News

No viaduct, no closure: Palo Alto resident aims for compromise on Churchill

'All the alternatives on the table stink' says Michael Price, as he proposes a new design

The long controversy behind the Churchill Avenue rail redesign has put the city and its residents at a frustrating but understandable impasse.

But Southgate resident Michael Price believes he might have the answer.

Considering the long checklist of requirements that Caltrain, the city of Palo Alto and its residents have demanded, two options the City Council has been considering — a closure of Churchill and a viaduct — haven't been able to satisfy all sides of the debate.

Price is seeking to find a compromise between supporters of Churchill's closure — who hate the idea of a viaduct going over their backyards — and those who have argued that closing the street would cut off their access to Alma Street and drive traffic to Embarcadero Road and other east-west crossings.

"The idea is to keep the intersection open mostly and to separate the bike and pedestrian from the traffic as much as possible," Price said Friday during an episode of the Weekly's "Behind the Headlines" webcast. "And to avoid taking any properties, leave Caltrain where it is so Caltrain won't object, and don't build any big structures which are gonna be ugly (or) unsightly in people's backyards."

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Price, CEO of Pro-Teq Inc., an automated earthquake mitigation company, proposes a sort of T-formation for Churchill Avenue and Alma, where west Churchill is crosses beneath the tracks in an underpass and the intersection of Alma and Churchill is likewise lowered. Cars would not be able to go straight on Churchill through the intersection.

Churchill east of Alma would remain at grade, allowing cars wishing to go north on Alma to make the right turn off Churchill. For bicyclists and pedestrians, the design also creates a separate pathway that involves a tunnel and an overpass.

The idea received a boost this week, when the City Council voted Tuesday to authorize more analysis of the alternative.

Price's proposal comes at a time when Caltrain is preparing to electrify the rail corridor and start running more trains, potentially creating traffic jams at rail crossings because of increased gate-down times. Caltrain plans to host a community meeting on its construction activities for the electrification project in Palo Alto this Tuesday, Jan. 28, from 6-7 p.m. at the Embarcadero Room of Rinconada Library, 1213 Newell Road. The agency plans to begin installing poles along the rail corridor in the coming months.

To prepare for this eventuality, the City Council has been considering possible alternatives for "grade separation" — the reconfiguration of the rail crossings so that roads and the tracks would no longer intersect.

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About two years ago, the city had 37 ideas for grade separation. Last year, they narrowed down the list to seven, yet city officials also recognize that these ideas are far from perfect.

Or, as Price put it: "All the alternatives on the table stink."

Though the cost of his idea remains a mystery to Price and the council, Mayor Adrian Fine said it was an option "worth exploring" during Tuesday's meeting.

Not everyone likes the idea of building an underpass at Churchill. Several residents said this week that they fear this would bring more traffic to their street and compared the design to a "freeway."

But Price believes his approach is a step forward to creating a viable solution that might allay not all but many people's concerns about the crossing. He said he started to think about something different around the time of a community meeting last summer. It became clear to him that there wasn't going to be consensus on what to do, he said.

"Nobody's gonna be perfectly happy, but maybe nobody will be perfectly unhappy either, so that would be a win in my view," Price said.

Hear our full discussion with Mike Price on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.

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No viaduct, no closure: Palo Alto resident aims for compromise on Churchill

'All the alternatives on the table stink' says Michael Price, as he proposes a new design

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Jan 24, 2020, 5:12 pm
Updated: Mon, Jan 27, 2020, 12:08 pm

The long controversy behind the Churchill Avenue rail redesign has put the city and its residents at a frustrating but understandable impasse.

But Southgate resident Michael Price believes he might have the answer.

Considering the long checklist of requirements that Caltrain, the city of Palo Alto and its residents have demanded, two options the City Council has been considering — a closure of Churchill and a viaduct — haven't been able to satisfy all sides of the debate.

Price is seeking to find a compromise between supporters of Churchill's closure — who hate the idea of a viaduct going over their backyards — and those who have argued that closing the street would cut off their access to Alma Street and drive traffic to Embarcadero Road and other east-west crossings.

"The idea is to keep the intersection open mostly and to separate the bike and pedestrian from the traffic as much as possible," Price said Friday during an episode of the Weekly's "Behind the Headlines" webcast. "And to avoid taking any properties, leave Caltrain where it is so Caltrain won't object, and don't build any big structures which are gonna be ugly (or) unsightly in people's backyards."

Price, CEO of Pro-Teq Inc., an automated earthquake mitigation company, proposes a sort of T-formation for Churchill Avenue and Alma, where west Churchill is crosses beneath the tracks in an underpass and the intersection of Alma and Churchill is likewise lowered. Cars would not be able to go straight on Churchill through the intersection.

