News

Facing pushback, city manager rethinks rail committee with only former elected leaders

Some question why new group is needed

After receiving pushback for his initial proposal to establish a new committee to work on rail improvements, Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada is preparing to bring a revised plan to the City Council on Monday.

Much like in the original recommendation, which the council briefly considered on Aug. 19, the proposed Rail Blue Ribbon Committee would be charged with advising the council on both the best options for grade separation — the realignment of rail crossings so that tracks don't intersect with streets — and the best way to pay for these options. But unlike last month, Shikada is no longer calling for the committee to be made up entirely of former elected officials — a criterion that some argued is too restrictive.

If approved by the council on Monday, the Rail Blue Ribbon Committee would operate independently of the existing citizens group, which is known as the Expanded Community Advisory Panel (XCAP). Unlike XCAP, the committee would be subject by the Brown Act, which would effectively prohibit people with property rights next to the rail corridor to participate. The XCAP, by contrast, includes members who live near the tracks and who represent their neighborhoods in discussions on grade separation.

The new committee would not evaluate the technical aspects of various grade separation options, which would remain the purview of XCAP. Rather, it would take the information developed by staff and XCAP, consider funding options and craft recommendations for the City Council to consider, according to a new report from Shikada's office. And rather than prioritize neighborhood impacts, the new group would focus on the big picture, both locally and regionally.

"The RBRC would provide advice to the City Council that reflects an understanding of the political environmental locally and regionally, and the advocacy viability of options in light of these considerations," the report states.

So far, the idea of appointing yet another committee to work on grade separation has met a mixed reception. While the council seemed open to the idea on Aug, 19, some members of XCAP argued that creating a new group would unnecessarily delay the process.

"Why not simply appoint a few more members — former electives or whoever is qualified — to XCAP?" XCAP member Phil Burton asked at the group's Aug. 21 meeting. "Beef it up. Why duplicate and lose a lot of time in the process."

Judy Kleinberg, a former mayor who now serves as president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, also called the proposed committee "duplicative" and unnecessary. Kleinberg, who serves on XCAP, also suggested that if the new committee is formed, it should not be limited to former elected officials.

While some former mayors and council members may be up to speed on what's going on, most have "moved on to their condo in Maui," Kleinberg said at XCAP's Aug. 21 meeting.

"They are not up to speed on this," she said.

Kleinberg also told the council on Aug. 19 that by limiting membership to former elected official, the city would be "leaving out the younger generation, which really has a stake in what you're deciding."

Councilwoman Liz Kniss agreed and suggested that most former elected officials are not up to speed on the city's grade-separation effort and it would be difficult for them to jump into the process.

"We have a number of people who come here on a regular basis who probably not only would like to serve but would have that important skill set that I think they need to have in order to make a difference," Kniss said at the Aug. 19 council meeting.

Shikada is also suggesting inviting the Chamber of Commerce, Stanford University, Caltrain, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group to participate in the new committee, in a nonvoting capacity.

"It's important to note that because the rail is part of a regional system, we are dependent on VTA and on Caltrain, as it relates to both funding and permit approval, for any concepts that are advanced," Shikada told the council on Aug. 19. "There is an inherent necessity for what's developed locally to fit regionally."

Under his proposal, the XCAP will continue to evaluate the various design options for grade separation with the goal of finishing its work by the end of this year. The new committee would begin working in the fall, with the aim of completing most of its work by spring 2020, around the time that the council is scheduled to make its decision on a potential ballot measure that would raise money for the preferred alternative.

The council has already eliminated more than two dozen alternatives from consideration, including, most recently, a citywide tunnel that was estimated to cost up to $3 billion. Among the options that remain in play are a trench for trains at East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road crossings, a viaduct for trains at this segment and a "hybrid" option that combines raised tracks and lowered roads. The council is also considering closing the Churchill Avenue crossing to traffic and a train tunnel between Oregon Expressway and Mountain View.

If the council agrees to form the new rail committee on Monday, it will have to decide how to pick its members. Shikada had offered several alternatives, including allowing each council member to select one or two individuals; establishing an open application process; or letting Shikada bring forward candidates for the council to approve.

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Comments

13 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2019 at 9:32 am

If the previous committee doesn't do what you want, get a new committee!

I feel a committee must consist of residents as well as those who understand traffic engineering, as well as engineers with experience in building train track systems through difficult topographical areas.

We don't need politicians making engineering decisions.


20 people like this
Posted by Let's Solve This
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 5, 2019 at 10:42 am

How about requiring that everyone wishing to serve on the committee pass a test to demonstrate they understand the important rail crossing issues?

I'm sure Palo Alto Online readers could suggest lots of good test questions.

We know what happens at the state and national level when major issues are decided by politicians with no clue what they're doing. Palo Alto's hardly immune from this: we have local officials who think we have no traffic problems, lower parking requirements when we have too little, and approve offices like candy. A competency test to get on the rail committee could eliminate people just angling for self-promotion and let those who actually understand the problems finally get something done.


