News

Palo Alto approaches key decision on grade separation

City Council hopes to reach preferred alternative on separating tracks from roads by next month

Faced with a series of expensive, complex and, in some cases, deeply unpopular options for redesigning four local rail crossings, Palo Alto officials are preparing to invest more money and time into their lagging effort to choose a preferred alternative for the ambitious project.

In its first meeting as the "Rail Committee of the Whole," the City Council plans to approve on Monday night another $500,000 in expenditures to supplement the $1.2 million it had already approved for the city's contract with Aecom, the engineering firm that is spearheading the city's drive toward what's known as grade separation. The council adopted in early 2018 a goal of selecting an alternative for the city's four grade crossings — Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill Avenue, East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road — by the end of that year.

Having failed to meet that deadline, the council is now hoping to reach a decision next month, according to a new report from the office of City Manager Ed Shikada. The city is also planning to hold a community meeting on March 27 to discuss, among other topics, one of the most popular and expensive options: a citywide tunnel. While some on the council and city staff, including former City Manager James Keene, had previously maintained that the project is cost prohibitive, the council has been loath to officially eliminate it from consideration before the community meeting.

Earlier this month in his "State of the City" speech, Mayor Eric Filseth acknowledged that the city's process for choosing a grade separation option is "a little more complicated" than initially thought. So far, the only major source of funding that the city is banking on for grade separation is a portion of the $700 million that the Santa Clara County VTA had designated for north county (which includes Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Palo Alto) as part of its successful 2016 tax measure.

Filseth said during his March 5 address that while a citywide tunnel is "conceivable," the option is very expensive and it's not clear where the money would come from for a project that has a price tag ranging from $500 million to $3 billion.

"The issue is we don't have any perfect options here," Filseth said. "Every one of these things has warts, but we'll have to pick one."

The council has already taken some steps to winnow down its list of options, which initially had more than 30 alternatives. It has declined to pursue a grade-separation alternative on Churchill Avenue, which would have required property takings, and it has agreed to evaluate Palo Alto Avenue options at a later time, as part of a broader downtown plan.

The council is, however, still considering three different options for separating East Meadow and Charleston from the rail tracks: a trench for trains, a viaduct for trains and a "hybrid" option in which the roads are lowered and the tracks are raised. Other candidates that remain on the council's list are a rail tunnel south of Oregon Expressway, a citywide tunnel and the closure of Churchill to traffic, in conjunction with various road improvements.

Even if the project picks its preferred alternative next month, it will still be years before any construction can kick off on what officials routinely refer to as the largest infrastructure project in the city's history. After the council makes its choice, the city will move ahead with an Environmental Impact Report for the preferred alternative, which is expected to cost between $3 million and $6 million and take between 18 and 30 months to complete, the new report states.

Under the project's revised timeline, the certification of the EIR would not take place until the middle of 2022. This would be followed by several years of design work and permit approvals. The city wouldn't approve any construction projects until spring and summer of 2025, which means it won't be completed until the end of 2031, according to staff estimates (the actual construction timeline would depend on which alternatives are chosen).

Despite the high costs of the project (the city is already spending about $120,000 on analysis and community outreach), council members aren't wavering in their desire to see grade separation — a project prompted by an expected increase in Caltrain service. The rail agency plans to increase the number of weekday trains from 92 to 114 once it completes its pending electrification of the rail corridor. This will include about 20 trains per hour during the peak commute hours, or about a train every three minutes.

Council members and staff are concerned that the increased train traffic will cause massive congestions at the rail crossings, with gates coming down every three minutes and causing cars to back up at rail crossings. Like other cities, they see grade separation as the ideal solution to this problem, notwithstanding the inherent challenges and limitations of each specific alternative.

Shikada acknowledged that much on Jan. 22, the council's last discussion of grade separation.

"At the end of the day, I do believe we won't have a scenario in which folks say, 'That's the one we really like.' It may be, 'We like it better than the alternative,' which can help us narrow the field," Shikada said.

---

Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.

Comments

24 people like this
Posted by efs
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 14, 2019 at 10:49 am

efs is a registered user.

What I see missing from all this is any recognition that we are talking about a railroad that runs from San Francisco to San Jose, not just through Palo Alto. This desperately needs to be a regional discussion. The options might look much different if all cities were working together on a solution. A tunnel might even become more possible, but we can't have a "system" in which trains run up to viaducts and down into trenches all along the Peninsula.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2019 at 11:08 am

Posted by efs, a resident of Crescent Park

>> What I see missing from all this is any recognition that we are talking about a railroad that runs from San Francisco to San Jose, not just through Palo Alto.

