As Palo Alto approaches a decision on the best way to separate the railroad tracks from local streets, city leaders remain divided over the most ambitious and expensive option on the table: an underground tunnel stretching from one end of the city to the other.
Everyone agrees that the tunnel option, which is one of six on Palo Alto's current menu of design alternatives, is unlike all the others, each of which is limited to a particular section of the 4-mile rail corridor. That, however, is where the consensus ends. Supporters of the tunnel believe the option is too good to pass up, a once-in-a-century opportunity to transform the rail corridor for the better. Opponents counter that it's an expensive distraction, an option that is both too good to be true and too expensive to be realistic.
Both views surfaced during the council's Monday discussion on "grade separation," which concluded with the council agreeing to a new working group to shepherd the effort, with the goal of reaching a decision by October. The group will be appointed by City Manager Ed Shikada and would not be subject to the state's Brown Act requirements for public meetings. As such, members would have the flexibility to talk between meetings and exchange ideas.
But while much of the discussion was devoted to procedural matters, the most contentious part in the discussion centered around the tunnel. Councilwoman Alison Cormack suggested that it's time to drop the tunnel idea, which carries an estimated price tag of between $2.5 billion and $3.8 billion and would require the acquisition of people's property. This option, she said, really is not like all the others.
"It's an order of magnitude different on costs, and the impacts are so much more significant than the others," Cormack said.
Her argument was bolstered by a recent analysis from the city's consultant, Aecom, which suggested that the tunnel would require significant property acquisitions to make room for "shoofly tracks," temporary tracks that would need to be constructed to keep rail service going while the tunnel is being built.
A recent video created by Aecom indicated that Palo Alto would need to acquire properties on the east side of the tracks south of Embarcadero Road and around Charleston Road to make the tunnel possible.
Vice Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilman Tom DuBois both shared her view and recommended that it's time to drop the tunnel from consideration. Fine called the option a "rabbit hole" and suggested that the city already has all the information it needs to remove it from consideration.
Councilwoman Lydia Kou disagreed and took issue with the Aecom video, which she suggested reflects staff's anti-tunnel bias. Kou questioned the video's suggestion that the tunnel option would require property acquisition and suggested that the animation was designed to "cause concern." She argued that the city should explore other ways to build the tunnel that would not require acquisitions.
"I wanted to see more options on how to do tunnel," Kou said. "I'm not ready to let that loose yet."
Councilman Greg Tanaka concurred and said he would like to see how the public feels about the tunnel before dropping it from the menu of options. Though normally a fiscal hawk, Tanaka said he would have no problem moving ahead with the project if the citizenry proves willing to foot the bill. Many cities, including Boston and Berkeley, have underground tunnels, and Palo Alto should consider one as well, Tanaka said.
"I've heard so many people say that they really want this, so for me to say 'Let's just drop it' doesn't make sense," Tanaka said.
Fine took issue with Kou's and Tanaka's assertions that the city's studies — which are costing hundreds of thousands of dollars — are biased. But with the council limited to five members (Mayor Eric Filsth and Councilwoman Liz Kniss are both recused because they own property near the rail corridor) and needing four votes to make a decision, Kou and Tanaka were able to effectively veto the three-member majority's desire to eliminate the tunnel.
In addition to the tunnel, Palo Alto's design alternatives include the closure of Churchill Avenue to cars; a tunnel just for south Palo Alto; and either a rail trench, a viaduct or a "hybrid" design (which combines raised tracks and lowered roads) for the Meadow Drive and Charleston Road intersections.
After debating the tunnel, the council voted 5-0 to approve staff's proposed work plan and timeline as well as the composition of the new working group.
Under the proposal adopted by the council, the group will include the 12 members of the existing Community Advisory Panel, which has been meeting monthly to vet the work of staff and Aecom. It also intends to include one representative from Stanford University, Stanford Research Park, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, the Palo Alto Unified School District and the Friends of Caltrain board, along with a representative from either Stanford Health or Stanford Shopping Center.
It will meet seven times between May and October.
The newly adopted work plan aims to achieve several goals: make progress on adopting a preferred alternative for grade separation, engage the business community on a potential ballot measure to raise revenues and set up a process that will allow the council to make key decisions on the two related efforts — grade separation and a revenue measure — in the same time frame.