News

Palo Alto wants to fast-track public awareness on its 'biggest project': Rail redesign

City prepares for surveys, newsletters, community meetings to spread the word about 'grade separation'

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.

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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.

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"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.

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Palo Alto wants to fast-track public awareness on its 'biggest project': Rail redesign

City prepares for surveys, newsletters, community meetings to spread the word about 'grade separation'

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Oct 29, 2019, 9:20 am

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.

Comments

resident
Midtown
on Oct 29, 2019 at 9:34 am
resident, Midtown
on Oct 29, 2019 at 9:34 am

The city has been dragging its feet on this important project for 20 years, while street traffic and traffic safety continue to deteriorate. What we need is a hard timeline for making a decision and implementing it. That will get people's attention. If they are just going to drag their feet for another 20 years, no one will care.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 29, 2019 at 9:42 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Oct 29, 2019 at 9:42 am

They're so worried about cars experiencing delays? Hello. Keep narrowing all the roads and then look out a window, any window if you want ti see delays. Stick with the ABAG plan to add another 3,000,000 people to the Bay Area in the next few years to ensure that traffic's gridlocked everywhere while spending a fortune wondering how to reduce traffic. What a profitable racket.


Me 2
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 29, 2019 at 10:04 am
Me 2, Old Palo Alto
on Oct 29, 2019 at 10:04 am

"Southgate resident Steven Carlson argued in a letter that the city should consider additional options for Churchill, including ones that had previously been discarded."

Is this Steven Carlson offering up his own property to be taken?


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 29, 2019 at 10:06 am
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 29, 2019 at 10:06 am

We're working with a right-of-way that has been around for 150 years. What we build may be around for another 150 years. There is no hurry to do something now that will have to be redone in a decade. Let's agree to do a good job, and not just "do something".

Over time, there is an increasing likelihood that significant sea level rise will have occurred. Let's not do something that will be at risk 30 years from now. A hybrid or berm solution is the only affordable option that covers all expected rail technologies including increasing freight.

I have argued against the berm configuration in the past, because of the way it creates a no-man's-land security zone, and is hostile to pedestrians and bicycles. Let's reconsider the berm solution, but, find ways to build in children/senior pedestrian, bicycle friendly, high-security cross-unders.

Let's also keep in mind that with the new "traffic congestion doesn't matter" mindset coming from the business-dominated "regional" planners, we will be wasting our residential tax money on solutions with too much traffic throughput-- the congestion bottlenecks will just move nearby. Big business just doesn't care about the impact of traffic on residents-- let's not impoverish ourselves on this.


NeilsonBuchanan
Registered user
Downtown North
on Oct 29, 2019 at 12:03 pm
NeilsonBuchanan, Downtown North
Registered user
on Oct 29, 2019 at 12:03 pm

Here is a compounding comment in the interest of Downtown North and
Crescent Park neighborhoods.

Let's not forget that University Avenue underpass is ancient and ill-equipped to accommodate current traffic. Furthermore, the Alma/Palo Alto grade crossing is problematic.

The current effort for grade crossings south of University Avenue will not address how long-term vehicular traffic will be managed for these two grade separations.

The Council's intent is a vague plan to address these two grade crossings in the distant future plus a watered-down master plan for the University Avenue downtown commercial area.

I understand and accept deliberately deferred plans for the downtown commercial area and two grade crossings. However, it could be productive to put these issues on a "discuss-and-defer" table so that the first set of "south-city" grade crossings can be expedited while openly acknowledge the heavy lifting ahead to "north-city" neighborhoods.

My greatest two concerns? #1 Long-term backed-up traffic on University Ave and Altm/Palo Alto Avenue. #2 Financial resources for two more deferred grade crossings.

It could be productive to expedite the first set of "south-city" grade crossings while openly acknowledging heavy lifting ahead for deferred traffic plans for "north-city" neighborhoods.


Casti neighbor
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 29, 2019 at 12:11 pm
Casti neighbor, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Oct 29, 2019 at 12:11 pm

"Councilwoman Liz Kniss suggested that the best way to engage people is to make decisions." The community already made a decision to close Churchill. But now that decision is in question. So why make decisions that never hold?

While planning for Churchill and Embarcadero impacts, be sure to include the traffic impacts from Castilleja's proposed project to increase enrollment by 30%. Their project's draft environmental impact report details a significant and unavoidable traffic impact on Emerson and Melville between Churchill and Embarcadero.