Churchill east of Alma would remain at grade, allowing cars wishing to go north on Alma to make the right turn off Churchill. For bicyclists and pedestrians, the design also creates a separate pathway that involves a tunnel and an overpass.

The idea received a boost this week, when the City Council voted Tuesday to authorize more analysis of the alternative.

Price's proposal comes at a time when Caltrain is preparing to electrify the rail corridor and start running more trains, potentially creating traffic jams at rail crossings because of increased gate-down times. Caltrain plans to host a community meeting on its construction activities for the electrification project in Palo Alto this Tuesday, Jan. 28, from 6-7 p.m. at the Embarcadero Room of Rinconada Library, 1213 Newell Road. The agency plans to begin installing poles along the rail corridor in the coming months.

To prepare for this eventuality, the City Council has been considering possible alternatives for "grade separation" — the reconfiguration of the rail crossings so that roads and the tracks would no longer intersect.

About two years ago, the city had 37 ideas for grade separation. Last year, they narrowed down the list to seven, yet city officials also recognize that these ideas are far from perfect.

Or, as Price put it: "All the alternatives on the table stink."

Though the cost of his idea remains a mystery to Price and the council, Mayor Adrian Fine said it was an option "worth exploring" during Tuesday's meeting.

Not everyone likes the idea of building an underpass at Churchill. Several residents said this week that they fear this would bring more traffic to their street and compared the design to a "freeway."

But Price believes his approach is a step forward to creating a viable solution that might allay not all but many people's concerns about the crossing. He said he started to think about something different around the time of a community meeting last summer. It became clear to him that there wasn't going to be consensus on what to do, he said.

"Nobody's gonna be perfectly happy, but maybe nobody will be perfectly unhappy either, so that would be a win in my view," Price said.

Hear our full discussion with Mike Price on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.

Comments

Michael Price is Great!
Professorville
on Jan 24, 2020 at 6:22 pm
Michael Price is Great!, Professorville
on Jan 24, 2020 at 6:22 pm
55 people like this

From reading this article and watching the interview, it becomes quickly apparent the City Council is trudging through a narrow-minded check-the-box approach with troglodyte consultants, while creative resident Michael Price looked holistically at the problem and genuinely tried to come up with an elegant and thoughtful solution! None of the other designs at any phase seem to have half the spark as this one. Kudos to Mr. Price for stepping up where officials have fumbled, and fumbled, and fumbled!


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 24, 2020 at 9:19 pm
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 24, 2020 at 9:19 pm
35 people like this

Michael Price, thank you so much.

Many of us send emails, attend planning meetings, beg, plead, for other ideas to be looked at in a serious fashion. I myself felt that lowering the road and eliminating turns would be worth looking at. But, not an engineer, not anyone who has office, just a well traveled individual who has seen similar things work in other places, thought that it was worth investigating. However, the only options were viaducts, tunnels or closures.

It is about time those of us who go to the trouble of attending meetings, writing emails, were actually given some attention. Why ask for feedback from residents without listening to any idea?

Now this is being discussed but it could well have been discussed several years ago. But, better late than never.


Professorville Resident
Professorville
on Jan 24, 2020 at 9:21 pm
Professorville Resident, Professorville
on Jan 24, 2020 at 9:21 pm
29 people like this

I'm impressed by how nice it looks.

I'm thrilled about how it actually solves the problems of the area, and improves everyone's life without harming others!

Nice jobs, Michael and Michael!


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 24, 2020 at 11:19 pm
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 24, 2020 at 11:19 pm
7 people like this

Yes - the picture looks good but it does not depict the residential set up on Alma in that location. Do any homes have to be removed? The homes are right up next to Alma here. For any choice on approach there needs to be an evaluation as to how many homes would be removed and at what cost. That also applies to the trench approach - We are unique in that we have houses next to Alma.


Professorville resident
Professorville
on Jan 25, 2020 at 1:23 am
Professorville resident, Professorville
on Jan 25, 2020 at 1:23 am
19 people like this

@Resident 1-Adobe
No homes are removed/taken with the design as I understand it.
The homes on Alma are unchanged, as the road in front of the house doesn't move, in just had the farther lanes sink.

The design is really quite thoughtful in ensuring noone is impacted.


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 7:36 am
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 7:36 am
18 people like this

It looks very pedestrian unfriendly to me.


