News

Seeking to reach decision on rail redesign, council gives citizens group more power

Expanded Community Advisory Panel to be granted voting powers, responsibility for reporting to the council on grade separations

Seeking to bring some order and clarity to the city's convoluted debate over the future of its rail corridor, the Palo Alto City Council agreed on Monday to expand the powers of a citizens committee that is charged with guiding the city toward the finish line.

By unanimously voting to change the rules, the council acknowledged that its process for selecting the preferred alternative for grade separation — the physical separation of the railroad tracks from local streets — hasn't gone as smoothly as anyone has expected. They also largely agreed with criticism from members of the Expanded Community Advisory Committee (known as XCAP), who argued Monday that the existing process is marred by fuzzy goals and insufficient attention from council members.

To address the group's concerns, the council agreed to empower the 14-member group to make votes and to appoint a chair and a co-chair to lead the group meetings. It also charged the group to report to the council at least once every two months — a departure from the present practice, in which XCAP deals mostly with city staff and consultants.

The adjustment means that the committee will now be subject to the Brown Act, a change that in this case bars groups of more than seven members from exchanging emails or holding meetings apart from formal settings. It also, however, gives the council a more direct role in choosing preferred alternatives for redesigning the rail crossings at Churchill Avenue, East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road. The city is looking to modify these crossings in response to Caltrain's ongoing electrification project, which is expected to increase train service and potentially cause congestion around the rail crossings.

The council had already decided to defer planning for the Palo Alto Avenue crossing, which will be considered as part of a broader plan for downtown Palo Alto. It is still weighing a possible closure of Churchill Avenue to traffic as well as several grade separation options for the southern portion of the corridor (which includes the Charleston and Meadow crossings), including a trench, a viaduct and a hybrid alternative that combines raised tracks and a lowered road. The council is also exploring the possibility of a tunnel that would start south of Oregon Expressway and end at the Mountain View city border.

While the council has already narrowed its menu of grade-separation alternatives from about 36 to roughly half a dozen, it has repeatedly failed to meet its goal for choosing a preferred alternative. Initially set for the end of 2018, council members have repeatedly extended the timeline and are now unlikely to pick their preferred alternatives before spring 2020.

Palo Alto continues to lag well behind Mountain View and Sunnyvale, the two cities it is competing with for $700 million in Santa Clara County funding from Measure B, a tax measure that county voters passed in 2016.

The council's Monday vote, which followed more than three hours of debate, recalibrates yet again a process that has already undergone numerous changes and revisions since the beginning of the year. The Community Advisory Committee, which consisted largely of residents in neighborhoods that would be affected by grade separation, concluded its work earlier this year and was replaced by XCAP, which includes members from the earlier group and some new members.

To date, however, meetings of XCAP have been largely driven by staff and consultants, with little opportunity for members to constructively weigh in. While members offer opinions, they have not been able to vote. The group's meeting in August concluded with a presentation of options for radically redesigning streets around Embarcadero Road, with almost no time for group members to weigh in before adjournment.

Some XCAP members brought their complaints to the council on Monday night. Judy Kleinberg, a former mayor and current president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, said her time on XCAP has been a great learning opportunity but noted that the group doesn't have "an end game."

"The most important thing is to give some direction and to take into account all other impacts that so far this committee is not looking at," Kleinberg said, pointing to design alternatives on Embarcadero that could significantly disrupt local roads and businesses like the ones in Town & Country Village.

Larry Klein, a former mayor and council member who also serves on XCAP, told the council that the group remains months away from reaching any decisions. Many of the most important trade-offs that the city would need to consider — including funding for grade separations, the potential use of eminent domain and new road designs for Embarcadero Road to compliment a possible closure of the Churchill crossing — have not even been taken up by the committee.

Klein said he has made a list of about 20 variables that the committee — and ultimately the council — would have to weigh before reaching a decision.

"People like to talk about three-dimensional chess as being tough," Klein said. "I think we're in four-dimensional chess."

The council agreed and approved a motion proposed by Councilman Tom DuBois that turned the advisory group into a more formal committee, with voting powers and regular reports to the council.

The council also supported a recommendation from City Manager Ed Shikada to create another citizens group, known as the Rail Blue Ribbon Committee, that would focus on regional partnership and funding. Council members agreed, however, that creating such a group at this time would be premature and directed Shikada to return in December with a more refined proposal.

Shikada said the new group would have a function that is different from XCAP. Rather than focusing on the technical aspects of each design and its impacts on neighborhoods (which remains the purview of XCAP), the new group would look at the bigger picture and consider how the city's plans align with regional initiatives. The Rail Blue Ribbon Committee would also be more engaged in helping the council come up with a funding plan for the project, which could end up costing several billion dollars.

