Palo Alto's tortuous effort to choose new designs for its four rail crossings shifted yet again this week when City Council members agreed to push the timeline for a decision until October and to set up a new working group to consider the big question of funding.
Convening for the first time as the Rail Committee of the Whole, council members voted 4-0 on Monday night to once again delay its looming decision over what's known as "grade separation," the physical separation of surface roads from the railroad tracks at the four crossings where they intersect. The committee also agreed to add $500,000 to its contract with the engineering firm Aecom, which is managing the process.
In shifting the city's schedule for choosing an alternative, the four members of the committee — Chair Adrian Fine and council members Alison Cormack, Tom DuBois and Lydia Kou (Greg Tanaka was absent while Mayor Eric Filseth and Councilwoman Liz Kniss were both recused) — tacitly acknowledged that the process of getting to a decision is far more complex than city leaders had initially thought. In early 2018, the council had set as its goal the selection of a preferred alternative for grade separation by the end of that year, a deadline that it failed to meet.
Three months into 2019, the decision remains elusive. On Monday, City Manager Ed Shikada proposed two options: moving the timeline to June or October. In choosing the latter option, the committee acknowledged the magnitude of the decision, which could cost more than $1 billion and which everyone agreed requires far more traffic analysis and community outreach.
Those points were underscored at Monday's meeting, where dozens of residents attended to offer their own ideas and request more study of the seven options currently on the table. Some urged council members to eliminate all options that could involve property seizures. Other said they were concerned about the proposal to close Churchill Avenue to traffic, which they argued would shift more cars to the Professorville neighborhood. Several residents of Professorville also chafed at a recent traffic analysis of this option, which did not consider the intersection of Emerson Street and Embaradero Road (even Shikada noted that the study needs more work).
The closure of Churchill is one of six proposals currently on the table in the city's grade-separation discussion (the council had previously agreed to pull the northernmost crossing, Palo Alto Avenue, out of the discussion and to consider it as part of a Downtown Specific Plan). The options include a tunnel in south Palo Alto; closure of Churchilll; a citywide tunnel; and three alternatives for the Meadow Drive and Charleston Road options: a trench, a viaduct and a "hybrid" that involves the lowering of the roads and the raising of the tracks.
The biggest change in the process that the rail committee approved on Monday is the new working group, which will likely include local businesses, representatives from Stanford Research Park and members of the current "community working group" that is working with consultants on analyzing grade-separation alternatives. DuBois argued that such a group would be necessary to conduct the necessary outreach and get "buy-in" from the community for a possible ballot measure to fund any chosen alternative.
While council members had often alluded to the prospect of a business tax in 2020 to pay for grade separation, some in the business community protested on Monday about their exclusion from the discussion.
Judy Kleinberg, president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, urged the council not to make any decisions about funding for grade separations until it hears from local businesses. To date, she said the chamber and business community members "have not been asked to participate in discussions on either grade separations or how to fund them."
Council members also agreed that the city needs to do far more outreach, including polling and focus groups, before it reaches the critical decision. Cormack urged the creation of a "dynamic model" that will allow residents to weigh the trade-offs between different alternatives.
"I'm not going to be prepared to make a decision to support a final decision on an alternative unless I understand how likely the community is to support a financing program for it," Cormack said.
The funding plan is further complicated by uncertainty over regional funding. The city, along with Mountain View and Sunnyvale, is eligible for a portion of $700 million in funding from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's Measure B, a tax measure that voters passed in 2016. City officials have long acknowledged that Palo Alto is far behind the other cities in getting to an option (Mountain View has already prepared its environmental documents and is set to receive $31 million for its projects at the Castro Street and Rengstorff Avenue crossings), which may make it harder for it to receive bond funding.
Last week, Shikada requested $4 million from the VTA to support the city's ongoing efforts: $1 million to support a "coordinated area plan" around the Palo Alto Avenue crossing and $3 million for work at the Churchill Avenue, Charleston Road and Meadow Drive crossings.
Shikada noted that residents' preferred grade separation alternative may depend on other funding sources.
"We will get great polling results if someone else is picking up the tab," Shikada said. "At the same time, if there were a share and we need to narrow the assumption on the share that could be a general tax for Palo Alto taxpayers, that might very well change the outcome."
Shikada also noted that assembling the new working group will be a complex endeavor that will require more staff work and expenditures. Even so, DuBois argued that creating a new group is a critical step to getting community buy-in.
"A working group is a key issue," DuBois said. "How will we get to something that a community will support?"