As Palo Alto moves closer toward selecting new designs for its four rail crossings, the city is preparing to ramp up its community outreach efforts and appoint a new citizen panel to help guide the complex process.
The City Council voted 6-0 Tuesday, with Greg Tanaka absent and Mayor Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Eric Filseth recused, to approve the new community-engagement plan, which will be led by the consulting firm Apex Strategies and which will include a series of stakeholder meetings, community-wide meetings and the convening of a 12-member Community Advisory Panel to advise consultants and staff about the latest proposals for grade separation at the city's four crossings: Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill Road, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road.
The plan calls for the city manager to appoint the new citizen panel, which will begin meeting next month, according to the plan. Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus said the group will include residents who've been highly engaged in the process, representatives from different Palo Alto neighborhoods and stakeholders from the school district and the Safe Route to School program.
While the city has already held several community meetings on grade separation over the past year, the upcoming meetings will have a different format to encourage more interaction between attendees and project staff, said Eileen Goodwin, principal at Apex. Prior meetings had split participants into groups, with each group discussing various ideas relating to grade separation and staff taking down these ideas at the end of the meeting.
"One thing we will be able to do is build a community format where people will be able to directly interface with the project team and the technical experts and not necessarily sit and talk to one another, which is the format that's been used in some of the other meetings," Goodwin said.
Apex and staff will also hold meetings with stakeholders, including Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, Stanford University and neighborhood leaders.
In addition to the meetings, Apex plans to conduct two online surveys and send four project mailings to inform residents about the progress of the grade-separation effort.
Councilman Cory Wolbach, who chairs the Rail Committee, said he appreciates the fact that staff and consultants are prepared to move forward with the plan this summer. Many people in Palo Alto still have no idea that the city is dealing with this issue, he said.
"A lot of people still don't know what's going on and the first (thing) they hear about it is sometimes a very scary thing that they might hear," Wolbach said. "Sometimes, legitimately scary and sometimes maybe they're confused or are not getting the whole story."
The council has set at its goal the selection of a preferred alternative for each of the four crossings by the end of the year. This week, it eliminated two options at Churchill Avenue: one would have elevated the rail tracks and lowered Churchill; the other that would have done the opposite. Both options were criticized by neighbors because they would necessitate property takings.