Davis Fields
Crescent Park
on Oct 29, 2019 at 12:16 pm
Davis Fields, Crescent Park
on Oct 29, 2019 at 12:16 pm

I've already accepted the fact that this will get addressed only when the electrification is done, Caltrain doubles the number of trains it runs, and there's gridlock at each of the street crossings in Palo Alto. The City Council seems unable to make any progress on this, and won't until it has to. In the meantime, other Peninsula cities have been proactive, dealt with the issues, and are already planning or building their solutions. It's too bad.


Citizen
Community Center
on Oct 29, 2019 at 5:20 pm
Citizen, Community Center
on Oct 29, 2019 at 5:20 pm

$1 billion cost? While the city has $455 million in unfunded pension liabilities? Which we have to finance... And they plan to ask us to finance an additional $1 billion, and for what? To close down key transportation corridors, like Churchill, and jam up traffic elsewhere? To condemn neighbors' homes under eminent domain and take them? What's so wrong w the situation right now...

I will definitely vote no on any tax to be raised to finance this.


Name hidden
Southgate

on Oct 29, 2019 at 5:35 pm
Name hidden, Southgate

on Oct 29, 2019 at 5:35 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


Ahem
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 29, 2019 at 5:37 pm
Ahem, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 29, 2019 at 5:37 pm

Caltrain electrification and grade separation will be Palo Alto's version of the California High Speed Rail boondoggle. This will all cost way to much and still go way over budget. The total cost of all of this per additional rider is absurd.

No matter how much money you spend there is no way an antiquated one-dimensional transportation system conceived to serve the transportation needs of Victorian England can compete with a highly networked system of roadways carrying self-piloted vehicles. The general public has already found roadways to be the most efficient way to get from point to point and voted overwhelming for road-going vehicles with their feet and dollars.

Sometime in the 1960's passenger-rail stopped being a transportation system and instead became a new-age religion.


Citizen
Community Center
on Oct 29, 2019 at 7:38 pm
Citizen, Community Center
on Oct 29, 2019 at 7:38 pm

@ Ahem is right. Those that benefit from big rail projects profit off our tax dime, while pretending to be something other than they're not, and then also demonizing those who drive vehicles and those who don't want to give them money, so they can get their way and get their money. Anyone who doesn't let them easily profit off it will get labeled...and they will try to make it harder to drive vehicles ....


resident
Greenmeadow
on Oct 29, 2019 at 8:20 pm
resident, Greenmeadow
on Oct 29, 2019 at 8:20 pm

Yes, please, make some decisions. Then allow a period to discuss those decisions, and then finalize.
The rail separation planning is run by those who love "process", and they are happy to continue in that mode. Meanwhile, the business community runs on "results", consequently far outpacing the development of our infrastructure. Hence, the problem.
Not only is the "process" fatiguing everyone, we are wasting our lives in traffic gridlock.
Demand progress!!


resident
Greenmeadow
on Oct 29, 2019 at 8:27 pm
resident, Greenmeadow
on Oct 29, 2019 at 8:27 pm

If all the "reach-out" effort is really a means to build support for a bond measure, then I suggest the strategy is wrong. It will be difficult to pass a vote on a solution, while it will be much easier to pass a vote based on the problem. The problem will reach a majority, while any particular solution may not.


JR
Palo Verde
on Oct 29, 2019 at 8:40 pm
JR, Palo Verde
on Oct 29, 2019 at 8:40 pm

There is absolutely no need to spend even one dollar on grade separation at Charleston or Meadow. Both are neighborhood streets, not expressways, and cars are expected to take second priority to residents, schools, bikes, and pedestrians. If running more trains means cars have to wait longer, that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned. The city council should focus on building one or more pedestrian / bike bridges or underpasses across the tracks in South Palo Alto.


Morris
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 5:56 am
Morris, Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 5:56 am

You can easily winnow down the grade-separation options.

There are two basic types of grade sep: below ground (submerge the trains in a trench/tunnel) and above ground (berm/viaduct).

The below-grade option requires JPB approval. Without approval in principle from JPB you're spinning your wheels and wasting your time. This needs to be settled before any more consideration is given to a plan which moves the tracks and places them below grade.

There is also the do-nothing plan. No money spent, no homes taken, no construction disruption. Stopping and waiting for a train to pass is no worse than stopping and waiting for a red light to change on El Camino.


