Palo Alto has plenty of ideas for separating trains from cars at rail crossings — none of them particularly appealing.
Train viaducts are disparaged by residents as a visual blight. Train tunnels are dismissed as exorbitant pipe dreams. And while the most modest proposal — the closure of Churchill Avenue to traffic near the rail crossing — has won some fans in the Old Palo Alto and Southgate neighborhoods, it has also galvanized opposition from residents around Embarcadero Road, who claim the Churchill closure would drive more cars to their neighborhood.
Faced with a menu of subpar options, the City Council voted on Tuesday night to add two more to the list — a move that may either boost the slow and constantly shifting planning process or bog it down further. Both options call for leaving the train tracks in their current position and constructing underpasses for cars. While the designs have some key differences, both involve putting some lanes in underpasses as well as some at street level.
The council's unanimous votes mean that the two new proposals will be added to the list of seven that are already on the table. This includes two options for Churchill Avenue — the closure of Churchill to traffic and a train viaduct — and three options for the crossings of Charleston Road and Meadow Drive, which are being evaluated in tandem. The three options are a viaduct for trains, a trench for trains and a "hybrid" that combines a raised train and a lowered road.
The city is also evaluating two different proposals for a south Palo Alto tunnel: one that puts freight and passenger trains below grade and another that keeps freight trains above the ground.
The council's decision to expand the list represents another twist for the complex effort, which city officials often refer to as the largest infrastructure project in the city's history. The current seven options are a product of two years of painstakingly winnowing down a list of about 37 designs. The two new ones, by contrast, were proposed by residents who felt the city can do better.
The Expanded Community Advisory Panel, a 13-member citizens group charged with helping the council reach a preferred alternative, voted last month to recommend that the council further study the designs proposed by resident Elizabeth Alexis for the Charleston and Meadow crossings; by resident Mike Price for the Churchill crossing; and by architect Tony Carrasco for the Embarcadero-Alma Street interchange. This despite a general recognition by members of the panel that they were charged with narrowing — rather than expanding — the list.
Nadia Naik, who chairs the advisory panel, told the council that there is some frustration on the panel about the fact that it's adding rather than subtracting ideas. But the process, she said, is about "quality."
"The new ideas being presented ... represent the fact that the ones that we have are not great," Naik said. "The community is trying to respond to something better."
The council concurred, but only to a degree. After agreeing to further study Alexis' and Price's ideas, the council unanimously voted not to advance a third idea, proposed by Carrasco for the interchange of Alma and Embarcadero (this redesign would presumably be created in tandem with the closure of Churchill). Carrasco's proposal called for a roundabout at Embarcadero and Alma under a train viaduct.
For the council, the expansion of options represents a gamble of sorts. Palo Alto is already well behind the cities of Mountain View and Sunnyvale in determining a preferred grade-separation alternative. All three cities are eligible for $700 million in funding from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. Taking even longer too could place the city at a further disadvantage in the race for county funds.
But council members and the citizens panel concluded that the benefits more than offset that risk. If the new designs succeed in garnering consensus — something that the prior ones did not achieve — the process would likely proceed smoother and faster. More importantly, the options with underpasses would allow the city to largely leave the tracks alone, saving tens — possibly hundreds — of millions of dollars.
Costs remain a key concern for the council and they vary widely. The closure of Churchill, (combined with various traffic improvements around Embarcadero Road and Oregon Expressway), is by far the cheapest option, with an estimated price tag between $50 million and $65 million. A south Palo Alto trench would cost between $800 million and $950 million, according to city estimates. For south Palo Alto tunnels, the cost estimates range from $1.1 billion to $1.8 billion.
The design proposed by Alexis would allow cars on Charleston to go under the tracks when crossing Alma and the rail corridor. Drivers that want to turn right onto Alma would have the option of doing so by remaining in the outer lane, which will remain at grade.
But the design has its own drawbacks. Eastbound drivers wishing to turn left on Alma would be required to cross under the tracks and then make a U-turn at a designated bay on Wright Place, a cul-de-sac that runs parallel to Alma east of the tracks. They would have to approach Alma from the other side and turn right. Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi noted that the alternative will have "some more circuitousness." He also said it's not entirely certain that the project can be constructed without shifting trains on temporary ("shoofly") tracks.
Those caveats notwithstanding, the council agreed to authorize further analysis of the Alexis design by the city's consultant, Aecom.
"It's a concept. There are no guarantees. But the possibility of a project that can be done within the VTA budget is worth spending a little time and money on," Alexis said.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who made the motion to study the new Charleston option (which would be roughly replicated on Meadow), lauded it for allowing the city to build around the tracks.
"The things we're looking at tonight are fixing major flaws that we have observed over time," Kniss said. "And they're attempting to not move the railroad, which is possibly a good idea."
Kniss and the rest of the council also unanimously supported the idea from Price, who proposed an underpass at the Churchill rail crossing. The design calls for lowering the intersection of Alma and Churchill but keeping Churchill east of Alma at grade level. Cars on Alma would be able to either dip under the tracks or, for those heading north, use an outer lane to remain at grade and turn right on Churchill.
Price said the design aims to address the concerns of residents near Churchill, some of whom vehemently object to a viaduct that would send trains past their backyards, while others are upset that closing Churchill would impede traffic circulation.
"The intention is to find a compromise which avoids all the serious objections and gets as much intersection functionality out there as possible," Price said. "That's the purpose of this design."
While the council agreed to move the idea forward, several supporters of the Churchill "closure" option argued against the solution proposed by Price. Yong-Jeh Oh, who lives on Churchill, called the proposal to close the street a "minimal-cost solution that does not preclude implementing other alternatives in the future if that should prove advantageous."
Some worried that keeping Churchill open and installing an underpass would bring more cars into their neighborhood.
"Any of these options that keep Churchill open and create an easier path to get on and off Churchill will turn it into a thoroughfare," said Jason Stinson, a resident of Churchill. "And we're really concerned about that."
Mayor Adrian Fine, however, said the proposal is "definitely worth exploring." The design would preserve most of the popular turning movements, while eliminating a few that aren't used very often. And it is doing so without significant property takings.
"I'm not saying it's going to work, but I think it's worth getting a few more cards on the table," Fine said.