It is bigger than that, even. It was historically part of a railroad network that served the entire United States, and in fact, played a major role in WWII. Sadly, a large part of that network has been replaced with an environmentally much more destructive road network. We can bring the railroad network back to life, and every significant step will be a net positive with respect to fossil fuel usage and CO2 emissions. Everyone will benefit. IOW, it isn't just about Palo Alto.

>> This desperately needs to be a regional discussion. The options might look much different if all cities were working together on a solution.

Absolutely. But, Palo Alto can't afford to fix this on its own.

Do no harm. Don't do anything right now. Palo Alto can't afford to build a below-grade solution on its own, so, doing nothing is the better option. We will just have to wait until the statewide and even national significance is understood.


16 people like this
Posted by Giraffe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 14, 2019 at 11:34 am

Giraffe is a registered user.

I wish someone could tell me why closing Churchill would help anything. This would divert ALL of its traffic to Embarcadero, East Meadow etc, which are already too busy during peak hours. And it would divert the traffic 24 hrs / day, not just during peak hours. Leave it open and some people would choose to use it while some would not. Could also ban/restrict left turns to increase the time straight through traffic has to cross. And, I suspect that the traffic lights and train signals could be better coordinated.


4 people like this
Posted by Hassan
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 14, 2019 at 12:14 pm

"... increase the weekday trains from 92 to 114 trains ..." Is that really a big increase? "This will include about 20 trains per hour during the peak commute hours, or about a train every three minutes ..."
What are these numbers now??
I must be missing something about "... they see grade separation as the ideal solution to this problem". I hope somebody can explain.


5 people like this
Posted by Martin
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 14, 2019 at 1:45 pm

One reason why closing Churchill night help is because is two reasons:
1) Cost. Doing one grade separation is easier
2) Today, 92 trains cause gates to come down. Without the gates interfering with traffic timing, the remaining east Meadow crossing would now have additional capacity.
3) There's also more road-space to work with at E Meadow which could further be used to increase capacity and make up for closing Charleston.

I also wonder if anyone asked people who currently own the properties that might be affected would be willing to sell out. For example, one of the houses on corner of Meadow and Park is estimated at 3 million. What if city offered $5 million for it. Sure increases cost of the project by, but that could result in savings elsewhere. Or owners might be planning on selling anyway, so it'll save city headaches.


5 people like this
Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 14, 2019 at 1:53 pm

It's possible that the Transbay Terminal will only accomodate 10 trains per hour!

"Transbay Terminal — yet another problem. Train space might be too small"

Source: Web Link


11 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2019 at 5:41 pm

Let the Palo Alto residents pay for their own CalTrain solution! Of course, this may not leave them with enough money to pay people to take the SATs for their kids!


12 people like this
Posted by Wait for Palo Alto- they know best
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2019 at 6:54 pm

The world will just have wait until Palo Alto makes a decision, that is just the way things are. The world revolves around Palo,alto- so in another 20-30 years Palo Alto will reach a consensus that will make it through the Palo Alto process and given all the neighborhood watchdogs and busybodies, who knows if a consensus will ever be reached.
Do not expect the council to suddenly develop a spine and make a decision, plus the weekly’s “opinion” will be determined by whomever they are pleasing that month.
The best idea is to terminate the train on each end of,Palo Alto and then have people bike through town and catch the continuation of the line.


6 people like this
Posted by Wait another year
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 14, 2019 at 7:03 pm

With filseth et al focusing on pasz goals, I doubt any progress will be made this year on the plan.


10 people like this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 14, 2019 at 7:56 pm

DTN Paul is a registered user.

Prediction: No action, no decisions, more "study."


9 people like this
Posted by Staying Young Through Kids
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 14, 2019 at 8:41 pm

Staying Young Through Kids is a registered user.

Closing Churchill? This is a terrible idea that continues to lack much conversation...While there are a LOT of downsides, the one thing I haven't heard discussed much is the fact that PAUSD and PALY use Churchill as a main connection to their facilities.

Does PAUSD plan to move their Corp Yard and Bus Parking?

Will all PALY and PAUSD traffic now be pushed to El Camino and Embarcadero?

