News

With federal funding, Palo Alto looks to revamp Alma and Churchill intersection

City Council to review plan for traffic signal modification, add space for bicyclists and pedestrians

A bicyclist waits to cross the street near the busy intersection of Churchill Avenue and Alma Street in Palo Alto, where the city is looking to add safety improvements. Embarcadero Media file photo taken Nov. 19, 2019 by Sammy Dallal.

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.

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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.

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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."

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With federal funding, Palo Alto looks to revamp Alma and Churchill intersection

City Council to review plan for traffic signal modification, add space for bicyclists and pedestrians

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Apr 28, 2021, 4:49 pm

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."

Comments

Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 28, 2021 at 5:28 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 5:28 pm

If the right turn lane on SB Alma to WB Churchill is eliminated, what happens when the gates are closed particularly for a second train? That will in effect cause right turning cars with a green light having to stop somewhere because of the closed gates and probably cause those caught behind wanting to switch lanes to get straight through. Or, am I missing something?


Allen Akin
Registered user
Professorville
on Apr 28, 2021 at 8:14 pm
Allen Akin, Professorville
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 8:14 pm

I use this intersection frequently, so I checked the Staff Report and the consultant's traffic study. The plan looks good to me; improved safety and improved traffic flow (on average).

@Bystander, I think what will happen is that drivers will stop using the right lane as a through-lane unless they can see in advance that it's clear. Pretty much the same thing that happens already when the turn lane backs up.


Sorry to hear this
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Apr 29, 2021 at 10:35 am
Sorry to hear this, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2021 at 10:35 am

I bike over Alma at Churchill all the time....I see absolutely no need for this. Ridiculous. It's as safe as any intersection with lights in this city. DON'T WASTE THE MONEY ON THIS!!


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2021 at 11:22 am
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2021 at 11:22 am

Good call for north Palo Alto commuters. I support it. South Palo Alto has been waiting for 20 years for the Charleston-Arastradero Plan to be completed (We are now 14 years past the original projected completion date). It's time to address injury collisions on the remaining untouched segments of this corridor which include intersections with the highest injury collisions, the multi-lane Middlefield and El Camino Real state highway intersections.
.
The human cost of two decades of delay in injuries and deaths is real. Anyone who has been hit by a car while biking or walking will understand why it is important to moderate auto speeds and provide continuous bike lanes and better visibility and safety for foot-powered road users on this residential arterial school commute route. Drivers, please turn off your electronic distraction devices and drive attentively within the posted speed limit. Moderating your speed gives you response time for those moments when the unexpected occurs and reduces severity of injuries in a collision.

The 85th percentile speed on this road in some segments is 38mph where the posted speed limit is 25mph. Many cities are reducing school zone posted speeds to 20mph because severity of injuries and incidence of fatalities significantly increases when cars are traveling over 25mph. On a school route that serves eleven public and private k-12 school sites, the speed data clearly shows that a majority of drivers have demonstrated through their behavior that we cannot rely on them to comply with posted speeds. The road must be redesigned to bring speeds to safe levels.

Please do not suggest the city should increase enforcement,. They cannot. State law does not allow enforcement when 85th percentile speeds exceed the posted limits. Sadly, driver behavior necessitated this project. To enable enforcement, the city has to redesign the road for the speeds we need.

Let's all walk, bike and drive responsibly.


Oh well.....
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Apr 29, 2021 at 1:11 pm
Oh well....., Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2021 at 1:11 pm

Appears the City of Palo Alto has way to much money$ in its reserves budget. Thank-you taxpayers!


Stuart Berman
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Apr 29, 2021 at 1:23 pm
Stuart Berman, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2021 at 1:23 pm

This is a great plan. I have long worried about the danger to Paly students trying to cross Alma at the end of the school day. There is just nowhere for a huge number of them to stand while waiting for the pedestrian light. This puts them at high risk from both train and car traffic. Eliminating the right turn lane on south bound Alma is the obvious solution as this lane is underutilized and right turning traffic can easily turn from one of the two through traffic lanes. Kudos to those involved in developing and supporting this solution. This is a victory for pedestrians, bikers and all Palo Altans.


No heat
Registered user
Fairmeadow
on Apr 29, 2021 at 1:34 pm
No heat, Fairmeadow
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2021 at 1:34 pm

> State law does not allow enforcement when 85th percentile speeds exceed the posted limits

You can in fact enforce a lower limit if there's an engineering study done within the past few years showing that the maximum safe speed is in fact lower. That's how Highway 17 over the mountains has an unusually low speed limit enforced. Given that we have a high-crash-frequency area, doing a study like that is likely worthwhile.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Apr 29, 2021 at 1:45 pm
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2021 at 1:45 pm

This is sorely needed. Good news in the era of COVID City zoom/distance meetings. Now how about the PA PTC, Feds push traffic calming improvements for ECR at Cal? To start: No right turn at W Cal & ECR, a timed count down crossing light, striping and Keep Clear at intersection. This intersection is factually dangerous & tragically deadly with not only visual impairments amok, the VTA 522 speeds thru to stop at WFargo or Express thru. Also having a prohibitive “No U Turn” on N. ECR at California . As a pedestrian, using Cal Ave and ECR is terrible having to navigate already narrow sidewalks strewn w the exorbitant number of nearly all empty, broken, rusty, dented, ancient newspaper kiosks. They are on almost ever block from Cambridge south to El Camino way. What’s up with this? I am guessing it’s a First Amendment thing ...“Freedom of Press” Yet there is no press in 90% of them. The unhoused conveniently use them at storage lockers. At least putting them to some form of usefulness. Too bad they are not large enough to shelter our most vulnerable living on the streets of our City! Re: CalAve Biz District: The sorry orange water casket barriers keep moving in all directions across. All are safe once inside the interior of this sectioned off “out door dining” block on CalAve. Yet anyone i.e. us residents: bicycle riders, families, small children, nannies, babies in strollers, elderly, dog walkers, young lovers, disabled (Vista Center clients) have to traverse perilously on the ECR side of the caskets. Throwing us residents to chance encounters with tons of moving metal and gas vehicles. Other cities are working w CalTrans with HWYs, why can’t we? Take a look at Old Redwood Highway in Healdsburg and Petaluma. Huge round-about infrastructure installs near their downtown shopping districts! Such a positive move to traffic flow and vehicular “slow down” improvements!! Anyway. Here’s to our next safe ECR crossing!


Hanky
Registered user
Southgate
on Apr 29, 2021 at 8:22 pm
Hanky, Southgate
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2021 at 8:22 pm

Seems a good compromise. Perhaps next is syncing CALTRAN train traffic w/cross thoroughfare PA traffic needs (vehicular, PED & cyclist). Further coordination may be required and envisioned: Traffic and Rail requirements can be better synced? It takes a "village", e.g. automatic pop-up bollard emplacement.


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