As Palo Alto plods ahead in its journey to choose a new design for its rail crossings, the City Council is facing a menu of imperfect options, each unappetizing in its own way.
The popular trench alternative in south Palo Alto, is projected to cost more than $800 million, a price tag deemed by many to be prohibitively high, and would take six years to construct. A viaduct south of Oregon Expressway would cost about half as much and take two years to construct. But it has a major drawback: its size and mass.
Greg Brail, a member of the Expanded Community Advisory Panel (XCAP), a citizen panel that has been analyzing the different rail alternatives, said Monday that many residents have criticized the option for its visual impact.
"It's 20 feet in height. You'd be able to see it from many places near the track," Brail said.
"And because the viaduct travels through several neighborhoods that are single-story overlays, full of Eichlers, which have a lot of windows, residents were concerned that unless the viaduct is designed carefully, there may be an impact to their privacy."
His comment came during the council's second public hearing on XCAP's final report, which surveyed the various design options for grade separation — the reconfiguration of the rail crossings so that the tracks and streets do not intersect. While the council's first hearing on the XCAP report focused on Churchill, on Monday the conversation shifted to the two southern crossings.
The question of what to do about the East Meadow and Charleston crossings has bedeviled both XCAP and the council for years. Even though the committee's report recommended closing Churchill Avenue to traffic, it refrained from making any recommendations on the two southern crossings.
The council similarly struggled Monday to make any major decisions about the future of the three crossings. Members, however, agreed to eliminate both tunnel alternatives: one that included a tunnel for both Caltrain and freight trains and another that puts Caltrain fleet underground while keeping freight at grade. According to the XCAP report, the two south Palo Alto tunnel alternatives came with an estimated cost between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion each. Because of their high costs and significant construction time, the committee voted unanimously to remove the tunnels from consideration.
Council member Alison Cormack happily endorsed that recommendations.
"(It's) so appealing to everyone in many respects to just put it all underground and that way we don't have to deal with it," Cormack said. "But as we have worked through this for the past couple of years, it's very clear that even attempting to do that is expensive and has many problems."
For the council, the question of what to do about the rail crossings has grown more urgent in recent years, as Caltrain began advancing its plans to electrify its fleet and run more trains. For the Churchill crossing, the council's current menu includes a viaduct, a partial underpass and the closure of the rail crossing. The closure, which the panel voted 6-3 to support, would be undertaken in conjunction with traffic improvements at Embarcadero and Oregon Expressway, as well as around the Professorville neighborhood.
On the Charleston and East Meadow crossings, the city is evaluating a trench, a viaduct, an underpass and a "hybrid" design in which raised tracks are combined with lowered roads.
Despite the committee's recommendation, the council stopped well short Monday of endorsing the Churchill closure — an alternative that has polarized the surrounding neighborhoods of Southgate and Old Palo Alto — or any of the options for Charleston and East Meadow. Rather, it voted 6-1, with council member Lydia Kou dissenting, to support a work plan that defers these decisions and to direct staff to perform additional analysis about the alternatives on the table.
The Monday hearing, much like XCAP's report, underscored the fact that each of the remaining options has significant drawbacks. The most popular alternative — the trench — also happens to be the most expensive and difficult to engineer. The trench would have to, for example, cross Barron and Adobe creeks, requiring the pumping out and rerouting of creek. Estimates from the city's consultant, Aecom, suggest that the trench would cost between $800 million and $950 million to construct and that it would take about six years. By contrast, the Charleston underpass — which would leave the tracks in its current position and lower a portion of the roadway — would cost between $340 million and $420 million, while the hybrid option would cost between $190 million and $230 million (each would take about four years).
Despite the cost difference, Keith Reckdahl, a member of XCAP, argued that the trench should be studied further. He suggested that the estimate provided by the city's consultants is too high, particularly when compared with trench projects in Carlsbad and other areas in the state (Aecom attributed the disparity to design differences between Palo Alto's trench and the one that Carlsbad is preparing to construct).
While he acknowledged that the trench would encounter engineering challenges, he also argued that the design proposed by Aecom has substandard features that make the trench look less feasible than it really is.
"Right or wrong, these questionable design decisions give residents the impression that the trench is not being fairly evaluated," Reckdahl said. "That's problematic. You need residents to feel like they're treated fairly. The neighbors would love to have a trench."
Many residents shared his sentiment and urged the council to keep the trench in the mix and to reject any elevated structures near their homes. Keri Wagner, a resident of Charleston Meadows, was among those who spoke out at the meeting against the raised structure.
"I don't think anybody in our neighborhood wants the viaduct," Wagner said. "It's going to divide our city, literally. There will be this raised train through the middle of Palo Alto."
Carlin Otto, who also opposes any raised alternatives, suggested that if the tracks were elevated, noise from passing trains would travel well beyond their current perimeter.
"It will affect 20 times the people it currently affects," Otto said. "You will cause our city, for at least 100 years, to be hearing that noise all over the city."
Some, however, argued that the viaduct is both more feasible and more environmentally friendly. Cedric de La Beaujardiere spoke in favor of the elevated structure and said that the trench would cause environmental damage.
"Forcing the creeks through tunnels and pumps would be drastically detrimental to the ecosystem health," de La Beaujardiere said.
The council, which has been discussing grade separation for nearly a decade but which has yet to determine what exactly that should look like, is hoping to revisit the decision over the Charleston and East Meadow alternatives in late summer, at which time it will receive additional information about the various designs. The council's new work plan also calls for revisiting the Churchill alternatives in the fall.
Mayor Tom DuBois suggested that the two southern crossings should be a higher priority than Churchill because they carry more traffic. He and Kou both strongly supported further refining the trench alternatives in south Palo Alto. Despite the council's general alignment, Kou voted against Cormack's motion to eliminate tunnels and adopt the work plan. She instead favored a more detailed motion crafted by Vice Mayor Pat Burt, which directed staff to undertake a detailed list of studies, including a geotechnical analysis, updated traffic studies and a plan to create new pedestrian and bike underpaths.
"This is a huge project that's going to affect a lot of people in Palo Alto," Kou said. "I just have a lot of concerns about the resistance that we had heard and that I had actually seen and heard myself at meetings."