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Guest Opinion: Keeping options open: Integrating rail and community

Broad spectrum of experiences can help make final decision on grade-separation methods

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Palo Alto is facing potentially its biggest capital project since the construction of Oregon Expressway in 1962: the re-building of the Caltrain corridor through Palo Alto, particularly the rail crossings.

I was the first chair of the City Council's Rail Committee and founder of the Peninsula Cities Consortium, a coalition of cities that held weekly hearings, invited speakers and coordinated multi-city responses to the proposed high speed rail coming up the Peninsula. As such, I was among the first to advocate against an elevated "viaduct" rail option, since it seemed so intrusive visually. The current council Rail Committee recommended at its Oct. 17 meeting the removal of the viaduct options from consideration.

Yoriko Kishimoto
But today, for the city to reach the right decision, I am, to my surprise, advocating that we keep key options on the table, including the viaduct, the trench, the tunnel and, perhaps for now, the "do nothing" option for two of the crossings.

Most Palo Altans agree Caltrain provides essential and efficient regional transportation services to the University Avenue and California Avenue districts, as well as Stanford University and the Research Park, which is preferable to more auto lanes on U.S. Highway 101, Interstate 280 and El Camino Real.

Just to review quickly, the average daily traffic (ADT, aka vehicles) at the Caltrain crossings is (according to a 2016 City of Palo Alto analysis, posted here):

• At Palo Alto Avenue (Alma): 2 lanes, 15,000 ADT

• University Avenue: 4 underpass lanes, 19,000 ADT

• Embarcadero Road: 3 underpass lanes, 25,000 ADT

• Churchill Avenue, 2 lanes 11,000 ADT

• Oregon Expressway, 4 underpass lanes, 31,000 ADT

• Meadow Drive, 2 lanes, 9,000 ADT

• Charleston Rd: 2 lanes, 16,000 ADT

• San Antonio: 4-6 overpass lanes, 36,000 ADT

Staff and consultants have done enough research to show us that there are more options at Charleston and Meadow that will not lead to significant property takings or road closings. At this point, I propose:

1. The city prioritize making a decision at Charleston and Meadow and compete for Measure A grade separation funding.

2. We keep the options of the viaduct and a tunnel on the table at least through an urban design and environmental/economic analysis stage. It seems prudent to pay $250,000 more in studies to make the right decision for projects that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

3. We sponsor design charettes, field trips, and research and education to a broad spectrum of policy makers, residents, business leaders and subject-level experts.

Melbourne is a recent example that we can learn from. It's in the process of grade separating 50 street-level crossings. Some of them have been trenched, but elevated rail is also used. As part of their process, Australia's national research council commissioned university researchers to lead a project to "deepen understanding of the issues involved in level-crossing removals so that when proposals for specific locations are considered, professional, government and industry stakeholders as well as the community can participate in a more informed way" (see the report here).

We have a community of great universities, urban design experts, engineers and most importantly, educated and interested residents. We all need more education.

Some may remember the famous fight for a solution at Devil's Slide on the San Mateo coast. Caltrans was moving towards a more environmentally destructive highway bypass. One major problem was that Caltrans had not built any tunnels in half a century and was adamantly opposing it. It took a vote of the people to push this decision towards twin single-lane tunnels through the hills.

So far, Menlo Park has made a decision for now to "do nothing" at three roads by keeping them open and at grade level and to pursue grade separation at Ravenswood. Mountain View is moving towards closing Castro Street. I believe both cities would welcome more and better choices.

The ideal approach is a corridor-wide one, rather than leaving the issue to each city to struggle with. Caltrain is developing a business plan, posted at, with scenarios and policy implications for growth out to the year 2040. It mentions a possible corridor-wide approach to address at-grade separations, but coming to a regional consensus, financing and implementation will take much work.

Palo Alto's Comprehensive Plan, just updated last year, prioritizes the need for grade crossings but has only one specific policy: T3.16, "Keep existing at-grade rail crossings open to motor vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists, consistent with results of a focused circulation study and a context-sensitive alternatives analysis." It is clear, however, that the transportation priority is "providing more options and more convenience so that people will more readily choose not to drive."