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 8:24 am
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 8:24 am
15 people like this

Pedestrians and bikes probably will not use the underpass but be able to use an at grade path and crossing, or perhaps even a pedestrian bridge. Look at the proposal and see the positives and alternatives. This is a great idea for everyone.


Independent
Esther Clark Park
on Jan 25, 2020 at 9:38 am
Independent, Esther Clark Park
on Jan 25, 2020 at 9:38 am
24 people like this

No closing Churchill and redirecting 10,000 cars to Embarcadero and Oregon. No closing Palo Alto avenue and redirecting those cars to Embarcadero.


Nayeli
Midtown
on Jan 25, 2020 at 11:48 am
Nayeli, Midtown
on Jan 25, 2020 at 11:48 am
39 people like this

This looks great. It is a better idea that an viaduct, trench or doing nothing.


Resident
Downtown North
on Jan 25, 2020 at 12:14 pm
Resident, Downtown North
on Jan 25, 2020 at 12:14 pm
40 people like this

Given a resident is able to come up with such holistic plans that basically takes everyone's wants and tries to combine them, I'm curious why the tremendous dollars spent on "consultants" that the city hired couldn't come up with such a comprehensive plan?

Makes you wonder whether we're being taken for a ride on our tax dollars whenever the city hires these expensive "consultants" who spend months on our dollars to come with a big fat nothing plan.

Who is hiring these consultants?
Where is the accountability and transparency on this hiring of consultants?


Resident
Downtown North
on Jan 25, 2020 at 12:54 pm
Resident, Downtown North
on Jan 25, 2020 at 12:54 pm
28 people like this

Looks very pedestrian and cyclist friendly to me. Studies have shown separation of grade of pedestrians and cyclists (and cars) from the train always leads to less accidents.

This plan separates the train from the pedestrians/cyclists. It also separates the cars from the pedestrians/cyclists.

It looks very safe and keeps cyclists/pedestrians away from trains and cars.
No property is taken.
And no traffic is routed to Embarcadero or Oregon (which is congested already). This truly is a win-win.

This is the best plan we've seen that takes everyone's needs and incorporates it.


pedestrian
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 25, 2020 at 1:01 pm
pedestrian, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 25, 2020 at 1:01 pm
19 people like this

Safe and efficient pedestrian access needs to be the first priority. Car drivers can easily use another crossing, but pedestrians cannot without going half an hour or more out of our way. I cannot tell from this article how welcome pedestrians will be.


Old PA
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 25, 2020 at 1:08 pm
Old PA, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 25, 2020 at 1:08 pm
10 people like this

If I am driving from Old PA to Stanford, I can no longer drive across Alma with this plan, correct? So any car traffic that normally crosses Alma at Churchill will be redirected to Embarcadero or Oregon, correct?


Ahem
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 2:05 pm
Ahem, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2020 at 2:05 pm
27 people like this

First, I would like to thank Mr. Price for the tremendous amount of work he has voluntarily undertaken to help his community.

That being said Mr. Price's plan does not address the dramatic increase in noise, vibration, and harshness, Palo Alto residents will experience due to faster and more frequent trains.

Electric trains are NOT silent. Electric trains still produce lots of mechanical, electrical, and aerodynamic noise. All of these sources of noise, vibration, and harshness, increase exponentially with velocity.

There is going to be a lot of buyer's remorse when Palo Alto residents are confronted with the harsh reality that an electric train going 110mph actually makes more noise than a diesel-electric train going 55mph.

We have the technology. Do it once, do it right, put it underground.

Wikipedia: Noise, Vibration, and Harshness Web Link



Jon Claerbout
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 25, 2020 at 3:05 pm
Jon Claerbout, Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 25, 2020 at 3:05 pm
16 people like this

One of the reasons you think we need that overpass is your short-sightedness in failing to connect Alma to Sand Hill Road. When us elder South Palo Altans find we need to go to the Palo Alto Clinic we pretty much have to take the Churchill street connection past Paly high school.


allen
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 25, 2020 at 5:29 pm
allen, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 25, 2020 at 5:29 pm
11 people like this

What happens to Alma traffic while this is bring built? Send it down Emerson I guess. After built actually looks pretty good. You have two lanes going west from Alma north (Embarcadero) and two going east to Alma south (one on Embarcadero and one on Churchill). But what a nightmare while it is being built and how long do you think that will take. All in all, best compromise I have seen as many of the proposals would be totally disruptive during construction as well so that may just be a given.


Much Ado
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 25, 2020 at 6:19 pm
Much Ado, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 25, 2020 at 6:19 pm
8 people like this

Does this design use any portion of the Caltrain right of way for movement of autos or pedestrians? If so, that will be an issue.

