Palo Alto has big plans for the prominent intersection of Alma Street and Churchill Avenue, a multimodal mess that brings Alma drivers, Churchill bicyclists and Caltrain commuters together far too close for anyone's comfort.
The city's long-term plans for this portion of the rail corridor contemplate a series of dramatic changes, including a train viaduct, an underpass and the closure of the Churchill rail crossing to car traffic. But while those plans have been inching along for several years and the project is at least a decade away from completion, the city is hoping to break ground next year on a different project that would bring near-term relief to the travelers: a $4 million makeover that includes widened sidewalks, new bike lane markings, relocation of traffic signals and pedestrian emergency gates and the elimination of the existing right-turn lane from southbound Alma to westbound Churchill.
Unlike the contentious and potentially transformative proposals that the City Council has been contemplating as part of its "grade separation" initiative, the recently proposed improvements for Alma and Churchill are moving ahead with no community resistance and — most critically — with dedicated funding. The California Public Utility Commission had identified this intersection as one that requires safety improvements, a designation that makes it eligible for federal funding from the Department of Transportation's Federal-Aid Highway Program. The city's Police Department has documented 30 collisions at the interaction of Alma and Churchill between 2016 and March 2020, according to a new report from the city's Office of Transportation.
To remedy the situation, Palo Alto's transportation staff has been working with the utility commission, the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which operates Caltrain, to design and implement the improvements. Their plan received a boost on March 31, when the city's Planning Transportation Commission voted 6-0 to endorse one of the two alternatives on the table. Both had included traffic signal changes, relocation of utility equipment and new amenities for bicyclists and pedestrians. The main difference between them was a proposal to remove the short right-turn lane on southbound Alma, effectively turning the right lane on Alma into one that is shared by through traffic and drivers who want to turn west on Churchill.
On Monday, the council will get its first chance to review the planning commission's recommendation and offer its own remarks about the proposed improvements.
During the planning commission's review, Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi underscored the major difference between the grade-separation effort and the near-term improvements that the city is working with other agencies to implement. One key difference, Kamhi said, is that the city is contractually required to advance the safety project at the intersection. Another is the project's scale and cost. While the potential closure of Churchill would cost more than $50 million (and other options significantly more) and would completely shake-up the traffic flow in the area, the newly proposed improvements would be far less drastic.
When a representative from the Palo Alto Unified School District raised concerns at the March 31 meeting about the ability of school buses to navigate the new alignment, Kamhi stressed that the proposal on the table would not eliminate any turning options.
"The closure to Churchill Avenue would prevent any buses from going through," Kamhi said. "This is really just trying to make sure that students that are trying to get across the street can do it safely and that's really the key to this project. But ... we have also had a lot of collisions at this intersection so we're trying to improve the safety at this intersection."
Some commissioners raised concerns about the proposed elimination of the right-turn lane, which would increase the delay for southbound drivers on Alma who would have to wait for right turns to occur from the outer through lanes. An analysis by Hexagon, the city's transportation consultant, concluded however that this impact could be mitigated through improvements to traffic signals.
The main change would include reducing the green-light time on Alma Street and increasing it on Churchill. Hexagon concluded that the proposed improvements would significantly decrease delays on eastbound Churchill, where car queues are a common feature during peak morning and afternoon hours.
Bart Hechtman, chair of the Planning and Transportation Commission, was initially skeptical of the proposal to eliminate the right-turn lane on Alma, noting that it may require more Alma drivers to wait for cars in front of them to turn.
"And the longer they wait, the more aggravated they get," Hechtman said. "And the more aggravated they get, the more likely they are to do something dumb or careless, and that increases the likelihood of putting either a pedestrian or a bicyclist or another car in harm's way."
He ultimately joined the rest of the commission in supporting the elimination of the turn lane, which would create more space for pedestrians and bicyclists at the intersection and reduce the crossing distance for them across Alma, according to staff. The design calls for constructing a concrete pedestrian area at the northwest corner of the intersection, widening the lanes on Alma Street north of Churchill and adding green infrastructure at the current location of the right-turn lane.
All commissioners agreed that the city should move ahead with the intersection improvements with no further delay.
"Of course, both options are good and it's just so important to make these near-term changes and improvements to safety," Commissioner Cari Templeton said. "All signs point to everybody going back to school in the fall maybe so it's exciting to think about improving that as quickly as possible."