The city council is horrified about the dissatisfaction of the voters if property acquisition is required as part of this process. The fear of using eminent domain is driving every decision. Well...when you make an omelette that needs to feed an entire region you're going to need to break some eggs.

I believe most of our 70,000 citizens, of whom perhaps 100 would be bought out of their homes, and the 30,000 or so (non voting) daytime employees would feel bad about taking these homes, but would swallow hard, and vote to keep 5 out of 6 crossings instead of just 4 out of 6. A loss of 1/3 or even 1/6 of our crossings (and the sensible geographic spread they offer) would be amazingly impactful to our city. Remember, there are no plans to make the Oregon or Embarcadero underpasses any larger!

Of course, exploring a way to keep the North Alma crossing open would be a HUGE win as well.

Without new stations it's not as if the additional trains will be taking locals from Charleston to shopping or jobs in Menlo Park, or from Downtown PA to Mitchell Park. And, no...MOST people will not walk or bike these distances in the rain, in the cold, or in the dark. Sure, some will, but most will not...

I'd beg the CC to be creative, spend more, or put it to the voters. This 50+ year decision is one which will span generations for our city. It's much too important to be made by such a small and divided body which already lacks full support of the public. This is a decision which requires not only input from the public, but a vote of the citizens of the city.

PS...As an example of what a loss of 2/6 of our crossings would be like...imagine El Camino or US 101 being reduced from 6 lanes to 4...fewer drivers? Probably not. More traffic congestion? Absolutely.

PPS...How does the city plan to get traffic from Northbound Alma (from Oregon North) to Westbound Embarcadero or to El Camino? Are Lincoln and Emerson or University Ave ready to handle that traffic? Will property need to be seized to make that work? Will this mean more traffic pushed into neighborhoods?

Lots of questions...Please problem solve, put together the BEST plan, get a cost (a real cost), and put it to the voters!





13 people like this
Posted by Safety Sandshrew
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 14, 2019 at 9:18 pm

Wait a minute... They want to do grade separation because they expect Caltrains to arrive every 3 minutes (which is awesome!) once electrification is complete, and these frequent trains will block road traffic. But electrification will be complete in 2021. And this grade separation won't be complete until 2031?? That is waaaaay too late. Within a year of Caltrain electrification, people will begin taking other routes to get where they need to go. Either they need to speed up the grade separation by a factor of 6 and complete it in 2 years instead of 12, or they need to come up with another solution that can be completed by the time Caltrain electrification is done. If it's not that urgent, then why do it at all?


21 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 14, 2019 at 9:21 pm

Palo Alto should not spend another second or another dime on this process. Caltrain's rider projections are about as valid as HSR's. The sky isn't falling and the world won't end tomorrow if we decide to leave everything as-is.


18 people like this
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 15, 2019 at 12:12 am

JR: You apparently haven't ridden Caltrain recently. I invite you to take any train between 7 to 9am at either University of Cal Avenue.


15 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 15, 2019 at 6:48 am

Annette is a registered user.

I am going to make a plea here for some smart sequencing of decisions and, ultimately, work.

I am against SB50 for all sorts of reasons, including that it is predicated on Palo Alto being transit rich. Even a cursory read of the grade separation situation leads to the conclusion that Palo Alto is transit challenged now and the process of getting to a better situation via grade separation is going to cause major circulation problems. Why add more cars, more parking issues, and more people to that scenario? Also, even if decisions were made quickly and construction was done the Arrillaga way (quickly, efficiently, and well) the improvement of just the train portion of "transit rich" is at least a decade away.

So why add to the problem by densifying an already dysfunctional corridor? Why not finalize the train decision, then get the work done, then assess whether traffic circulation has improved, then assess capacity for growth. Theory-based planning (or, more accurately, theory-based acting) hasn't served us well.


6 people like this
Posted by Martin
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 15, 2019 at 9:14 am

It might worth pointing out that Mountain View is planning to simply close the Castro street crossing and funnel cars over the existing Shoreline overpass where an extra ramp gets added.

Of course, a bike/pedestrian underpass will very likely to be built and neighbors should demand that - perhaps even extend it across Alma.

Lastly, is <1/2 mile detour really that harsh? I mean, there are plenty of areas along the corridor where residents need to drive a mile or more out of the way.