We know by now that we don't want a network of expressways connecting our neighborhoods and business centers. Indeed, our newer residents may not know there were real plans to make Sand Hill Road, Alameda de las Pulgas and others part of an efficient regional expressway system to allow us to zoom pleasantly between home and work. We found that the single-occupancy-vehicle model doesn't scale well for high density, or even medium density, cities — or for our planet. We need a balance, allowing the longer commute trips to be by transit or shared rides and local trips such as to schools, transit centers and shopping to be by a mix of biking, low-speed car trips, local shuttles or walking.

One important goal should be to do no harm to the relatively walkable street grids we have. As the Comprehensive Plan already provides, let's not close streets unless there is no reasonable alternative. And let's call upon the best of our town's design expertise to more seamlessly integrate rail and community. We need to more carefully analyze our alternatives. Examples of good design can be found around the world that might better preserve the network of walkable streets that has kept our city livable for over a century.

Yoriko Kishimoto is Ward 2 director, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and former mayor of Palo Alto. She can be reached at


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Like this comment
Posted by Martin
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 13, 2018 at 3:08 pm

The cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park need to explore: a) closing the Palo Alto Ave rail crossing, b) place a bridge over the creek, c) relocating the small park from east of the tracks, to west of the tracks (adjoining with the El Camino park), and d) traffic control to prevent cars entering directly in to the adjacent Palo Alto and Menlo Park neighborhoods.

Like this comment
Posted by Man Paulafort
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 14, 2018 at 12:59 am

"We have a community of great universities, urban design experts, engineers and most importantly, educated and interested residents. We all need more education."

This is a wonderful sentiment but is at least 10 years too late.

Palo Alto's educated citizenry has done nothing but spin its wheels for 10+ years and today has nothing in the way of a grade-separation plan.

About all we know after two consulting firms and 10+ years of wheel-spinning are:

1. A viaduct is considered "too unsightly" by many;

2. A trench/tunnel would be very expensive but may have other engineering obstacles;

3. A plan which requires the taking of residences is unlikely to win approval when it comes time to vote for funding.

In the meantime, the ROW is being electrified as we speak and CA HSR is in the pipeline. In addition, neighboring communities are forging ahead with their grade-sep plans and are much further ahead of Palo Alto.

2 people like this
Posted by bob.smith
a resident of another community
on Dec 14, 2018 at 8:18 am

@ "The ideal approach is a corridor-wide one"

Only if a "corridor-wide approach" is secret code for "A long tunnel funded by other peoples money". In the real world the optimum solution for each crossing will be unique depending on proximity to other crossings, creeks, stations, roads, housing, funding etc.

@ "leaving the issue to each city to struggle with"

The city chooses to struggle by insisting that it is their mission to reinvent the wheel and re-imagine the whole concept of grade separations.

Mountain View told Caltrain to just do it:
"The new grade-separation study signed off by the Mountain View City Council last week would put Caltrain in charge of launching an engineering and environmental study. Along with completing the required studies and design work, Caltrain officials will be responsible for acquiring all the needed permits to ensure the project goes forward." Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 14, 2018 at 5:38 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

On Monday evening, Dec 17 (scheduled for ~8:15pm) The city council will be considering adding, removing, and splitting off options for further separate study.
The item agenda is here: Web Link
More information on the options for Charleston and Meadows, including rough cost estimates, durations of construction, and visuals and videos, including views from a typical back yard close to the intersection, can be found here in the items reporting on the Nov 28 community meeting: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by James Hart
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 15, 2018 at 5:43 am

I have great respect for Yoriko. However Midpen has seven board members to represent the public's interests. As of January two of the seven will be former Palo Alto council members. I have no idea how that represents equitable representation of the wide ranging district. The boundaries need to be rexamined

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 15, 2018 at 6:14 am

^ Two of the seven will be former Palo Alto Mayors. What's the problem?

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