An earlier version of this design required encroachment on part of the right-of-way. Has that changed with this iteration?


john
Crescent Park
on Jan 25, 2020 at 6:44 pm
john, Crescent Park
on Jan 25, 2020 at 6:44 pm
13 people like this

I prefer a viaduct


Curmudgeon
Downtown North
on Jan 26, 2020 at 10:11 pm
Curmudgeon, Downtown North
on Jan 26, 2020 at 10:11 pm
11 people like this

Where are the Alma-Churchill left turn lanes? Removing them will cause huge backups on Alma.


"When us elder South Palo Altans find we need to go to the Palo Alto Clinic we pretty much have to take the Churchill street connection past Paly high school."

Try Alma - Oregon - ECR - Clinic.


TBM
another community
on Jan 27, 2020 at 6:25 am
TBM, another community
on Jan 27, 2020 at 6:25 am
15 people like this

@Resident " I'm curious why the tremendous dollars spent on "consultants" that the city hired couldn't come up with such a comprehensive plan?"

One explanation is that consultants can only propose designs that are compliant with Caltrans road design standards, while non-engineers are free to approach highway junction design as an art project.

The engineering consultants might conclude that this design cannot be built without taking some property when applying the latest safety standards for shoulder width next to abutment walls, crash cushion width at the start of the ramp and lane merging line-of-sight requirements etc.


Much Ado
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 27, 2020 at 9:57 am
Much Ado, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 27, 2020 at 9:57 am
6 people like this

"The engineering consultants might conclude that this design cannot be built without taking some property when applying the latest safety standards for shoulder width next to abutment walls, crash cushion width at the start of the ramp and lane merging line-of-sight requirements etc."

No one has answered my question about this design encroaching on the Caltrain right of way. If this design does encroach on the ROW, as did a previous iteration of it, that will be an issue. I would think it best to resolve any issues regarding encroachment on the ROW before actually proposing this. It's kind of hard to tell from the illustrations provided.


TBM
another community
on Jan 27, 2020 at 10:32 am
TBM, another community
on Jan 27, 2020 at 10:32 am
6 people like this

@ "No one has answered my question about this design encroaching on the Caltrain right of way"

The pedestrian ramp and underpass clearly encroaches on the Caltrain ROW.
Caltrain may not regard this as a "permanent encumbrance" as the ramp and underpass can easily be 'filled in' if Caltrain ever needed to reclaim it's entire ROW.
The pedestrian under crossing could always be re-built as an over crossing that does not encroach on the Caltrain ROW.
The existing bicycle path on the West side of the track is already on PCJPB property. Web Link


Much Ado
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 27, 2020 at 11:10 am
Much Ado, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 27, 2020 at 11:10 am
9 people like this

"The pedestrian under crossing could always be re-built as an over crossing that does not encroach on the Caltrain ROW."

Why not make that part of this design to avoid any conflicts with JPB?

This design is being received so enthusiastically by the community, would hate to see it nixed by JPB due to encroachment on the ROW.


Much Ado
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 27, 2020 at 12:00 pm
Much Ado, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 27, 2020 at 12:00 pm
8 people like this

"The ... underpass clearly encroaches on the Caltrain ROW."

Do you consider any underpass that goes under the tracks as "encroachment"? We already have that at Embarcadero and University so it may well pass muster if all you're going to do is tunnel under the tracks.

The design I saw utilized a slice of the ROW for a pedestrian passageway. Another reason CPA needs to be in consultation with JPB and not try to design this in a vacuum. This in addition to all of the previously-mentioned design/safety constraints.


Ped/Bike Crossing
Midtown
on Jan 27, 2020 at 12:34 pm
Ped/Bike Crossing, Midtown
on Jan 27, 2020 at 12:34 pm
23 people like this

Good thinking. Good design.

We do not NEED an underpass for peds/bicyclists. If the at-grade crossing is closed to cars, then peds/bicyclists can have the full width of roadway to cross. I'm not saying that a tunnel is not safer. Only that it is not necessary. The peds/bicyclists can cross ANY TIME that there is NOT a train. There isn't alternate queuing for peds/bikes as there is for cars at-grade. The actual waiting time for a train to pass is actually quite short. And with this design there appears to be plenty of space for peds/bikes to 'mass up' when they do have to wait for a train to pass.


Curmudgeon
Downtown North
on Jan 27, 2020 at 8:40 pm
Curmudgeon, Downtown North
on Jan 27, 2020 at 8:40 pm
7 people like this

That Alma-Churchill left turn lane is an absolute necessity. Dig this project under the tracks to make room for it--in other words, put CalTrain on a ground-level viaduct in the Churchill area


Barb
Charleston Meadows
on Jan 28, 2020 at 8:32 pm
Barb, Charleston Meadows
on Jan 28, 2020 at 8:32 pm
9 people like this

[Post removed.]


