As Santa Clara County prepares to distribute funding for rail projects in north county, Palo Alto is looking to create yet another citizen committee to advise city leaders on the complex and contentious topic.
The City Council will discuss on Monday a proposal to create what would be known as the Rail Blue Ribbon Committee, a group that will advise the City Council on everything from project funding to neighborhood concerns about "grade separation," the city's effort to separate the tracks from roads at four crossings.
If approved by the council, new committee would complement another citizens group that the city recently created to deliberate on the rail issue: the Expanded Community Advisory Panel (XCAP), which consists of 14 members, including neighborhood representatives, local commissioners and former mayors. That group formed just after the dissolution of a prior citizens advisory group — the Community Advisory Panel — and includes numerous participants from the earlier group.
The Rail Blue Ribbon Committee and the Expanded Community Advisory Panel are both charged with helping the council make a decision on grade separation, a project that is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take more than a decade to implement. In early 2018, the council adopted a goal of choosing a preferred alternative by the end of that year. Having failed to meet its deadline, the council is now hoping to make its selection by October.
In Palo Alto, as elsewhere, cost remains a major consideration. Much like its counterparts in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, the council is banking on funding from Measure B to help pay for whatever alternative is chosen. The 2016 county measure specifically allocated $700 million to the three north county cities for grade separation, though it didn't specify how much each city would get and what the process would be for allocating the funds.
Earlier this month, Vice Mayor Adrian Fine suggested that the timing of the city's decision may become a crucial factor in determining how much money it gets from the county.
Fine noted that many in Palo Alto, including some council members, were under the impression that money would be parceled out according to the number of grade separation projects in the three cities. If that were the case, Palo Alto — with its four crossings — would get half of Measure B's grade separation funds. (Sunnyvale and Mountain View have two crossings each.)
Fine, who recently partook in a meeting with VTA Executive Director Nuria Fernandez, said the VTA "is certainly not under that impression." Instead, the agency had appointed an advisory committee to create a financing plan. One criterion that the agency will be using is "timeliness," he said.
"That puts some pressure on our grade separation decision," Fine told his council colleagues at the Aug. 5 meeting.
Fine told the Weekly that other factors that the VTA is expected to consider before distributing funds are safety, rail operations and project costs.
Palo Alto's city leaders have long acknowledged that when it comes to planning for grade separation, they remain well behind Mountain View and Sunnyvale. Mountain View has already selected its preferred alternatives: closing Castro Street to traffic and building an underground tunnel at Rengstorff Avenue, a project for which the council approved an engineering study last December.
Sunnyvale has already narrowed down its options for its crossings at Mary and Sunnyvale avenues. The city has identified two different underpass designs for Mary Avenue. At Sunnyvale Avenue, the city is considering an underpass tunnel and a pedestrian undercrossing. Consultants are now performing traffic analyses for these alternatives, with community meetings scheduled for summer and fall of this year, according to the city's website.
Palo Alto, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out what it wants to do at its four rail crossings: Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill Avenue, East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road. The city made some progress over the past year, narrowing down its list of alternatives from 36 to six, removing Palo Alto Avenue from the discussion (the northernmost crossing will now be evaluated separately, as part of a forthcoming downtown study) and eliminating from consideration the idea of building a citywide tunnel. The council cited tunnel-engineering complexities and an estimated price tag of between $2.5 billion and $3.8 billion in scrapping the tunnel idea in May.
The options that remain in play in Palo Alto are: a rail viaduct at Churchill Avenue; the closure of Churchill to traffic; a rail viaduct at East Meadow and Charleston; a train trench at East Meadow and Charleston; and a "hybrid" option with raised tracks and lowered roads at East Meadow and Charleston. The city is also considering a shorter tunnel, stretching from south of Oregon Expressway to the Mountain View border.
Weighing all of the options, and more, will be the Rail Blue Ribbon Committee, whose name intentionally alludes to the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Committee — a group that in 2011 helped put together the city's plan for addressing infrastructure priorities.
Unlike the Expanded Community Advisory Group, which was selected by city staff and which advises city staff about neighborhood-level concerns pertaining to grade separation, the new committee would answer directly to the City Council, according to a report from the office of City Manager Ed Shikada.
The panel would consider "community-wide benefits and impacts, local and regional political considerations, and financing strategy for implementation."
"The goal of the RBRC would be to provide the City Council with strategic recommendations that recognize the interplay of issues that range from neighborhood-specific concerns with grade separation options to the need for citywide voter support and the regional competition for funding and project commitments," the report states.
The new committee would be made up of former Palo Alto mayors and council members. It would not deal with the technical aspects of grade separation options, which would remain the purview of XCAP. Rather, it will consider the local and regional political environment and advocate based on these considerations. The meetings of the new committee would be subject to the state's Brown Act, which governs transparency, and its meetings would be open to the public.
Shikada is also recommending that the committee include, in a non-voting capacity, representatives from the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, Stanford University, Caltrain, the VTA and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which advocates on behalf of large employers.
While citizen committees generally aren't known for speeding up projects, the new report argues that Palo Alto will be "in a better position to advocate for funding allocations once locally preferred alternatives are selected." The Rail Blue Ribbon Committee is expected to help the city get to these alternatives by spring 2020, the report states, in time for developing a November 2020 ballot measure to raise funding for whatever projects are selected.