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."