Ever since Palo Alto launched an effort to redesign its rail crossings nearly a decade ago, city leaders have emphasized the need to strengthen east-west connections, improve safety and prepare for a future that includes more trains and worsening traffic jams at places where tracks intersect with local streets.
But picking a solution for "grade separation" at Churchill Avenue, East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road has been a contentious and arduous process. Over the past three years, the city has considered nearly 40 designs for separating the rail tracks from local streets. To date, the council has discarded about three-quarters of them.
Even the most promising options still on the table carry their own problems, complications and uncertainties, a conundrum that the council acknowledged on Tuesday night during a special meeting devoted to grade separation. The discussion was the council's first since the Expanded Community Advisory Panel (XCAP), a specially appointed citizen committee, released a highly anticipated report that evaluated the pros and cons of various design options and recommended a preferred alternative: closing Churchill Avenue to traffic, building an underpass for bicyclists and pedestrians and creating a host of road modifications to relieve traffic conditions at Embarcadero Road and Oregon Expressway — two thoroughfares that would need to accommodate more cars if Churchill is closed.
The release of the XCAP report, which has been in the works since fall 2019, is a major milestone for the city's grade-separation effort, known as Connecting Palo Alto. But if the council's plan is to improve connections throughout the city, the Tuesday meeting made it clear that the planning effort is so far having the opposite effect. Even though the council praised the panel for its report — the product of nearly 50 meetings, considerable technical analysis and dozens of wonky debates — its proposal to close Churchill received a decidedly mixed reception both among council members and in the broader community.
Many in Southgate, a residential neighborhood nestled between Alma Street and El Camino Real, just south of Churchill, see the proposed closure as a measure that would cut off their access to the eastern portion of the city. Steve Carlson, who lives in Southgate, said he and other neighborhood volunteers have sent out surveys to 212 homes in the neighborhood and received responses from 59% of them. Of those who responded, 36% said they favored closure while 56% said they did not, Carlson said.
"Residents not in favor are concerned about being disconnected from their neighbors and schools directly across the tracks and downtown, resulting in a change in the culture and character of the neighborhood over time," Carlson said.
Susan Newman, who spoke for a group of Southgate residents, also suggested that the closure of Churchill would worsen traffic, both in her neighborhood and at other major streets.
"Eliminating Churchill as a way to cross the tracks will add inconvenience and stress to residents' routine trips throughout the day and on weekends by making traffic on El Camino Real, Oregon/Page Mill and Embarcadero that is currently bearable during nonpeak hours more like peak-hour commute traffic," Newman said.
To assuage these concerns, the closure option includes a list of traffic mitigations, including traffic signals and modifications at the Alma overpass at Embarcadero and the addition of a right-turn lane from eastbound Embarcadero to Kingsley Avenue. The mitigations also include a left-turn lane from Alma to Kingsley and a northbound right-turn lane from Oregon to El Camino Real.
In recommending the closure of Churchill by a 6-3 vote, XCAP members concluded that the option is the least expensive of those on the table (it has a price tag of about $65 million, while other options range from about $200 million for the underpass to $400 million for a viaduct) and that it would make the rail crossing both safer and more aesthetically pleasing.
"It's very clear that the closure is way, way, way less expensive than its alternatives and may well be much more appealing to people who are going to provide the funding, whether it's local funding, state funding or federal funding," said Larry Klein, vice chair of XCAP and one of the six members who favored this option.
Some residents shared that view. Terri Llach, who lives near the tracks, suggested that closing Churchill would have a far less dramatic effect on the area than building "big ditches and viaducts that are ugly and look into someone's home."
"What (the residents in these homes would be) going to go through is just huge in comparison to what a few minutes of extra drive is going to be for other people," Llach said.
The council, for its part, showed little appetite Tuesday for making any decisions about Churchill. Even as council members acknowledged the importance of making progress on grade separations, no one was willing to commit to — or eliminate — any alternatives. Most council members indicated, however, that they are unlikely to support the closure of Churchill unless the city undertakes additional traffic studies and conducts further engineering work on the partial underpass.
Nadia Naik, chair of the panel, acknowledged during the discussion that none of the options is particularly popular. Even though XCAP ultimately voted to recommend the closure of Churchill, it hit a stalemate when deliberating over the two south Palo Alto crossings, where not a single design alternative managed to win support from the majority of the committee. She was one of the three XCAP members — along with Phil Burton and Keith Reckdahl — who dissented in the Churchill vote because they felt further study is warranted.
"There are no super sexy alternatives that people are excited about," Naik said. "Nobody has the one alternative that they know will work financially and is going to work from an engineering standpoint and will leave everybody very happy."
Klein concurred. No one will ever come to Palo Alto to view and praise the city's grade separations, he said.
"It's not going to be a tourist attraction," Klein said. "Whatever the council ultimately decides — or another authority decides for us — it's not going to be something that everyone is excited about."
But while Klein and the XCAP majority concluded that the closure of Churchill is an adequate — if imperfect — option, the council majority felt otherwise. Council member Greer Stone agreed with residents who questioned the city's traffic studies and suggested that the city does not have enough information about how closing the rail crossing at Churchill would impact the city's traffic network.
"I'm really concerned about us redirecting traffic to other areas in Palo Alto, especially streets like Lincoln and other residential streets in that region — and just the ripple effects that it will cause," Stone said.
Vice Mayor Pat Burt noted that the traffic studies only consider traffic levels up to the year 2030, which he argued is not sufficient for a project that is meant to accommodate decades of regional growth. He said that he is "very concerned that the closure of Churchill diminishes it for vehicles" and suggested that the city consider advancing biking improvements — including a new underpass for bicyclists and pedestrians in south Palo Alto — without decreasing access for cars.
South Palo Alto presented the committee with another menu of unappetizing options: trench, viaduct, underpass, a "hybrid" design in which the tracks are raised and the road is lowered and two different tunnel designs. The panel ultimately eliminated both tunnel alternatives from consideration, deeming them too costly. Other options were deemed less than ideal because of high costs (trench), significant property impacts (underpass), engineering challenges (trench) or visual impact (viaduct and hybrid).
While most of the public comments Tuesday focused on Churchill, Mayor Tom DuBois and council member Eric Filseth both suggested that the city should devote more effort on Meadow and Charleston, though neither came out in favor of any of the alternatives on the table.
"The need is so much higher on Charleston and Meadow, just because there's so much traffic on Charleston," Filseth said.
Despite the glacial pace of progress on grade separations, council members, XCAP members and city staff stressed the importance of picking a preferred alternative. Choosing an option would, for one thing, make it possible for the city to apply for grant funding to proceed with design, environmental analysis and, ultimately, construction. And achieving grade separation would both help the city deal with both the projected increase in gate-down time at the crossings once Caltrain expands its service and with ongoing safety problems at the crossings.
XCAP member Gregory Brail cited the high rates of accidents at the Churchill and Charleston crossings, which he said are among the most dangerous in the nation. During the course of the panel's deliberations, Brail noted, one person died at the Churchill crossings and numerous accidents that did not involve injuries occurred elsewhere on the rail corridor.
"Almost nowhere else in the United States are there trains going that fast, passing that many cars and bicycles and, God forbid, high school students," Brail said. "So I think we have to keep in mind that the longer we don't do anything about these grade crossings, the longer we are rolling the dice in having something terrible happen."