Watch Weekly journalists discuss this issue on an episode of "Behind the Headlines."
As Palo Alto gets closer to picking its preferred designs for separating the railroad tracks from streets at four intersections, city officials and community members are rethinking key segments of major roadways, including University Avenue and Embarcadero Road.
The city's major "grade separation" project, which was sparked by Caltrain's impending electrification of its corridor and increased train service, is heading toward a key decision point, with the City Council scheduled to take action on potential design options this Monday, its final meeting of the year.
Though the council had originally set a goal of deciding on grade-separation designs by the end of the year -- and won't meet its target -- the city has succeeded in winnowing down options from the initial pool of 34 to about seven. Largely excluded from consideration are numerous options that would require the seizures of private property through eminent domain. The council's Rail Committee has also scrapped the idea of digging trenches or building elevated viaducts at its two northern Palo Alto crossings -- Palo Alto Avenue and Churchill Avenue -- though both of these ambitious options are still in play in the southern crossings: Charleston Road and East Meadow Drive.
Now the city is hoping to choose a design option for each rail crossing by February. Yet even as it gets closer to a decision, new ideas are coming to the surface, including a proposal to create a short tunnel for Caltrain while letting freight trains run at grade and other concepts for redesigning Embarcadero Road to improve traffic conditions.
City staff is also considering evaluating the northernmost crossing, Palo Alto Avenue, apart from the grade-separation discussion. Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus suggested at Wednesday's meeting of the Community Advisory Panel that the grade crossing may be considered more effectively as part of a broader, multiyear plan for downtown, which may include modifications to University Avenue and the city's central transit hub.
"The notion of having a parallel plan for downtown that includes grade-separating Palo Alto Avenue and improvements to University Avenue and the transit center and engaging Stanford in that work we think that's the right way to go," de Geus said at the meeting of the panel, a group of residents who have been gathering regularly to discuss grade separation.
The topic is designated as one of the council's top priorities for 2018. Yet reaching solutions on the complex subject has proved difficult.
The city's discussion of Churchill Avenue is a perfect case in point. In June, the City Council acknowledged neighborhood concerns about property seizures by scrapping design options that include raising or lowering the railroad track. Yet this elimination of several major options also spawned a flurry of new ones, some of which involve closing Churchill Avenue to traffic near the tracks and pursuing various bike and pedestrian improvements. Because such a move would likely drive additional traffic to Embarcadero Road, residents are also suggesting new design alternatives for Embarcadero, with the goal of improving traffic flow and keeping the added traffic away from residential neighborhoods. These include the creation of new exit ramps from Alma Street that would allow northbound drivers to turn left on Embarcadero, obviating the need for drivers to take neighborhood streets, and the installation of a traffic circle on Embarcadero and Alma -- an option that would require the installation of an elevated viaduct for rail.
David Shen, a Churchill Avenue resident and member of the Community Advisory Panel, has been developing concepts with Jason Matloff, a fellow Old Palo Alto resident, and Tony Carrasco, an architect who also serves on the panel. On Wednesday, they introduced these concepts to the citizens panel.
"We just want to stimulate ideas and make sure people are thinking as creatively as possible and think of solutions as a system in Palo Alto and not just a series of intersections," Shen said.
Yet the meeting also highlighted the city's difficulty in getting the broader public engaged in what could be one of the costliest and most transformative projects in the city's history. Megan Kanne, a member of the community panel, said some of the residents in her neighborhood of Professorville have raised concerns about the city getting the needed funds to do any work on the Embarcadero Road underpass.
"We want to make sure the city isn't biting off more than it can chew, and we want to make sure if we study these things, we can have the manpower and money that we need to do it correctly," she said.
Kanne said she organized two community meetings to discuss grade separation, each of which attracted 15 to 25 people.
"I do think it's been a challenge to come up with ways to reach out to folks," Kanne said.
The city had better luck on Nov. 28, when it held a community meeting that brought about 150 people to the Mitchell Park Community Center. That meeting focused on the three alternatives now on the table for the Charleston and East Meadow crossings: a trench, a viaduct and a "hybrid" alternative that combines elevated rail tracks and lowered roads.
While the prospect of putting the train underground, either in a trench or a tunnel, has been the most popular alternative in recent months, the city's consultants highlighted at the meeting the major engineering and financial challenges that these options would entail.
The trench alternative for the two southernmost intersections would cost between $800 million and $950 million, according to an analysis from the city's consultant, Aecom. Etty Mercurio, an Aecom consultant, told the crowd at the community meeting that while the trench option would provide benefits visually and in terms of reducing noise, it would include significant engineering challenges, including the need to divert Adobe and Barron creeks and to relocate utilities. It would also require a high fence along the trench walls, be the most costly to maintain, and exceed Caltrain's design standards by requiring a 2 percent grade (Caltrain generally has a standard of 1 percent).
The "hybrid" option in south Palo Alto would be significantly cheaper than the trench, with an estimated price tag of $200 million to $250 million, according to Aecom. This option also would require less costly maintenance and would not block creeks or require a design exception from Caltrain. It would however, require the city to close portions of Alma near the two crossings and narrow Alma to two lanes during construction.
"We can have some major congestion issues during construction," Mercurio said.
A viaduct, meanwhile, would cost between $400 million and $500 million, according to Aecom's estimates. While it would be visible, unlike the the underground alternatives, it would not obstruct local creeks and its construction wouldn't affect the roadways as much. Unlike the trench and the "hybrid" alternatives, building a viaduct would obviate the need for temporary "shoofly" tracks for trains to run on while the permanent tracks are under construction.
These options, as well as emerging ideas around Embarcadero Road and Palo Alto Avenue, will now go to the council, which is scheduled to consider them in its final meeting of the year. It will also be the final meeting for Councilman Cory Wolbach, who this year chaired the Rail Committee, and Greg Scharff, who serves on the committee.
"There's a lot at stake in terms of the construction that will have to take place, in terms of the money it will take to actually to do it and, most important, the type of grade separation that the community agrees is the best for Palo Alto," de Geus said at the Nov. 28 meeting. "That's what we're trying to figure out."
Guest Opinion: Keeping options open, Dec. 14, 2018