Despite time pressures, Palo Alto opts to study more rail design options | News | Palo Alto Online |

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Despite time pressures, Palo Alto opts to study more rail design options

City Council hopes proposed underpasses will save money, win resident support

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.

Palo Alto resident Mike Price joins Weekly journalists to discuss his proposed rail-redesign idea on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.

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Comments

11 people like this
Posted by Tunnel
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2020 at 11:34 am

We have tunnels under the Bay for BART. Why is a tunnel a pipe dream? Typically, a project like that would be financed over 30 years or even longer. It would cost less than we shovel at the school district annually with low value return for what we spend. The possibility of an above-ground right-of-way for alternative transportation like bikes or autonomous electric taxis is priceless. How many people could even walk to work because of such an asset? It would improve community, where anything elevated no matter how it's sold, will do the opposite.

A tunnel would only happen with strong advocates. It's NOT a pipe dream.


3 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 22, 2020 at 11:53 am

Go up El Camino in MP. They are busy digging and it takes up a huge amount of area. How many PA homes do you all think will be removed. How about as you come close to PA downtown how are the businesses along Alma going to be affected? The costs will be horrendous.


24 people like this
Posted by Jim Silver
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 22, 2020 at 12:40 pm

The proposal by Elizabeth Alexis to keep the tracks where they and create an underpass for both Charleston and Meadow is by far the best option. It avoids the undesirable elevated options which many residents believe will create a blight and divide the neighborhood. It avoids the costs of the tunnel and the problem of tge creek diversion associated with the trench. As far as creating a more circuitous traffic pattern I have one answer. Google Maps. Visitors from outside tge area can use that to navigate.
Building the underpass is the obvious choice but was discarded so esrly in the process that it never got a chance


10 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2020 at 1:17 pm

Posted by Jim Silver, a resident of Fairmeadow

>> Building the underpass is the obvious choice but was discarded so esrly in the process that it never got a chance

Underpass designs are generally unfriendly to pedestrians and bicyclists from the standpoint of safety and *security* (e.g. wrt crime etc.).

Therefore, while I don't dismiss any option without discussion, I definitely want to see that any proposed option is safe and secure for pedestrians and bicyclists. I want to see this addressed up front.


7 people like this
Posted by Much Ado
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 22, 2020 at 1:33 pm

"We have tunnels under the Bay for BART. Why is a tunnel a pipe dream?"

No you don't. You have tubes which sit on the floor of the bay, not dug tunnels.

First, get JPB to approve the idea of a tunnel. They own the right-of-way. You'll have to address the issues of storm flooding and grade (slope). More than 1% grade requires a design exception.

The city of Burlingame looked into a tunnel and gave up on the idea. Palo Alto is the only other city afaik considering a tunnel.


9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2020 at 3:02 pm

We have underpasses at Oregon, Embarcadero and University and they all work.

We can definitely have more underpasses.

There is no need that each of these intersections at Charleston, Meadow and Churchill are completely able to turn in all directions. Churchill has signs preventing straight on during Paly morning commute. Alma is blocked to prevent traffic going straight onto Sand Hill Road.

We can easily have underpasses that serve straight traffic only and no turns, or just limited turns.

Charleston and Meadow as well as Churchill could be adapted quite easily for no turns.

We could adapt turns for bike lanes and pedestrians and all traffic has to go straight. Yes some traffic will have to turn elsewhere and it may make Middlefield carry more traffic, but at least there will be cross track traffic that can move when there are trains which should make a big overall improvement.

Let's keep up with the innovative thinking.


16 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2020 at 3:30 pm

With Atherton's decision to allow Caltrain to shut down the Atherton station a tunnel from Palo Alto to Atherton just got a lot cheaper.

SF plans to underground Caltrain from the 22nd st station all the way to the Salesforce building (right next to the bay). San Jose is going to underground BART through San Jose. There is reason Caltrain can't be underground through Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton. We have the technology. We just need vision and money.

Do it once, do it right, put it underground.


4 people like this
Posted by Much Ado
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 22, 2020 at 4:12 pm

"There is reason Caltrain can't be underground through Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton. We have the technology. We just need vision and money."

What is that reason, or did you mean "there is no reason"?

I'll say it again. First you need JPB's approval. You know that; that point has been made here many times, yet there has been next to outreach to JPB by any of the city's myriad rail committees.


5 people like this
Posted by Much Ado
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 22, 2020 at 4:14 pm

"there has been next to outreach to JPB by any of the city's myriad rail committees."

there has been next to NO outreach to JPB by any of the city's myriad rail committees.


12 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2020 at 5:36 pm

With Atherton's decision to allow Caltrain to shut down the Atherton station a tunnel from Palo Alto to Atherton just got a lot cheaper.

SF plans to underground Caltrain from the 22nd st station all the way to the Salesforce building (right next to the bay). San Jose is going to underground BART through San Jose. There is NO reason Caltrain can't be underground through Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton. We have the technology. We just need vision and money.

The idea that Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton, can't do anything unless JPB approves is just silly. JPB is run by SF, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties. Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton have more than a little influence in those counties. If Palo Alto, Menlo Park , and Atherton want a tunnel, JPB will have to agree, or find a way to pay for grade separation themselves, or just run their trains slower forever. JPB is not in the drivers seat.