"We strive for communitywide awareness and engagements on topics we discuss," Shikada said. "We need to reconcile our community discussion with regional initiatives that are happening within our county, within the Caltrain corridor and, in some ways, regionally in the full Bay Area."

Some longtime observers supported changing the process but argued that forming a new group would be redundant and wasteful. Resident Stephen Rosenblum criticized the existing process as one driven by staff rather than the community. Given that it will be the residents, rather than city staff, who will be ultimately asked to pay for improvements, the process should be changed, he argued.

Rather than create a second committee to help reach the big decision, the council should pursue a collaborative design approach called "context sensitive solution," which invites all stakeholders to hammer out a compromise.

"Put them all together and have a committee that consists of all stakeholders and staff and technically competent people that can actually bring to the council actionable items rather than have the council get down into the weeds of all the discussions," Rosenblum said,

The council, however, agreed that the future rail committee would be fundamentally different from the existing one, both in its makeup and its function. The current group is charged with concluding its work by the end of April 2020. The new committee, if appointed, would do the bulk of its work next year, in the lead-up to a possible ballot measure in November.

"We're not asking someone to duplicate XCAP's work," Mayor Eric Filseth said. "Instead we're moving on to the next phase of work."

The council generally agreed that the process of picking alternatives should be iterative, with the council checking in periodically and adjusting the terms of the debate based on changing circumstances. Councilwoman Lydia Kou lobbied in favor of the "context sensitive solutions" process, which has been used in the past by the state Department of Transportation for highway construction. Councilman Greg Tanaka argued that the city should conduct more surveys of residents to gauge their appetite for paying more taxes for grade separation, noting that many aren't even aware of the ongoing debate.

In the end, however, the council rallied behind DuBois' motion, which reforms rather than resets the current process. They also agreed with Nadia Naik, a member of XCAP who urged the council not to rush its decision-making process.

"Railroads get built every 150 years," Nadia Naik said. "You are looking at investments that are going to stick around for a long time. That means really taking the time to do it right, to think cohesively about the entire city."

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Comments

12 people like this
Posted by TBM
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2019 at 4:43 am

Faced with a similar problem, Mountain View and Sunnyvale have both settled on the "low cost" alternative for their crossings.

Palo Alto started by eliminating the low cost option from consideration and are now left with an unappetizing choice of expensive boondoggles what will struggle to attract funding partners.

Mountain View and Sunnyvale have chosen to close the lesser of their crossings to traffic, replacing to with a pedestrian/bicycle underpass. For the major road, they have chosen to lower the road 20 feet, leaving the rail line unaltered.

In 2014 the Rengstroff road underpass was estimated to cost $117 million which includes $18 million to acquire residential properties.

A similar solution at Charleston Road would need to acquire about 10 properties valued at $28 million.

Closing Meadow Drive and building a pedestrian underpass could be done with minimal or no residential property takes.

With this solution, Meadow and Charleston grade separations can be done separately, so the new committee only has to scrape together $130 million to get started on the Charleston crossing.

Mountain View, Rengstroff alternatives: Web Link
Sunnyvale grade separation options considered: Web Link


9 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 10, 2019 at 7:52 am

There is no pressing need for grade separation. It's not relevant that Mountain View and Sunnyvale rushed to build something without knowing the facts. Caltrain's projections are pie-in-the-sky and not based on reality. Even if Caltrain does run trains every few minutes during rush hour, that leaves 140 hours per week that trains are not running non-stop and trains can easily cross at existing points. It makes absolutely no sense to close crossings or spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build new crossings because it might be slightly harder to cross the train tracks by car during a few hours each weekday.

There is absolutely a need for bike / ped crossings somewhere near Charleston / Meadow. That's what the city should focus on. That's a project all of Palo Alto would benefit from, not a project that spends hundreds of millions of dollars and possibly takes away homes.


5 people like this
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2019 at 11:48 am

"Mountain View and Sunnyvale have chosen to close the lesser of their crossings to traffic, replacing to with a pedestrian/bicycle underpass."

Palo Alto did exactly this at California Avenue in the early 1960's. The underpass is still there.

"Closing Meadow Drive and building a pedestrian underpass could be done with minimal or no residential property takes."

Close Meadow, Churchill, Charleston and Palo Alto Ave. to through traffic and you will no longer have any grade crossings in need of separation at low cost and with no property takings but will have eliminated a great deal of cross-town connectivity.

I see no indication that any of these myriad rail committees will interface in any way with the ultimate owners of the rail infrastructure: PCJPB. Palo Alto can dream about gold-lined trenches and tunnels but if they don't pass muster with PCJPB then it's so much wheel spinning. The first things PCJPB will look at are water-table issues and the risk of flooding immobilizing their trains.

One concludes that the Mountain View and Sunnyvale plans do not call for submerging the tracks and were quick to get approved by PCJPB.


