project in the hands of a single property owner," Shikada said.
Councilwoman Karen Holman spoke for the majority when she argued that it would be premature to adopt a "sweeping statement" of the sort Tanaka had proposed at this point in time. Ultimately, only Councilwoman Lydia Kou went along with Tanaka's motion.
Tanaka's proposal to take a widened Embarcadero Road off the table also faltered, with no support from any of his colleagues.
The council did, however, eliminate dozens of other ideas from consideration and narrowed the prior list of 34 grade-separation concepts down to 10. By a 6-0 vote, with Mayor Liz Kniss, Vice Mayor Eric Filseth and Councilman Tom DuBois all recusing (each has property interests near the rail corridor), the council supported the list of 10 ideas that will further be screened in the coming months, with the goal of picking a design for each grade crossing by the end of this year.
Only one idea calls for a citywide solution -- a deep-bore tunnel that would start and end within city limits. While this option is seen as a long-shot because of high costs, the council agreed to keep it in the menu of alternatives.
Kou, who serves on the Rail Committee, urged reaching out to some local innovators, including Elon Musk, to see if there are any creative solutions to the tunneling dilemma. Tanaka called grade separation a "multigenerational problem" and said the city should consider selling development rights to the ground-level property along the corridor as a possible way to finance the project. Scharff was less optimistic.
"I don't think this is a viable option, period, no matter what financial structures we're talking about," Scharff said.
Each of the other nine options on the city's shrinking menu pertain to a particular crossing or, as in the case of Meadow and Charleston, two crossings.
At the northernmost rail crossing, Palo Alto Avenue, the council is exploring two options: closing Palo Alto Avenue to traffic in conjunction with yet-to-be-determined transportation improvements (these could include a widened University Avenue or a new bike tunnel at Everett); and a "hybrid" option that would slightly depress the road and partially elevate the tracks.
For Churchill, there are three solutions on the table: the closure of Churchill (again, with related improvements); the "hybrid" option with a slightly depressed road under a somewhat raised track; and the "reverse hybrid" featuring raised road and a lowered track.
The other four recommendations pertain to the two southernmost grade crossings, Meadow and Charleston. These include the "hybrid" and the "reverse hybrid" options for the two crossings; a trench or a tunnel that goes through both crossings; and a viaduct that would create an elevated rail line in south Palo Alto.
Councilman Adrian Fine, who sits on the council's Rail Committee, called the 10 options "the minimum viable set we can go with."
"I know there are people in the community who think these should be removed tonight and I understand that," Fine said. "I think we have to do our due diligence on each of these."
The council's discussion, which spilled into early Wednesday morning, keeps Palo Alto more or less on track to choose a grade-separation alternative for each intersection by the end of this year, the city's officially adopted goal. At the same time, the city remains behind Mountain View and Sunnyvale, two cities that are pursuing their own grade-separation strategies in preparation for more frequent Caltrain service and the possible launch of California's high-speed rail system.
The three cities are eligible $700 million in funds from Measure B, a sales-tax measure that Santa Clara County voters approved in 2016.
To catch up, Palo Alto is preparing to enhance its outreach to the community in the coming months. The city recently hired a new contractor, AECOM, to assist with this endeavor and it plans to appoint a stakeholder group in the coming months to help further winnow down the grade-separation options.
Even if the city reaches its goal of choosing a preferred alternative by the end of this year, it will take at least another four years to perform the necessary environmental analysis and design work, as well as potentially acquire properties.
The city's current timeline calls for launching construction in 2023 and concluding it by the end of 2028.