Together is Better
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 7:51 am
Together is Better, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Oct 30, 2019 at 7:51 am

Caltrain electrification has changed the need for grade separations. Caltrain had maxed out the schedule with diesel trains - but now, with electrified trains coming in 2022 - they can run a schedule similar to BART service. That means, you can show up at a station, and within minutes, get on the train - all day long (unlike now where there are huge gaps in service).

Did you know today's Caltrain carries the equivalent of 2 lanes of traffic IN EACH DIRECTION at rush hour? In the future, the new service could double that capacity. What does that mean for Palo Altans?

People who want to meet a friend for lunch in downtown Menlo Park or Burlingame could now easily get on the train without really having to look at the schedule because trains would be so frequent. That's something that's impossible today - where missing a train could cause you to wait a full hour. It also means that Palo Altans could head to SF for dinner and be sure that there are trains every few minutes to get you home.

But with more trains, comes more traffic unless we build grade separations. The difficulty we have getting across Palo Alto between 5-6pm (today's peak hour service) would now be what it will be like all day long unless we separate the trains and cars. And no amount of traffic signal optimization can account for the constant interruption of the light cycle that happens with the trains getting pre-emption.

Let's not also forget the safety component - not being able to access the tracks is important. Too many drivers unfamiliar with our area inadvertently turn onto the tracks following their GPS' instructions. Are we building these grade separations for those people? - of course not, we are doing it because better transit is better for all of us.

Here's a link to what future Caltrain will be like: Web Link

More broadly - the Caltrain corridor has a robust economic effect. See this flyer: Web Link

14% of the state GDP comes from businesses along the Caltrain corridor
20% of all tax revenue comes from the businesses along the corridor.
And, we are the third most congested corridor in the United States.

Is it expensive? Yes! Worried about what it will cost and who will pay? OK - then what do we do?

Residents and businesses alike need to band together, including with our neighboring cities, and let State Legislators know that this project matters - and that we're willing to figure out how to work together to get this done because it is important for everyone.

We need to support figuring out the local solution, it won't be easy. Change is hard. But, we also can band together to figure out how we can pay for, not just Palo Alto's grade separations, but all of them. Because, if only some cities get them and others don't - Caltrain can't run more service.






Morris
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 9:09 am
Morris, Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 9:09 am

"Residents and businesses alike need to band together, including with our neighboring cities, and let State Legislators know that this project matters - and that we're willing to figure out how to work together to get this done"

That ship has sailed. Menlo Park and Mountain View are way ahead of Palo Alto on grade separation. That's the price of Palo Alto dragging its feet for so many years. Really, if you were Menlo Park or Mountain View, would you want to work with Palo Alto which can't get out of its own way?

This onslaught of train traffic is Caltrain P.R. It remains to be seen if it will actually materialize. For example, I haven't seen a sample Caltrain timetable of the future with all of this expanded service. Will there be enough fare-paying passengers taking these added trains to justify the expanded service?


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2019 at 10:46 am
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2019 at 10:46 am

Posted by Ahem, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> No matter how much money you spend there is no way an antiquated one-dimensional transportation system conceived to serve the transportation needs of Victorian England

Your analogy is poorly conceived.

>> can compete with a highly networked system of roadways carrying self-piloted vehicles. The general public has already found roadways to be the most efficient way to get from point to point and voted overwhelming for road-going vehicles with their feet and dollars.

Let's take a place that was constructed exactly to your specifications: Greater Los Angeles. The last time I was there, it took me 3 hours to get 30 miles by the fastest route, which included a fairly expensive toll road freeway segment. Average: 10 mph. That was during the day, not at rush hour. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't-- makes it very difficult to plan. People who live there (that I know) are always calculating how much drive time they have to spend to do anything. No matter how much money you spend on freeways, the results are always the same. You can never spend enough on highways to "solve" this problem. We can't even afford to maintain all the highways that we have now, because we build to lesser standards than we should, considering that every highway gets worn out by heavy trucks, not cars. Our current highway system is a massive subsidy system for heavy truck traffic.

>> Sometime in the 1960's passenger-rail stopped being a transportation system and instead became a new-age religion.

Actually, it was cars that became a religion. Curious that you are still a true believer despite the evidence of the limitations.

Back on the Caltrain question: yes, with electrification and improved ATC, we are all going to be bored waiting to get across.