10 people like this
Posted by PhilB
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Sep 5, 2019 at 11:02 am

PhilB is a registered user.

@Resident,

The real issues are NOT JUST POLITICAL. Disclosure: I am serving on the Citizens Advisory Panel. The issues include cost (meaning tax increases), possible house takings via eminent domain, construction time and impacts, visual impacts, noise, traffic on local streets.

If you think the issues are just engineering, I invite you to come to the next XCAP meeting and see otherwise. Today, Thursday, at 4 pm, at City Hall. Ground floor level, community meeting room on the left side of the lobby.


21 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 5, 2019 at 12:12 pm

Can somebody explain this for me?
I recall that in early 2017 the city council said there was such a rush to come to a decision on grade separations within a year that there was no time to set up a community advisory committee of any kind, otherwise we would lose our share of the Measure B dollars if we did not reach decisions by early 2018.
Then, last year the council and staff set up the CAP, but did not initially allow them to do anything other than advise on public outreach while still insisting that a decision had to be made by then end of 2018 or we would be over run by the increase in trains before the separations were built.
In spring of this year they expanded the CAP into an XCAP and gave them a bit more of a role to look at design alternatives, but they were not authorized to try to arrive at consensus or make recommendations. Also, that decisions on design would be completed by the council this October. Then the city manager proposed last month a RBRC, whether instead of the XCAP or in addition to it is not clear, and that the RBRC would be composed entirely of former council members. Now he is proposing a different composition to the RBRC, in addition expanding the role of the XCAP.
Meanwhile, the Finance Committee is exploring a business tax, in large part to fill much of the hole in the grade separation funding beyond Measure B dollars, but without council agreement on the uses of the tax or its amount.
In the meantime, Caltrain is deciding whether south Palo Alto needs to be able to accommodate passing tracks in the future and the VTA is sending confusing signals about how Measure B dollars will be spent.
So, on Monday there will be another herky-jerky, half baked process change because there is not enough time to do it right, but there seems to be plenty of time to do it over.


1 person likes this
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 7, 2019 at 1:11 am

You can't have too many rail committees.

Does the city need yetanother rail committee comprised of amateurs and politicians with no background in engineering. people who don't know who owns the right of way (hint: it isn't the City of Palo Alto) or don't know where the northern city limit/county line is?

Grade sep in Palo Alto is a very complex matter involving water tables and creek crossings and shoofly tracks and potential property takings. I don't think the city will be well served by yet another committee of unqualified amateurs, each with their own agenda.


Like this comment
Posted by CGPA
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2019 at 2:41 pm

CGPA is a registered user.

A committee will just come up with something that will cost a hundred trillion dollars. This is why the committees never get anywhere. Instead of a committee, we need a number.

Maybe we should float a ballot initiative: a base level plan with a berm that costs every property owner in the city $20K each, spread over 20 years in a bond proposal, a trench that costs every property owner in the city $1M, except we charge property owner a block from the tracks another $5M, or a tunnel, where the prices of the trench are tripled. Then see what gets passed.

Only then will any progress be made, because until we reject the last two plans as unworkable, the committee will arrive at the conclusion that A) We MUST have a tunnel, gold plated, and B) the other nearby cities will no doubt line up to pay for it (those same cities that paid build their own berms) so the cost to Palo Alto will be free! And then we'll be right back where we started.

The reality is that an elevated berm is the only feasible alternative, but of course the people living nearby will fight tooth and nail to build a tunnel. You have to reroute rivers and water lines and sewers, the costs are unfathomable. And they'll NEVER be willing to pay for it. So if you don't get agreement on what people will pay for, it's just more of the same. The people living nearby will demand we spend trillions, the rest of the city just wants to cross the tracks.


1 person likes this
Posted by Casey Jones
a resident of Nixon School
on Sep 9, 2019 at 2:52 pm

One option is to do nothing. When/if the train actually comes to fruition then you would have time to observe and decide based on what issues arise.


Like this comment
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 9, 2019 at 4:47 pm

How does Caltrain (PCJPB) feel about having its trains placed underground given the flooding risk? They own the rail infrastructure and will have to approve any scheme Palo Alto dreams up.

If a tunnel floods then the trains don't move, either northbound to the city or southbound to San Jose/Gilroy. Let's face it, CPA has a less than stellar record of keeping the Oregon undercrossing from flooding.

I've read where the city of Burlingame considered a trench/tunnel and concluded it would be too costly and impractical to keep the trench/tunnel dry rear around, so they nixed the idea. What makes CPA think its experience would be any different? You see, there is no natural drainage along the ROW through Palo Alto.

In addition, trench/tunnel construction would require building a shoofly track to circumnavigate the construction zone so you would have Caltrains hurtling up and ddown Alma day and night.

Ultimately all this talk of a trench/tunnel may be whistling Dixie. First sound out PCJPB to see if they would agree in principle to a trench/tunnel. If they say "no" then that settles that.


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