In Palo Alto, we're forever in search of perfect solutions to our problems and challenges — ones that satisfy everyone, or at least don't sharply divide and anger residents.
We try to achieve this on particularly complicated and controversial issues by investing tremendous time and energy on the process, believing that if we talk long enough and explore every possible alternative, we'll wind up with some degree of consensus about a logical decision.
Sometimes this gets us to a good result. An example is the Downtown Residential Parking Program and its less ambitious offshoots. Exhaustive debate, many false starts and some tweaking after implementation actually managed to get us to a good place.
But the challenges facing the community as we prepare for much more frequent Caltrain service through the middle of the city is of an entirely different magnitude and one that, regardless of the selected "solution," will result in the most significant physical changes and disruption to our city since the construction of Oregon Expressway in the 1960s. And there is no ability to make adjustments once a grade separation solution is implemented. We need to get it right at the outset.
That's a heavy burden to fall on our newly reduced seven-member City Council, especially with two, Mayor Eric Filseth and Councilwoman Liz Kniss, recusing themselves from the issue because they own property near the tracks. As a result, just five members will be making what may be the most important civic decision in the history of Palo Alto.
So it's no wonder that the five remaining council members are struggling to narrow the options for what to do with the existing four at-grade road crossings at Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road. They are proceeding with appropriate caution but must soon act.
Doing nothing is not a viable option, as increased train service, especially during peak commute hours, will create gridlock on these streets, adjacent neighborhoods and on Alma Street and other arterials.
The city staff recommends that the most extreme and expensive option — placing the tracks in a tunnel the length of the city — be eliminated, but the City Council Tuesday night could not bring itself to do so given the appeal and popularity of running the railroad out of sight and eliminating all conflicts between the train and cars, pedestrians and bicycles. It voted to keep the tunnel option for a bit longer so that it could get one more airing at a March community meeting, but no one seriously expects this billion-dollar alternative to survive the next discussion.
The remaining alternatives are elevating the tracks (the "viaduct" option), lowering the tracks south of Oregon in a trench, and a hybrid that lowers the road and elevates the tracks. These options would allow cars to go under or over the tracks at Meadow and Charleston. The City Council has already decided that the Churchill crossing will be closed to cars, with some form of passageway under the tracks for pedestrians and bicyclists, probably similar to the Homer Avenue tunnel.
The council agreed to create a separate planning effort for the northernmost crossing at Palo Alto Avenue, simpler in some ways because there are no traffic signals complicating the design. Closing that crossing entirely is still on the table, but isn't a good solution in our judgment.
(While not directly related to Palo Alto's decision, a newly elected City Council in Menlo Park earlier this month reversed the previous council's grade-crossing decision and decided that all three of the road crossings should be separated from the tracks instead of only the already highly congested Ravenswood Avenue. While this could occur by raising the tracks, the preferred option right now is to lower the three roadways.)
Palo Alto City Council members are doing their best to navigate through this consequential decision-making process and trying to explain to the community that there is no perfect or obvious "best" alternative. Each one has benefits and drawbacks that can be persuasively argued.
Predictably, residents living near the tracks are raising specific concerns, ranging from diverted traffic onto Embarcadero as a result of the Churchill closure to noise and visual impact of the viaduct option and construction challenges of a trench. An excellent visual depiction and background presentation on the options and trade-offs can be found here, and more information is posted at a city website, pagradesep.com.
For reasons we'll explain in a future editorial, we believe the "viaduct" option, in which the tracks south of the California Avenue train station are elevated and supported by concrete columns (not a continuous berm) is likely the best solution for the community. But each option has its benefits and problems, and time is running out for residents to have their voices heard and for the City Council to prepare itself to choose a solution that won't make everyone happy.