Ped/Bike Crossing
Midtown
on Jan 28, 2020 at 10:57 pm
Ped/Bike Crossing, Midtown
on Jan 28, 2020 at 10:57 pm
6 people like this

@Curmudgeon
Certainly the depiction of the intersection does not show a dedicated left turn lane. It might be handled by allowing NB Alma to proceed with a red light for SB. Left turn traffic could certainly proceed faster than cars do now having to cross the tracks. But you are right, the capacity would likely be less.
Interesting, though, that Alma does not widen appreciably (if at all) in order to provide the left turn lane in its current configuration. So perhaps it could still be done.


Curmudgeon
Downtown North
on Jan 29, 2020 at 10:50 am
Curmudgeon, Downtown North
on Jan 29, 2020 at 10:50 am
6 people like this

@Crossing

1) The time-slot left turn solution works until the first car going straight comes up and stops to wait for the through-traffic light, then the whole lane stops for the rest of the cycle. A corresponding lockup occurs during the straight-through interval, when the first car wanting to turn left gets to the intersection. Left turn lanes must be dedicated left turn lanes.

2) The design appropriates the current northbound right lane to accommodate Churchill traffic to the east. It uses up the space that enables the existing left turn lanes.

This layout must be partially tucked under the tracks in order to work. Or, just prohibit left turns from Alma to Churchill.


TBM
another community
on Jan 29, 2020 at 1:04 pm
TBM, another community
on Jan 29, 2020 at 1:04 pm
4 people like this

@ "This layout must be partially tucked under the tracks in order to work."

How are you going to keep Caltrain operating while converting the right-of-way to a ground level viaduct? Temporarily move Caltrain onto Alma street? that would cut off driveway access to properties, in that case, it would be easier and less expensive to move Alma Street to the East to make space for a turn lane.


Here, I drew a picture
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 29, 2020 at 3:55 pm
Here, I drew a picture, Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 29, 2020 at 3:55 pm
4 people like this

[Post removed.]


Curmudgeon
Downtown North
on Jan 29, 2020 at 4:22 pm
Curmudgeon, Downtown North
on Jan 29, 2020 at 4:22 pm
4 people like this

"it would be easier and less expensive to move Alma Street to the East to make space for a turn lane"

Moving Alma east requires taking private property. CPA doesn't want to do that. So tuck the xing under the tracks. Engineers do know how to do those kinds of things.


LMAO
Old Palo Alto
on Feb 1, 2020 at 10:06 am
LMAO, Old Palo Alto
on Feb 1, 2020 at 10:06 am
1 person likes this

Where's your design with the actual specifications, compliant with law, and identifying property to be taken, use of the right of way, costing, and so on? Mr. Price, where's your website with all this information, or are you just using some online sketch tool? Trying to sell people on something without an actual bill of goods that can be vetted is suspect. If your website with a bona fide proposal exists, please post the link and I'll withdraw the comment and then we'll look at your proposal in detail. I assume you've done all this to be taking up our time.


Embarcadero underpass
Atherton
on Feb 1, 2020 at 3:19 pm
Embarcadero underpass, Atherton
on Feb 1, 2020 at 3:19 pm
1 person likes this

Does this take into account a heavy rainy season? Embarcadero underpass floods when rain is excessive and gets shut down.

It is considerate to take into account the homes next to the trains, but it does not control the noise, vibration, EMF, and overall unpleasant nature of living near a 110 mph train.


Evergreen Park Resident
Evergreen Park
on Feb 26, 2020 at 4:51 pm
Evergreen Park Resident, Evergreen Park
on Feb 26, 2020 at 4:51 pm
3 people like this

This is very creative, and I applaud anyone taking a creative approach. But, it does not solve the basic problem that no one will be able to use Churchill to cross Alma coming from either the west or the east . . . so, if you want to go "across town", you will have to use Embarcadero or Oregon Expwy. The City has already made the intersection of Oregon and El Camino Real a nightmare by building massive housing projects along Oregon and El Camino that have no way to get in or out without using these two very busy and already extremely congested streets.

As the school superintendent indicated today, this will effectively rerouts a large number of buses and trucks to Embarcadero and Oregon.

Thank you, Mike, for suggesting that we need to continue to think through the problem and come up with something creative. I vote for allowing all traffic on Churchill to cross Alma to reach the other side of town.


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