As Palo Alto kicked off on Thursday a new phase of outreach in its ambitious plan to redesign rail crossings, city staff and consultants faced off with residents who expressed concerns that the proposed remedies will bring new problems to their neighborhoods.
The meeting, which brought about 150 people to the Mitchell Park Community Center, was the start of what City Manager Ed Shikada called the "community conversations" phase of the planning process, aimed at getting "more comprehensive feedback from community members on each one of the options, which will ultimately lead to a decision." City staff and consultants from AECOM presented the city’s remaining options for “grade separation” -- the separation of railroad tracks and roads so that one would go under the other (or vice versa).
Over the past year, the city winnowed down its menu of options from more than 35 to seven: At the Churchill Avenue crossing, the city is considering closing the road to traffic or building a viaduct. At the Meadow and Charleston crossings, the city is still eyeing a trench, a viaduct or a "hybrid" option that combines elevated trains and lowered roads. And while the city has already abandoned the once-popular idea of building a tunnel from one of the city to another, it is still considering a tunnel for the southern half of the city. In one proposal, the tunnel would include both passenger and freight trains; in another it would be only for passenger trains (freight trains would remain at street level).
As at prior meetings, staff and consultants offered an overview of the project before providing information about each option, accompanied by a 3D animation video of the construction process and a matrix showing how well the option lines up with the city’s evaluation criteria. Residents then had a chance to mingle with staff at one of the tables set up around the community center, with each table focusing on a particular design option or topic of interest.
While the two tunnel options remain the most ambitious and expensive options on the table, with each estimated to cost between $1 billion and $2 billion, the option on the table that is now causing the most tension is the cheapest one: closing Churchill, which is pegged at between $50 million and $65 million. Residents on Churchill Avenue, who last year successfully lobbied the council to eliminate options that would require property seizures (including the "hybrid" design), argued that the closure is far preferable to a viaduct. Those in the nearby Professorville neighborhood disagreed, noting that closing the street would bring more cars to their neighborhood.
A draft study that the city’s traffic consultant, Hexagon just completed suggests that once Churchill closes, about half of the roughly 400 cars that use the street during each peak commute hour would move to Embarcadero Road. The other half would start using Oregon Expressway. The study, which the city is preparing to verify in the coming days before making public, also suggests that with various modifications to Embarcadero and Oregon, the additional traffic can be added without increasing congestion on the two major thoroughfares.
Proposed improvements on Embarcadero aim primarily to make it easier for cars on Embarcadero to get onto Alma Street. Residents in the Professorville and University South neighborhoods have expressed concerns in recent months about the prospect of Churchill’s closure bringing even more cars onto their neighborhood streets, such as Emerson and Lincoln.
To address this impact, Hexagon has proposed a variety of changes to the interchange, including a right turn lane from eastbound Embarcadero and a left-turn lane from southbound Alma. The proposal also calls for building a pedestrian/bike overcrossing at Embarcadero and widening Alma at the Embarcadero underpass.
Gary Black, the Hexagon consultant whose table attracted a crowd of interested residents, indicated at the end of the meeting that there was little consensus.
“We had strong feelings on 'Don’t close Churchill.' And we have people with strong opinions that said, 'Close Churchill!' Very strong opinions on both sides of that," Black said at the end of the meeting.
Many people, he noted, said that they don’t think Embarcadero can accommodate more cars and that conditions are so bad that they should be addressed irrespective of the grade-separation project.
City leaders at the meeting also continued to make the case for grade separations and pointed to Caltrain’s electrification project, which will result in additional trains running up and down the corridor and additional "gate down" times at rail crossings.
Once the electrification of Caltrain is complete, the "gate down" time at the Churchill crossing will be about nine minutes per hour during the peak commute period, or 15% of the total peak hour time, according to city estimates. During the morning commute period (between 7 and 9 a.m.), it would take four to five signal cycles, or 10 to 12 minutes, for northbound cars on Alma to turn left. A recent analysis by the city’s traffic consultants shows vehicular queues extending for more than five blocks, past Seale Avenue. In the evening, eastbound Churchill traffic would back up onto El Camino Real.
Even so, not everyone is thrilled about the proposed alternatives. Residents in Old Palo Alto and some parts of Southgate have been vehemently against the viaduct option, which would cost between $300 million and $400 million and result in a 20-foot-tall structure next to their homes. One resident, Peggy Craft, asked the consultants how they plan to keep the viaduct from attracting homeless people to live underneath it. Etty Mercurio, a consultant with AECOM, said one way is to "activate" the viaduct through creation of attractive recreational amenities like a linear park or a skate park.
Others remain strongly opposed closure of Churchill. Rob Levitsky, who lives in Professorville, rejected the notion that the city can close Churchill without exacerbating traffic problems elsewhere. He wasn’t swayed by the proposed mitigations and argued that they would do little to curb the increased flow of traffic to the two thoroughfares north and south of Churchill.
"They get a nice, quiet street while driving all traffic to Embarcadero, Oregon and neighborhood streets," Levitsky said of Churchill residents.
As part of the renewed community outreach, the city plans to hold a series of Town Hall meetings early next year. The city’s newly reconstituted stakeholder group, the Expanded Community Advisory Panel, is expected to issue its recommendations on preferred alternatives by the end of April. The City Council is scheduled to make its decision in May.