Charles Walters
College Terrace
on Oct 30, 2019 at 11:06 am
Charles Walters, College Terrace
on Oct 30, 2019 at 11:06 am

We need a blue ribbon panel to consider all the options.
Recommendations from the blue ribbon panel will go to city council for consideration and public comment.
Then a citizens committee forms a response package.
The City Manager will then convene a board of experts to conduct outreach and proposal formulation planning.
A reformulated blue ribbon panel should then do a ground up conceptual study with no preconceptions - open to all options.
A red team review should be performed by a 3rd party contractor hired by the city.
We should then fast track a community inspired set of solutions that address the needs of the community.
A review by a City Rail Commission should be performed followed by a period of public comment.
Then the City should hold a design competition to identify the most artistic and aesthetic designs.
Public comment will be invited.
Meanwhile a committee to determine budget options shall review options.
Ahem and Anon and Me2 will shoot down all the concepts on PAIL.
Meanwhile the City will sue the FAA and cut down more trees
Meanwhile ....


TBM
another community
on Oct 30, 2019 at 11:22 am
TBM, another community
on Oct 30, 2019 at 11:22 am

@@@@Morris "There are two basic types of grade sep: below ground (submerge the trains in a trench/tunnel) and above ground (berm/viaduct)."

Really! Mountain View and Sunnyvale have both selected the third option of leaving the rail alone and lowering the road for their four grade crossings.
The advantage is it costs a quarter of the price and leaves the Caltrain right-of-way unencumbered for future quad tracking in accordance with JPB policy.

Of course Sunnyvale's first instinct was to put the rail in a trench, but when they saw the sticker price of $700m and understood that Other-Peoples-Money was not going to chip in, they wisely veered towards the $60m pedestrian underpass option.

Sunnyvale Grade Separation Feasibility Study: Web Link


Peter
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 11:25 am
Peter, Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 11:25 am

One way to test the impact of road closure is to shut the Churchill Street crossing for a week and watch the traffic back up on Embarcadero and Oregon.


Together is Better
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 11:26 am
Together is Better, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Oct 30, 2019 at 11:26 am

@ Morris

The long range service plan is here which explains that demand actually way exceeds current capacity.

Web Link

In fact, Google's future expansion into downtown San Jose (where they are building a campus larger than their current Mt. View campus) will mean much greater demand.

And yes, PA is behind because in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, they can lower the road without impacting properties. In Palo Alto, we've got a much more constrained design options.

But without corridor wide grade separations - for all remaining 41 grade separations, we can't get the service vision. So, like it or not, all the cities actually have to care now. The city vs. city fight for grade sep funding centered around car congestion that used to happen on our maxed out diesel corridor doesn't work under electrification. Now, it's about grade separating for both congestion AND the train service - that changes the game.


Kenny
University South
on Oct 30, 2019 at 11:47 am
Kenny, University South
on Oct 30, 2019 at 11:47 am

"Residents and businesses alike need to band together, including with our neighboring cities, and let State Legislators know that this project matters - and that we're willing to figure out how to work together to get this done because it is important for everyone."

What you say makes perfect sense, and will hopefully be implemented. The fly in the ointment is that some Palo Altans are needlessly uncooperative. Their "solution" is to tell everyone else to go away, especially businesses. This resistance to any change whatsoever is living in denial, ignoring the fact that Palo Alto and the surrounding area were never frozen in time. It is time for change, and rail crossing grade separation is long overdue. It is time for everyone to get with the program and support needed change. To do otherwise is irrational and counterproductive.


Robert T
South of Midtown
on Oct 30, 2019 at 12:04 pm
Robert T, South of Midtown
on Oct 30, 2019 at 12:04 pm

Public employee pensions make retirees rich (payouts are over a million each - do the math) so NO on rail boondoggles until pensions are capped. I left out lifetime health benefits - another taxpayer robbery.


Morris
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 12:31 pm
Morris, Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 12:31 pm

"And yes, PA is behind because in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, they can lower the road without impacting properties. In Palo Alto, we've got a much more constrained design options."

True, but it is a fact that Palo Alto goes for long periods of time without any progress on grade sep. We've been chipping away at it for over 10 years and haven't made one single decision. Worse, there has been no interaction between the city and JPB, the owners of the ROW. Palo Alto has more constrained designed options as you note; all the more reason not to be frittering away time.

