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.
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 caltrain2040.org, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.