Seeking to ease concerns from residents in the Old Palo Alto and Southgate neighborhoods about property seizures, Palo Alto officials are preparing to abandon the idea of raising or lowering the rail corridor near the Churchill Avenue crossing.
The council's Rail Committee on Wednesday agreed that the "hybrid" option, which calls for both raising the rail corridor and lowering Churchill, should be eliminated from the city's menu of 10 alternatives for "grade separation" -- the reconfiguration of railway tracks so that rail and surface streets would not intersect. In addition, the council voted to eliminate what's known as the "reverse hybrid" option at Churchill, which entails elevating the road and lowering the tracks.
Both of these options generated a wave of opposition, with hundreds of residents signing a petition urging the council not to consider the two options. A recent analysis by city staff and consultants concluded that the hybrid option would require acquisition of 14 to 22 properties; the reverse hybrid would require full or partial taking of more than 40 properties.
Faced with the prospect of property seizures, residents have been appealing to the council to eliminate both "hybrid options." A petition from Old Palo Alto resident David Shen to that effect received more than 450 signatures.
During the council's May 29 discussion, Shen re-emphasized the neighborhood's opposition to the "hybrid" and "reverse hybrid" options. If the city cannot pursue an underground solution for rail (such a trench or a tunnel), Shen said, the neighbors advocate for a "system-wide solution at north Palo Alto, which would entail looking at Churchill and Embarcadero Road together."
Jason Matlof, a resident of Churchill Avenue, pointed to the latest analysis showing the need to property takings and urged the Rail Committee to eliminate the hybrid and reverse-hybrid options. He noted that in addition to being highly unpopular, they are also extremely expensive, with a price tag that can reach $500 million.
The arguments from Southgate and Old Palo Alto proved persuasive. Councilman Greg Scharff, who made the motion to eliminate the two Churchill options from consideration, said he was very moved by appeals from residents about eminent domain "hanging over (their) heads."
"It hangs over people's lives and it causes angst and we need to take that off the table," Scharff said.
Yet the proposal to scrap the hybrid options creates another dilemma. If Palo Alto doesn't pursue a grade-separation option on Churchill, it will likely move ahead with another Churchill alternative: the closure of Churchill to car traffic. This alternative, officials acknowledge, will likely divert more cars to the nearby Embarcadero crossing.
To address this impact, the city has been weighing an expansion of eastbound Embarcadero from three lanes to four at the often-congested underpass near the Town & County Village shopping center.
That idea, however, is facing resistance from residents of Professorville and University South, who have made the case in recent weeks that expanding Embarcadero would be both disrupting and counterproductive.
These critics include former Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who told the Rail Committee on Wednesday that she believes adding a traffic lane on Embarcadero would run counter to the city's philosophy of discouraging driving and encouraging bicycling and other types of alternative transportation.
Kishimoto said she is part of a group of residents who plan to circulate their own petition opposing the widening of Embarcadero. She urged the Rail Committee to eliminate the option and argued that there is no evidence that the underpass causes a bottleneck. Adding a traffic lane, she said, would lead to more traffic and more speeding, she said.
"The solution is not increasing speed on a key residential arterial that is part of Safe Routes to School," Kishimoto said.
Faced with these concerns, the Rail Committee agreed not to pursue the option of widening Embarcadero Road underpass as part of the grade-separation project. But they didn't preclude the option of redesigning the underpass in the future. Chief Transportation Officer Joshuah Mello told the committee that the underpass was built about 100 years ago and will need to be replaced soon. At that time, the city will have another chance to consider new design options for the underpass.
The committee agreed that this is a conversation worth having -- just not at this time. Scharff called the proposal to widen Embarcadero to accommodate Churchill's closure a "community distraction." He and his committee colleagues agreed that any plan to widen Embarcadero should follow its own outreach process, with full community participation.
The Churchill crossing is one of four Palo Alto rail crossings that could see major changes in the coming years as part of the city's effort to prepare for a significant increase in Caltrain trains and the potential arrival of high-speed rail. The council is looking to select a "preferred alternative" for the four rail crossings -- Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road -- by the end of the year.
The Rail Committee issued its recommendation to eliminate the two Churchill options by a 3-1 vote, with Councilwoman Lydia Kou dissenting. While Kou also favored elimination of options at Churchill, she was opposed to outright eliminating the expansion of Embarcadero from consideration. She argued that the city has significant challenges when it comes to traffic circulation and that it should pursue a "comprehensive study" to evaluate improvements, which may include a reconfiguration on Embarcadero.
The Rail Committee's vote makes it very likely that the council will eliminate at least the two Churchill options from its menu of options this Tuesday, June 19, when it holds a special meeting to discuss grade separations.