"Mountain View and Sunnyvale have both selected the third option of leaving the rail alone and lowering the road for their four grade crossings.
The advantage is it costs a quarter of the price and leaves the Caltrain right-of-way unencumbered for future quad tracking in accordance with JPB policy."

I read that Burlingame abandoned the idea of a trench/tunnel because it would be too costly to keep dry year around. Palo Alto is the only city I know of considering a trench/tunnel, with no idea if JPB will approve of the idea. There is the issue of the grade a trench/tunnel will present to the trains (think roller coaster), as well as the issue of keeping it dry.


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2019 at 1:34 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2019 at 1:34 pm

Posted by TBM, a resident of another community

>> Really! Mountain View and Sunnyvale have both selected the third option of leaving the rail alone and lowering the road for their four grade crossings.
>> The advantage is it costs a quarter of the price and leaves the Caltrain right-of-way unencumbered for future quad tracking in accordance with JPB policy.

This "third option" has the disadvantages of requiring more adjacent residential property land, and, in most configurations, being unfriendly to pedestrians and bicycles, and, creating security (ie crime) vulnerabilities in some configurations. So, sure, any option can be on the table, I just want to make sure that pedestrians, bicycles, and security are all figured in properly in the Requirements stage.


TBM
another community
on Oct 30, 2019 at 4:15 pm
TBM, another community
on Oct 30, 2019 at 4:15 pm

@ This "third option" has the disadvantages of requiring more adjacent residential property land.

>> At an average of $2.5 million per property, it would be cheaper to purchase 250 properties than to build a trench.

@ "in most configurations, being unfriendly to pedestrians and bicycles"

>>Mountain View and probably Sunnyvale have chosen to close one of their two crossings to vehicles and build a dedicated pedestrian and bicycle underpass. You can't get more pedestrian and bicycle friendly than that.

The same strategy could work in South PA. Close the Meadow grade crossing to vehicles and build and bicycle underpass below the Rail and Alma. Make Meadow a bicycle boulevard, optimizing Charleston for Cars. Converting Meadow to a pedestrian and bicycle underpass could be done with minimal or no property takes for about $40 million.

Menlo Park are building a pedestrian underpass below Caltrain. Web Link Note that an ADA compliant underpass requires quite a big parcel of land either side if the rail, which does not exist in south PA other than at the current road crossings.


Morris
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 5:14 pm
Morris, Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 5:14 pm

"Close the Meadow grade crossing to vehicles and build and bicycle underpass below the Rail and Alma. Make Meadow a bicycle boulevard, optimizing Charleston for Cars. Converting Meadow to a pedestrian and bicycle underpass"

Closing a crossing won't make the automobile traffic go away. The traffic will still be there, clogging up other roads.

Build your bike/ped underpass and keep the crossing gates in place. You can restrict the hours the gates are in operation, leaving them down when you want the crossing closed. This can be done without running afoul of FRA rules.


Ahem
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2019 at 5:38 pm
Ahem, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2019 at 5:38 pm

Anon said:

"Let's take a place that was constructed exactly to your specifications: Greater Los Angeles."

Los Angeles somehow managed to grow into the biggest city in the world on the back of its roadways (not rails). This a testament to how efficient the roadways are at transporting people and goods, but everything has a limit.

Even Los Angeles's extensive and efficient highly networked system of roadways were eventually overwhelmed by over-development. No transportation system can cope with the pace of over-development in Los Angeles.

This is a perfect analogy for the Peninsula. Over-development is going to turn the Peninsula into Los Angeles and there is nothing roads or rails can do to stop it.

The only way to stop transportation congestion is to halt and somehow begin to roll back over-development. Passenger rail is just a way for our real-estate industry controlled local governments to pretend the mad orgy of real-estate development can go on forever without crippling transportation. Rail worshipers are just useful pawns in the real-estate industry's plan to continue squeezing profit out of transportation infrastructure built by taxpayers.


resident
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 8:26 pm
resident, Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 8:26 pm

Charles Walters has it right. I notice not many people "like" his comment, but it is spot-on, and shows why our city cannot keep up with the economic pressures of business and housing and transportation, whose needs are driven by results-focused entities.
Heck, look at the 'process' around a pedestrian bridge over 101 in south PA, which wasted a massive amount of time, and delayed our citizens from having this desirable bridge.

Why does anyone think this 'process' can hope to resolve something more dramatic, like a few rail crossings?