6 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2019 at 11:58 am

TBM always trying to tell us in Palo Alto how we should be doing things. So, you interested in being forced to give up your home to a person who will be losing their property under your scenarios?

Didn't think so.


6 people like this
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2019 at 11:59 am

"It makes absolutely no sense to close crossings or spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build new crossings because it might be slightly harder to cross the train tracks by car during a few hours each weekday."

"Caltrain's projections are pie-in-the-sky and not based on reality."

Agreed

JR makes a good point.

What's the difference if the crossings are impassable a small percentage of the time due to crossing trains vs being impassable 100% of the time because the city closed the crossings? Maybe appoint yet another rail committee to study this question?


16 people like this
Posted by Revolve
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 10, 2019 at 12:27 pm

Don't worry the entire region will wait while Palo alto takes another decade to Make a decision. No rush. The world revolves around Palo alto.


9 people like this
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2019 at 12:28 pm

Spend your millions on ADA-compliant bike/ped underpasses and forget about auto traffic.

No elevating train tracks, no risk of immobilized trains due to flooding, no property takings, no PCJPB approval needed, no "Berlin wall" dividing the city, no loss of driveway access, no loss of privacy due to elevated trains peering into back yards, no shoofly track.

Better appoint another rail committee to study this.


3 people like this
Posted by TBM
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2019 at 12:52 pm

If Palo Alto takes no action, Caltrain will eventually update the at-grade crossings to a 110mph compatible quad gate design. CHSRA recently produced a video simulation showing what such a crossing would be like: Web Link


7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2019 at 1:21 pm

The point as I see it as that already some of the crossings (both at grade and also those not at grade) are not passable, depending of course on the definition of at passable.

I have attempted to cross at Meadow and at Churchill and had to wait for more than one green light to cross, and that is not because of the gates closing. When the gates close the amount of time it takes for a green light sequence can be very long particularly if a second train comes along.

Traffic on San Antonio, Oregon and Embarcadero is often at a standstill even though these are supposed to be arteries or expressways. We have two high schools both on the same side of the tracks which means that as a rough estimate half our high school students have to cross those tracks on a twice daily basis by whatever means they can.

With even a slight increase in the number of trains running through Palo Alto at commute times, these crossings will definitely be impacted even more than they are at present. The tracks do divide the town in half and regardless of whether people are crossing the tracks to get to work using 101 or to get to school or jobs at Stanford, Cal Ave or SandHill, these crossings will need to increase their volume if the number of trains increase.


Like this comment
Posted by Train neighbor
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 10, 2019 at 1:29 pm

Train neighbor is a registered user.

Error needs correction: "Expanded Community Advisory Committee (known as XPAC)"

Should read "Expanded Community Advisory Committee (known as XCAP)"


Like this comment
Posted by Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Sep 10, 2019 at 1:59 pm

Gennady Sheyner is a registered user.

Thanks, Train Neighbor. Sorry for the typo. I made the correction.


4 people like this
Posted by Staying Young Through Kids
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2019 at 3:22 pm

Staying Young Through Kids is a registered user.

@Me 2 "TBM always trying to tell us in Palo Alto how we should be doing things. So, you interested in being forced to give up your home to a person who will be losing their property under your scenarios?

Didn't think so."

If (when) properties need to be taken for the project I’d imagine the authorities overseeing the project will have no trouble finding a home or two to swap folks into.

With housing prices, a decade of rail construction, insane traffic, and the densification required by ABAG there ought to be plenty of folks willing to cash out and head to Bend OR, Austin TX, Denver CO…etc…

I'm a supporter of walking and biking for those who are able to make that work, but I'd beg of the XCAP group to look to make Palo Alto a car friendly community with an INCREASED number of crossings. Closing even one of our geographically distributed crossings should be a nonstarter. Please use grade separation to INCREASE our automobile, bike, and pedestrian crossing capacity!!

To borrow from a popular catchphrase "Feel the Berm!!"


2 people like this
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2019 at 4:57 pm

How many residences do the two hybrid solutions contemplate taking? How many at Meadow and how many at Charleston? I've combed through the AECOM literature and still do not have a handle on these numbers.

If it's a small number, how about offering 2X FMV for the properties? If someone offered me $6 million for my $3 million residence it might go a long way toward easing the pain of relocating. This in combination with a hybrid would likely be cheaper than the shoofly track that would need to be built for a trench or tunnel.

Almost no one would oppose a trench or tunnel except maybe those who live along Alma in close proximity to a shoofly track. The wild cards are PCJPB and the agencies involved with the creek crossings and water-table issues this plan would encounter. As it has been for many years, Palo Alto and its myriad rail committees are operating in a vacuum, not interfacing with PCJPB, so these questions remain imponderables.