4 people like this
Posted by TBM
a resident of another community
on Mar 15, 2019 at 10:18 am

@ "Mountain View is planning to simply close the Castro street crossing"

The advantage is that the stub-end of Castro street can be re-developed as a pedestrian plaza with bars and restaurants which will add value of the adjacent transit hub.

The stub-end of a closed Churchill is not so ripe for development.

I suggest that the city should arrange for the house on the East corner of Churchill and Alma be picked up and re-located onto the stub-end of Churchill on the West side of the tracks. The vacant plot on the corner of Alma/Churchill can then be used as the entrance to a pedestrian underpass that crosses Alma and Caltrain.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 15, 2019 at 10:34 pm

^ I love hanging out on the stub-end of California Avenue. Not.


12 people like this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 17, 2019 at 12:04 am

This article made me laugh. The topic of grade separation in Palo Alto has become high comedy.

"It's time to do something about grade separation! Let's have another coffee klatch at Mitchell Park and maybe we'll have a workable plan in another 15 - 20 years."

"Palo Alto should not spend another second or another dime on this process. Caltrain's rider projections are about as valid as HSR's. The sky isn't falling and the world won't end tomorrow if we decide to leave everything as-is."

He is absolutely right.

Don't be suckers, Palo Alto. The looming Caltrain expansion may never come to pass. Stranger things have happened, e.g. CA HSR disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Leave it to Palo Alto to spend billions on studies and planning and construction and "cost overruns", only to have this predicted avalanche of Caltrains never materialize. CA HSR and the "blended approach" are dead so there won't be bullet trains whizzing through town at breakneck speeds.

So Palo Alto will spend billions to grade separate and be on the hook for higher property taxes and bond indebtedness for generations to come for a HSR project that died a merciful death, and for Caltrain expansion that never materialized. Suckers.

Seriously, leaving the crossings as is is the least disruptive option, both economically and in terms of disrupting the cityscape. Palo Alto was never designed to accomodate so much rail service. Problem #1 is that so many of the residences are built right up against the tracks with no room for expansion.


2 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2019 at 12:22 am

Just close the crossings. That’s what Mountain View is doing at Castro. Would save a lot of money.


4 people like this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 17, 2019 at 1:40 am

"Mountain View is planning to simply close the Castro street crossing."

We did that over a half century ago It's called "California Avenue".

We closed it 50+ years ago yet the trains keep coming!


2 people like this
Posted by @Annette
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2019 at 1:53 am

"I am against SB50 for all sorts of reasons, including that it is predicated on Palo Alto being transit rich."

It's a jobs center with a Caltrain stop. That's exactly where the housing should go, and rightly so.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 17, 2019 at 1:54 am

I remember the grade crossing on El Camino just south of Page Mill.
We ripped out the tracks. Problem solved.


2 people like this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 17, 2019 at 3:09 am

"I remember the grade crossing on El Camino just south of Page Mill."

That was not part of the main line. It was part of the Los Altos branch. The tracks were later taken up and Foothill Expwy. built on the right-of-way.


2 people like this
Posted by bob.smith
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2019 at 3:20 am

Palo Alto city council should follow Tesla's lead and ask all residents who want a tunnel to pay a $10,000 deposit.


20 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2019 at 4:19 pm

Caltrain electrification will probably never be completed.

No one expects this project to be completed within budget and we are no longer in a social/political environment where the voters and/or the federal government are going to put up with paying 2-3x the initial projected cost.

The contractors that received the sweetheart deals for this boondoggle are already revising their plans to suck as money as possible out of the initial budget with the full knowledge that it will never be completed and never have to actually function.

Hawaii's HART, California's CalHSR, and PCJPB's Caltrain electrification have never been about transportation. They have always been first and foremost a way to funnel taxpayer dollars through sweetheart contractors and into the political campaign coffers of developer friendly politicians.

Like HART and CalHSR, Caltrain electrification is sadly just another real-estate scam.


19 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2019 at 5:18 pm

Nothing I've seen in all the past discussion, this article, or any of the followup, has demonstrated the need for the referenced "deadline". There aren't any good options. That is, no preferred options that the city can afford on its own. Without regional/state support, the City of Palo Alto doesn't have a "make things better" option that CPA can afford.

There is no "deadline" for making a bad decision. Let's just put this on hold for a while. Other funding will probably materialize in the next decade. For now, let's just make do.


9 people like this
Posted by TBM
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2019 at 5:20 pm

^^^^ Where are you getting your 'facts' from?