Me 2
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 9:40 pm
Me 2, Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2019 at 9:40 pm

I was wondering when TBM from somewhere else would weigh in.

">> At an average of $2.5 million per property, it would be cheaper to purchase 250 properties than to build a trench."

Not when you account for time-value of money. You better believe that those 250 families together will have enough money to tie up anything in court for decades. If California didn't have such a retarded housing situation (ahem, Prop 13+NIMBYs) and most schools in the toilet, this option might make sense as other non-Palo Alto options would be viable.

However, knowing some of the folks that would be impacted by this approach, there will be lawyers.

In any case, Caltrain 2040 is all nonsense. It's the build-it-and-they-will come imagination that hasn't worked for any transit system (see how successful VTA has been with its decisions on which light rail lines to build). There's no last mile strategy at all with Caltrain 2040. As long as the peninsula remains relatively low density, Caltrain will never see the projected growth rates.


Ahem
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2019 at 10:33 pm
Ahem, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2019 at 10:33 pm

Passenger trains are just very heavy buses with steel wheels that require their own special type of road called a rail-ROAD.

Unlike the roads that are open to all and used by buses, trucks, automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians (on the sidewalks) the rail-ROADS are set aside for the exclusive use of a few moribund state run enterprises and their heavy steel wheeled buses.


Morris
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 31, 2019 at 9:44 am
Morris, Old Palo Alto
on Oct 31, 2019 at 9:44 am

"Charles Walters has it right."

Are you kidding? Do we need even more rail committees and yet another engineering firm and a "panel of experts" to study this for another 10 - 20 years? That's what Charles Walters is suggesting.

First determine whether a submerged solution is a "go" or a "no go" with JPB then carry on.

A trench or a tunnel is probably the closest thing to a "please everyone" solution with no property takings and it would put the trains out of sight. It would cost a fortune and would be require a shoofly track, probably down Alma street. The big question is whether the owners of the rail infrastructure will agree to have their trains and tracks placed below grade with the risk of flooding and the potential "roller-coaster" ride.

I keep making this point but no one seems to take notice. Without approval, at least in principle, all of this talk about trenches and tunnels is rooted firmly in fantasyland, almost as much of a fantasy as self-driving cars solving all of our ground transportation problems.


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 31, 2019 at 10:02 am
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 31, 2019 at 10:02 am

Posted by Ahem, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> Passenger trains [...] require their own special type of road called a rail-ROAD.

>> Unlike the roads that are open to all [...] the rail-ROADS are set aside for the exclusive use of [trains].

I deleted the snark in order to address a point: you are absolutely correct! The railroad Right-Of-Way is used exclusively for trains, and, that is one (not the only) of the things that make it special. It is the reason that train #370 can leave SF at 5:16pm and arrive at Palo Alto at 5:56pm. It is the reason that Caltrain can carry a small freeway's worth of passenger traffic -at rush hour-. Because the trains are not stuck in traffic.

You mention buses. Buses are significantly faster -at rush hour- when they have dedicated bus lanes that are used exclusively by buses.

When you have what is effectively a "linear city" like the Peninsula, trains can be very efficient. It is very difficult to retrofit a "Broadacre City" layout for public transit. Luckily, we don't have to-- we already have the linear layout.

Oh, another thing about trains that is special? They are very energy-efficient.


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 31, 2019 at 10:22 am
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 31, 2019 at 10:22 am

For anyone who has used commuter rail service as a regular commute, the number of advantages are enormous. Apart from the fact that each passenger is freeing up road space for everyone else who can't use the trains, they are also freeing up road space for deliveries of foodstuffs and everything else that needs to be transported by truck including, although it is quite laughable, our one day Amazon deliveries which we expect to arrive on time.

As for the list of advantages mentioned above, the train passengers are able to spend the time much more productively than being stuck behind the wheel driving. They can work, read, deal with emails (not only the work emails), shop, catch up with the news, study, interact with family/friends by social media, watch sports, movies, or sleep - something many of us can do with more of. I know of one regular commuter who was able to do a masters degree by listening to podcasts and writing papers on his daily one hour commute each way.

The biggest problem with rail is the first and last mile. We are having problems with commuters being blamed for filling up parking, for bikes being stolen, and lack of trains being frequent enough to use for lunchtime or for late night concerts or dinners. These are issues that need to be addressed. As it is, many people use Caltrain to get to Sharks, Giants and now probably Warriors games. A good service for these games will make a difference to those who wish to attend by means other than driving in rush hour traffic to make the start of the games.