11 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2019 at 5:24 pm

Sounds like another ploy to delay making a decision, drive up costs, and limit our options when we finally do try to build something.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 10, 2019 at 9:09 pm

If someone offered me $6 million for my $3 million residence, half would go to taxes.


Like this comment
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2019 at 10:25 pm

"How many residences do the two hybrid solutions contemplate taking? How many at Meadow and how many at Charleston? I've combed through the AECOM literature and still do not have a handle on these numbers."

The estimates for property takings were from an earlier study by Hatch Mott McDonald. The estimates depend on maintaining the ability to turn onto these streets from Alma. To maintain them, it requires a higher number of property takings because Alma would have to be lowered, which would require taking property along Alma as well.

For Meadow, estimated 11-14 property takings and 3-4 partial. For Charleston, 18 full, 3 partial. Churchill was studied as well - 16-33 full, 3-4 partial.

Web Link

"If it's a small number, how about offering 2X FMV for the properties? If someone offered me $6 million for my $3 million residence it might go a long way toward easing the pain of relocating."

If of course, you have no ties to your neighborhood and presumably no school aged children in PAUSD, this would be an easy cash out. Of course, given our lack of housing, I think it would be ironic to reduce family housing supply even more in Palo Alto.

"This in combination with a hybrid would likely be cheaper than the shoofly track that would need to be built for a trench or tunnel."

Still obsessed about a shoo-fly track on Alma? Given that you're changing the elevation of both the tracks and the street in the hybrid scenario, who says you won't need a shoo-fly track this scenario as well?


2 people like this
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

So what's the solution if we eliminate anything that requires taking residential properties such as hybrids, and eliminate a viaduct from consideration for being unpopular with the citizenry.

The citizens won't object to a trench/tunnel but we've no idea whether PCJPB would go for it. We don't have an answer to this because our myriad rail committees aren't reaching out to PCJPB after 10+ years of deliberating.

Again, I've read where Burlingame considered a trench/tunnel and concluded it would be impractical to keep dry rear-around so they discarded the idea.

So where does this leave Palo Alto?


5 people like this
Posted by TBM
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 11, 2019 at 4:41 am

"How many residences do the two hybrid solutions contemplate taking?"

The roads at Charleston and Meadow can be lowered about 5 feet without taking any properties, but then the rail has to be raised by 15 feet, causing a significant "Berlin wall" effect that will reduce neighboring property values.

Digging the road ever deeper takes successively more properties but reduces the height of the Berlin wall.

Lowering the road by 20 feet eliminates the need to raise the rail and the expense of a shoo-fly.

Is the cost of taking properties for a 20 foot road underpass less than the collective loss in property values caused by a Berlin wall?


Like this comment
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 11, 2019 at 6:49 am

Those questions are tradeoffs the many rail committees will have to ponder.


1 person likes this
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 11, 2019 at 7:01 am

Learn a lesson from Burlingame:

"In Burlingame, where residents and city leaders initially preferred a trench for the train, studies showed that it would be difficult and costly to keep the trench dry during rainy season. Palo Alto's roadway underpass at Oregon Expressway often floods in heavy rains."

Web Link


3 people like this
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 11, 2019 at 7:08 am

"For people who have been following the process, a major cause for concern among people who live near the tracks is the prospect that grade separation might require that houses be demolished. In the South Palo Alto area where this concern was the greatest because houses are near the tracks and cross streets, the most recent design updates suggest that no houses would need to be removed in the options being considered. There are a few locations where driveways would need to be modified, but the driveways would continue to provide full access to the houses. "

Web Link


13 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 11, 2019 at 11:39 am

The best thing Palo Alto can do is NOTHING. Twenty years from now when self-driving cars put Caltrain out of business, Palo Alto will look like the smartest guys in the room. San Carlos, Redwood City, and Mountain View will all be stuck trying to figure out what to do with communities blighted by very expensive, ugly, white elephants.


14 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 11, 2019 at 5:54 pm

@Morris - No property takings, they say? If you can find the designs, I'd love to see them. My sense is that they'll just be lifting the tracks higher and depress very little. Technically still a hybrid, but essentially would be a berm.

@Ahem - I think that's what will happen. We'll just end up closing all at-grade crossings. Heck, Caltrain just reported a slight drop in ridership (surprised PAO hasn't picked up on it), which tells me, again, that all these 20 year ridership projections are a bunch of hooey.


9 people like this
Posted by relentlesscactus
a resident of another community
on Sep 12, 2019 at 6:28 am

#Ahem you know not of what you speak. I am a transportation planner in rail. Self-driving cars when ready which is very far off require road infrastructure and even with communication between vehicles the theoretical capacity of such a smart road for limited segments cannot approach the passenger carrying capacity of rail.


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