It's often referred to as the "biggest project in Palo Alto's history," with a potential price tag of more than $1 billion and the potential to significantly improve — or disrupt — the city's road network.
Yet on Monday night, the City Council and staff grappled with a problem that has long plagued the city's effort to select a preferred alternative for "grade separation" — the redesign of the rail corridor so that train tracks would no longer intersect with local streets. Despite spending a small fortune on planning alone and designating grade separation as a official council priority for 2019, council members acknowledged that many of their constituents still don't know that this project is happening.
The council is on a path to pick its preferred alternatives for redesigning the rail corridor at three grade crossings — Churchill Road, East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road — by next spring. To date, the council has reduced its menu of more than 30 possible alternatives to seven. On Churchill, the city is exploring the closure of the street to traffic or the construction of a viaduct for trains. On East Meadow and Charleston, the council is considering a train trench, a viaduct or a "hybrid" option that combines raised tracks with lower roads. There is also the idea of building a tunnel for south Palo Alto, with one alternative calling for sending both passenger and freight trains underground and another one keeping freight trains at grade.
While the council has been talking about the need to separate tracks from roads for nearly a decade, the project took on more urgency in recent years, as Caltrain began implementing its electrification project. Hundreds of residents had attended community meetings and signed petitions favoring one alternative or another. Dozens have become heavily engaged in the effort and have become regulars at public hearings where grade separation is discussed.
At the same time, the council repeatedly acknowledged Monday that most people still don't know about this effort. To remedy that, council members enthusiastically approved an engagement plan presented by Chief Communications Officer Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, an initiative that includes town hall meetings, resident surveys, newsletters and interactive "transportation talks" tailored to small groups.
The engagement effort will ramp up early next year, when the city holds its town hall meetings, with the goal of having most residents aware of the effort by April and May, when the council is set to pick its preferred alternative.
The council embraced the multi-pronged approach, which Horrigan-Taylor said was designed to provide residents with a menu of options for providing input on grade separation. Councilwoman Alison Cormack, who had long talked about the need to improve outreach, said it's critical for residents to have more opportunities to provide input about the project. With the engagement plan, the city has "turned the corner," she said.
"People get a chance to say something at formal meetings but they don't have a chance to go back and forth and enhance their understanding," Cormack said.
The new engagement plan is just the latest in a series of initiatives that the council had recently adopted in its effort to plan for grade separation. In early September, the council appointed new members and approved new rules for the Expanded Community Advisory Panel, a committee charged with advising the council on preferred alternatives. Under the new rules, the group has a chair and a vice chair who help shape the agenda. It also now has the power to report directly to the City Council (before, it had dealt mostly with staff and consultants).
Nadia Naik, the group's recently elected chair, told the council Monday that the panel is trying to find ways to reach a "shared consensus" on its decisions and to demonstrate to the community the lessons it has learned so far.
"We're really trying to exercise flexibility and creativity in finding some of the solutions, while keeping track of the timeline," Naik said.
Some residents, particularly those who live near the rail corridor, have gotten heavily involved in the planning process. Most, however, remain only vaguely aware of the city's plans. On Monday, several residents of the Southgate neighborhood pointed to a recent survey that they had conducted indicating that quite a few of their neighbors don't even know the city is considering closing Churchill, despite their proximity to the street.
The door-to-door survey, which residents conducted over the summer, showed that 75% of the 127 respondents had "some level of awareness," although their understanding of alternatives varied widely. The remaining 25% were "completely unaware that Churchill closure is being considered," according to the survey.
Those who are aware, tend to have strong opinions on the topic. Some in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood had suggested closing Churchill and making improvements on Embarcadero Road to mitigate the increased traffic that would be expected to flow there. Others, particularly those in the Professorville neighborhood, have vehemently opposed that idea of closing Churchill, a move that they argue would create traffic jams on their streets.
Rob Levitsky, who lives on Embarcadero and Emerson Street, was in the latter camp. On Monday, he made the case for keeping Churchill open. The goal of Palo Alto's grade-separation effort is to improve connections in Palo Alto. Closing a major street to traffic would accomplish the opposite and make many people upset.
"We know now already that if you look at Oregon (Expressway) or Embarcadero in morning or afternoon — it's gridlocked," Levitsky said. "You close Churchill and those thousands of cars will have to go one way or the other — Oregon or Embarcadero."
Southgate resident Steven Carlson argued in a letter that the city should consider additional options for Churchill, including ones that had previously been discarded. This could mean reconsidering an option that could result in property takings, he argued. He pointed to a neighborhood survey that his group had recently conducted showing 85% of respondents supporting the idea of exploring new options.
He also noted that while the viaduct option has some merits, it would be hard for residents to support this option if it would lead to a loss of property values. Without consideration of other options, the residents "feel like there's not a plan and they'd be expected to take one for the team for the rest of the city," Carlson told the council Monday.
While the council is accustomed to hearing from small groups of passionate residents, members stressed the importance of getting more people involved in a project that remains largely unfunded and that, as such, will likely require voter approval. But while council members agreed that the proposed engagement plan will help with that endeavor, Councilwoman Liz Kniss suggested that the best way to engage people is to make decisions. The council had initially planned to choose its preferred alternatives by the end of 2018. It has since moved the deadline several times and is now looking at a May decision.
"I'd predict until some decisions are made, you're not going to fill the Chambers," Kniss said.