The other issue to take into account is pricing. Firstly continuation tickets for other public transport seems to make the fares more expensive. Secondly someone commuting to say Redwood City (2 zones) pays more than someone commuting to Sunnyvale (1 zone). This makes a big difference and should be looked into. Thirdly, off peak fares, family fares, do not exist. A family of 4 will decide to drive to a sports game and pay for parking if it is cheaper than buying individual tickets. Group tickets/family tickets that are cheaper than parking will help families to make the decision to use Caltrain.


Kathleen M Goldfein
Registered user
Midtown
on Oct 31, 2019 at 5:29 pm
Kathleen M Goldfein, Midtown
Registered user
on Oct 31, 2019 at 5:29 pm

Another issue is that Caltrain in the last few months, is finalizing its Caltrain 2040 plan, which includes a proposal for 4 tracks from Mountain View to the California Avenue train station. Most of the Palo Alto's engineering studies and advice have been based on two tracks through most of Palo Alto. How can Palo Alto plan without knowing how wide the crossing will be? Grade crossings under or over four tracks are very different from what we have been discussing. The few slides I've seen, showing the impact of four tracks reflected the need for more room for the grade crossing and the construction.

Finding information about the proposed four tracks from Mt. View to the California Street Station in Palo Alto is not easy. The latest reports bury it with euphemisms like, four track segment in Northern Santa Clara county, or when summarizing comments that need to be addressed: "Questions and comments about grade separations (including meaning of ‘not to preclude’ 4 tracks)"

Two relevant websites are

Web Link

Web Link . (this is the Caltrain page on the Local Policy Maker Group (LPMG) in case the link doesn't work.

It is highly unlikely they can fit the four tracks in the existing right of way (ROW) which means taking land where needed. It may mean longer and possible permanent closure of lanes on Alma Street. The last EIR for HSR, before the blended solution was agreed on, listed the need to close 2-3 lanes on Alma to accommodate four tracks. Has anything changed that would prevent that? The ROW on Alma ranges from 60 ft to 100 ft, with the lower ROW near intersections. I don't think there is any solution with four tracks that would not lead to taking more local property.

The final "vision" is due to be finalized next month. There is still time to try to eliminate the plan for four tracks in south Palo Alto between stations, if our representatives to these groups show up at meetings and publicize what is being discussed. At the very least, the city of Palo Alto needs to know so they can effectively plan to eliminate our grade crossings.

While I would prefer a trench or tunnel, it does not seem practical as I don't think Caltrain will ever agree. Among other things, they have stated that Palo Alto would be responsible for paying for all upkeep to keep the trench free of water. Nor have they ever approved a slope of 2% which would be needed for a short trench. So at the moment, I think the best alternative is the same as what they are doing in Sunnyvale and Mountain View: leaving the train tracks where they are and lowering the road, possibly not connecting Charleston and East Meadow directly with Alma, to reduce the number of homes taken.

However, to blame this issue on the Palo Alto process is completely unfair, as Caltrain and HSR continue to make changes to their plans which require Palo Alto to alter their plans as well.


Old Joe
Barron Park
on Oct 31, 2019 at 9:03 pm
Old Joe, Barron Park
on Oct 31, 2019 at 9:03 pm

One need only read this thread to see the irony. Charles Walters was spot on!


Morris
Old Palo Alto
on Oct 31, 2019 at 9:42 pm
Morris, Old Palo Alto
on Oct 31, 2019 at 9:42 pm

If Caltrain wants to take lanes on Alma street, the city can either roll over and play dead or fight JPB in court. The city seems unwilling to even deal with JPB which has not been involved in any of the planning. Where is our multimillion-dollar engineering consultant, AECOM, on this? Spending the multimillions the city has paid them? We never read about AECOM being involved in the process.

I agree about Caltrain not approving a trench or tunnel. Nowhere else on the peninsula is there a trench/tunnel nor is one even planned. Ms. Goldfein is right; a 2% grade is needed but this would require a special exception from JPB, which CPA seems unwilling to deal with.

For the hundredth time, Burlingame gave up on the idea of a trench/tunnels as too costly to keep dry. So why is Palo Alto still barking up this tree?