Do it once, do it right, put it underground.


3 people like this
Posted by Much Ado
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 22, 2020 at 5:52 pm

"The idea that Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton, can't do anything unless JPB approves is just silly." "JPB is not in the drivers seat."

What fantasyland are you living in? JPB owns the tracks and the land under them, the stations, the locomotives, the rail cars, the signals, the stations, the land under the stations, etc. The City of Palo Alto could no more take up the tracks without JPB's approval than I could start digging up my neighbor's yard without permission. You'll never find a judge or jury to back your fantasy. "Ahem says so" would never stand up at trial.

Palo Alto has zero influence in San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

Atherton and Menlo Park are not clamoring for a tunnel, nor are Redwood City, Mountain View or Sunnyvale; so much for that delusion.


10 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 22, 2020 at 6:18 pm

Thanks to the X CAP for their innovative ideas and for the countless hours they've spent on this.


1 person likes this
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of another community
on Jan 22, 2020 at 7:01 pm

Regarding the proposed underpasses at Charleston and Meadow--

Beyond the question of who-turns-where, I'm trying to picture the basic engineering of these crossings. How much vertical clearance is required for trucks and emergency vehicles? Probably 14-15 feet? Add the thickness of the railbed to support the trains at grade level, and you have the depth of the underpass. Since Alma is so close to the tracks, the street would have to be lowered to handle that dive. That would put drivers on Alma on a weird and dangerous 'side-slope', wouldn't it?. Then there would have to be a steep climb on the west side to connect with Park Blvd.

Were any drawings with measurements submitted with these proposals? Am I missing some workaround for these questions?


5 people like this
Posted by Julian Gómez
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 22, 2020 at 10:22 pm

"There is NO reason Caltrain can't be underground through Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton."

There is plenty of reason. Ask a geologist, and then listen.


7 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 22, 2020 at 10:35 pm

Go up El Camino to Belmont and look at the Holly underpass. It is well done, serves the purpose. This is not a place where you are going to have big rigs so you do not need a very deep underpass. You just need a serviceable underpass. And it does not consume a lot of room on the sides where you have houses.


1 person likes this
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of another community
on Jan 22, 2020 at 11:01 pm

The crossings in San Carlos and Belmont were built on earthen berms with elevated tracks. A better illustration is in Redwood City, where Jefferson Avenue dives under the grade-level tracks.


5 people like this
Posted by Carl Jones
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 23, 2020 at 10:25 am

The resurgence, I believe, of the underpass solution (at Charleston, Meadow) is due to the suggestion that it have only one lane in each direction, not two. This, coupled with at-grade connections to Alma using the outer two lanes would cost much less, likely involve no taking of houses, and would eliminate or reduce the need for elevated tracks (berm or viaduct).

As to the issue of bicycle and pedestrian safety, there is no reason that bicycles and pedestrians need use the underpass, nor should they be allowed to. They can easily cross the tracks at grade level and provision for that should be included in the design.


1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2020 at 10:44 am

@Carl Jones

Thank you for your sensible comment. It is people like you who should be working on this, not politicians.

There is hope for Palo Alto!


4 people like this
Posted by Good call. Let's make sure we study the right stuff.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2020 at 1:55 pm

The Alexis option would keep bike and pedestrian separate from cars. Let's use the study to make sure that bike/ped access on East Meadow and Charleston are safe and convenient for all turning movements...and that they connect well to adjacent bike/ped facilities.

I agree this option merits further study. Good call, City Council. It was good to see more citizens getting engaged with this process--one of the more important issues in front of our fair city at this time.


2 people like this
Posted by Helen
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 23, 2020 at 3:21 pm

The Auto Pedestrian “S” is the best choice. It improves visibility and slows traffic reducing risk of collision, albeit at the expense of several more crossings and one tube plus ring road. It improves traffic flow and spreads the “home taking “ burden as well. Please support the “S” approach.


5 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 24, 2020 at 3:48 am

Underpass clearances must now be 15.5 feet. If the bridge supporting the tracks at ground-level is, say, 5 feet thick (typical for a concrete bridge ... steel is a bit thinner), vehicles will have to drive at least 20.5 feet down and back up. There are rules about maximum slopes and vertical curvature, so this is why underpass slopes must extend as far out to the sides as they do (with associated impacts on nearby parcels and intersecting utilities, streets, driveways and sidewalks and the need for failsafe pumps to avoid flooding during storms & power outages).


Like this comment
Posted by TBM
a resident of another community
on Jan 25, 2020 at 8:44 am

The representative Italian junction Web Link can be measured to take up about 88 feet of right-of-way. Applying Caltrans standards to a similar design gives a width of about 90 feet, but West Charlston Avenue is less that 70 feet wide, so taking some property seems unavoidable.
Meadow Drive is only about 60 feet wide between property fences.
Concrete underpass bridges and abutment walls are expensive elements, and this design has many.
If this proposal requires property takes, the bridges are expensive, and the resulting junction is awkward and inefficient. This could be a less beneficial solution than the 'classic' low cost option of lowering the whole junction.


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