The latest status report shows that the electrification program is coming in on budget: Web Link

Real Estate costs are 1.44% of the overall project expenditure.



Like this comment
Posted by spike
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Mar 20, 2019 at 4:53 pm

Tunnel. The real estate developers will pay for it gladly. Give them the lots over the tunnel.

Voila!


Like this comment
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 20, 2019 at 10:44 pm

"The latest status report shows that the electrification program is coming in on budget"

This time around the cost of electrification is being picked up by Caltrain (PCJPB).

When CPA builds its gold-plated trench/tunnel/viaduct/stairway to heaven, the new ROW will have to be electrified all over again, and who will pick up the tab? PCJPB sure as heck is not going to pay twice to electrify Palo Alto. My money is on CPA paying to have the new, grade separated ROW through Palo Alto electrified starting from square one at the city's expense, not at the railroad's expense.This is the price CPA pays for dragging its fanny year after year.

When you snooze you lose.


Like this comment
Posted by Facts Matter
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 21, 2019 at 7:19 am

@Maurice
There are still 41 at grade crossings on the Caltrain line between SF and SJ and most have not even begun preliminary design work, meaning they are behind Palo Alto. All of them will likely need to be grade separated or closed for them full long term buildout of Caltrain of at least 10 trains per hour per direction. None of those remaining crossings are scheduled to be separated by the time Caltrain completes the electrification in 2022, meaning modifications to the electrification will need to occur up and down the system.
Opinions matter, but wildly uninformed opinions don’t matter much.


2 people like this
Posted by TBM
a resident of another community
on Mar 21, 2019 at 10:27 am

Electrification will certainly increase the cost of grade separations. Perhaps the biggest cost will be the increased footprint of the temporary shoofly tracks needed to keep construction workers a safe distance from the 25,000 volt power line.

If PA drags it fanny a bit longer, Stadler may come to the rescue. They have just unveiled a prototype train that can run on battery power for a short distance Web Link .
Perhaps Stadler will eventually offer power-block upgrades that will enable Caltrain trains to pass a short work zone without an external power supply.


1 person likes this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Mar 27, 2019 at 8:42 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

"Council members and staff are concerned that the increased train traffic will cause massive congestions at the rail crossings, with gates coming down every three minutes and causing cars to back up at rail crossings."

How often per hour and for what percentage of that hour are the traffic lights at any moderately busy and complex intersection red?

Any such traffic light turns red FAR more often and stays red for FAR longer than trains will ever conceivably block any Caltrain crossing (grab a stopwatch and clicker, and see for yourself!).

And while red traffic lights allow — at most — many dozen cars (typically with a single occupant) to pass through an intersection, lowered railroad crossing arms allow several hundred up to 1,000+ riders on a single train to pass. Why is it OK to wait for dozens of people in cars to pass at traffic lights everywhere, but somehow NOT OK to wait for up to a thousand people aboard a train to pass!? Is it just because they're in cars (like you?) and not trains? What an auto-centric, anti-transit, double-standard this is!

And, remember, the more packed 100% green electricity powered trains (and they are packed!) we can run, the less cars we'll have jamming our roads and pumping climate-changing CO2 into our atmosphere.

If only someone could patent a way to make any such traffic light only turn red as seldom and for as short a duration as railroad crossings are "blocked" by trains, they could become instantly wealthy by licensing that patent to city traffic engineering departments around the world.


Like this comment
Posted by Bill Bucy
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 27, 2019 at 9:08 am

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

I simply hope that the council picks an option soon so the inevitable lawsuits can play out promptly.


1 person likes this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 27, 2019 at 10:03 am

Posted by Bill Bucy, a resident of Barron Park

>> I simply hope that the council picks an option soon so the inevitable lawsuits can play out promptly.

I don't.

If the city can't afford to pay for a solution that actually improves things, then, delay is the correct policy. The city should not "do something" just to do something. Doing nothing is much better than making things worse.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Email:


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields


Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Vegan cafe to land in Mountain View this week
By Elena Kadvany | 7 comments | 4,051 views

What Would it Take to Get Tech Companies to Move Jobs Out of the Region and Is This a Good Idea?
By Steve Levy | 12 comments | 1,120 views

A Power Play
By Sherry Listgarten | 4 comments | 934 views

College Match
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 0 comments | 865 views

Piles of artwork
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 350 views

 

Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.

Vote