Ahem
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 1, 2019 at 5:07 am
Ahem, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 1, 2019 at 5:07 am

@Morris,

When did Palo Alto stop leading and start blindly following Burlingame?

If Palo Alto stops leading and starts blindly following Burlingame, it will become Burlingame. Is that what you want? Palo Alto becoming Burlingame would be a dream come true for Palo Alto haters and real-estate developers everywhere.


TBM
another community
on Nov 1, 2019 at 5:13 am
TBM, another community
on Nov 1, 2019 at 5:13 am

@ Kathleen M Goldfein
@@ "Caltrain 2040 plan, which includes a proposal for 4 tracks from Mountain View to the California Avenue"

There is no proposal for 4 tracks from MV to PA, the 2040 moderate growth vision calls for *one* station to be quad tracked (probably California Avenue because Caltrain already own ample land around the station Web Link )

@@ "Most of the Palo Alto's engineering studies and advice have been based on two tracks through most of Palo Alto."

PA told the engineering companies to only study 2 track designs in a futile attempt to thwart HSR. Web Link

@@ "Finding information about the proposed four tracks from Mt. View to the California Street Station in Palo Alto is not easy."

That is because there is no proposal for 4 tracks in that area.

@@ "It is highly unlikely they can fit the four tracks in the existing right of way "

Caltrain's right-of-way from MV to PA is already wide enough for 4 tracks and Caltrain intends to keep it that way, just in case it might need to quad track it in the distant future under a "high growth scenario". Web Link

@@ "There is still time to try to eliminate the plan for four tracks in south Palo Alto between stations"

Caltrain has no such plan.
Caltrain's policy is to "not sell or permanently encumber" it's valuable 4 track ROW. This is a 150 year old common sense and wholesome policy. Trying to get Caltrain to "eliminate" it is futile.
If Caltrain wants to lay down 4 tracks on it's ROW, it can, it does not need the permission of Palo Alto.

@@ "While I would prefer a trench or tunnel, it does not seem practical"

A two track trench or tunnel would be the "permanent encumbrance" to future quad tracking that Caltrain's 2040 policy seeks to avoid. If PA were to build a 2 track trench and later Caltrain needed 4 tracks the only option would be for Caltrain to build a viaduct above the trench. This would be a planning failure and financial boondoggle of epic proportions.
A two track berm or viaduct might be acceptable if there was space to eventually widen it to 4 tracks within the existing ROW, but expanding it later to 4 tracks would be expensive for Caltrain and would annoy the neighbors.
Leaving the rail at grade and lowering the road in an underpass that crosses the entire ROW is the "no encumbrance" option Caltrain prefers and is low cost.

@@ "However, to blame this issue on the Palo Alto process is completely unfair"

It is completely fair, anyone who knows anything about trains understands that Caltrain ROW is 4 track wide and that future growth will require the full build-out of tracks and that historically road overpasses have spanned the entire ROW.
Mountain View plans to build a road underpass at Rengstorff Avenue for $120 million in $2030, their design includes a 4 track rail bridge Web Link even though there are only 2 tracks in that area today, so the Mountain View planning committee gets it.


Morris
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 1, 2019 at 8:15 am
Morris, Old Palo Alto
on Nov 1, 2019 at 8:15 am

"When did Palo Alto stop leading and start blindly following Burlingame?"

It hasn't. If you kept up with news coverage you would know that a trench/tunnel is still on the table in Palo Alto but off the table in Burlingame, but clearly you are incapable of figuring this out. Here's a clue: Palo Alto isn't "leading" as you say. Other peninsula cities are well ahead of Palo Alto on grade sep.

"A two track trench or tunnel would be the "permanent encumbrance" to future quad tracking that Caltrain's 2040 policy seeks to avoid."

2 tracks or 4, wouldn't a trench or tunnel be a "permanent encumbrance" and likely to be shot down by JPB? Of course CPA is likely unaware of this as dealing with JPB seems anathema to city leadership. Throw in a design exception for a 2% grade as well as myriad water issues including storm flooding, creek crossings and aquifers and you can kiss your dreams of a trench/tunnel goodbye.

Expanding the ROW near the Calif. Ave. station might require the Oregon overpass to be modified in a major way.

"If Palo Alto stops leading and starts blindly following Burlingame, it will become Burlingame."

Will it now? What a relief to hear that it won't turn into "Victorian England".


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