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Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale strike deal over rail funds

Cities propose divvying up Measure B funds based on number of crossings at each jurisdiction

Traffic on Alma Street passes through as a northbound Caltrain runs past the Churchill Avenue grade crossing on March 21, 2019. Photo by Veronica Weber.

In a move that they hope will boost their efforts to redesign Caltrain rail crossings, the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale have struck a deal for splitting the more than $700 million that they are entitled to under Measure B for grade separation projects.

The deal, which is detailed in a letter that the Palo Alto City Council unanimously approved Monday night, calls for splitting the funding proportionately based on the number of grade crossings in each jurisdiction. Palo Alto, which has four of the eight rail crossings in north Santa Clara County — Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill Avenue, East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road — would get 50% of the funding under this formula. Mountain View and Sunnyvale, which have two rail crossings in their respective jurisdictions, would each get 25%

Under a deal reached with Mountain View and Sunnyvale, Palo Alto would receive 50% of funds from Measure B to pay for grade separation work at its four rail crossings. Map by Kristin Brown.

The deal has yet to be ratified by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the regional transportation agency that is distributing the funds from the 2016 tax measure. But Palo Alto Vice Mayor Pat Burt and Sunnyvale Vice Mayor Glenn Hendricks, who serve on the VTA board of directors, have both come out strongly in support of the agreement. Burt told this news organization that his conversations with VTA staff have led him to believe that the agency will support the new pact.

If the VTA moves to formally endorse the formula proposed by the three cities, it would eliminate much of the financial uncertainty that has plagued the grade separation process in the three cities. While Measure B explicitly designated $700 million for grade separation at the three cities, the measure had not laid out the exact mechanism for distribution. Palo Alto staff and some members of the council had repeatedly voiced concerns about falling behind the other two cities in planning for grade separation and losing out on county funding.

The agreement between the three cities would alleviate those anxieties by ensuring that the funds would not be divvied up on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, with shovel-ready projects getting to the front of the line. Instead, each city would get its share of the funding and then determine when, where and how it would spend it.

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"The cities of Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto have collectively come to this agreement and respectfully request that VTA accept this allocation plan for the life of the current 2016 Measure B Grade Separation fund," states the letter signed by Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein, Mountain View Mayor Ellen Kamei and Palo Alto Mayor Tom DuBois. "We look forward to working with VTA on its biannual budgeting process to identify more specifically when funds are needed as each city continues with its planning and environmental review process."

The agreement was hashed out by transportation planners from the three cities, who have been meeting as part of a subcommittee of the VTA's Technical Advisory Committee, Burt said. The collaboration grew stronger after VTA staff presented a contentious scenario last November that would have effectively frozen all spending on grade separations for decade and directed more Measure B funding in the near term to expanding BART service in San Jose.

The proposal solicited widespread backlash from members of the VTA board and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, who characterized the move as a betrayal of the VTA's promise to the voters when it was seeking support for Measure B. After the VTA board voted to oppose the shifting of funding toward BART, agency staff quickly scuttled the scenario.

If the VTA goes along with this approach, Palo Alto would be entitled to more than $400 million to improve its grade crossing. The $700 million designated for grade separation was based on 2017 dollars. In January, the agency showed a scenario based on year-of-expenditure dollars in which $887 million in Measure B funds would go toward grade separation.

Burt noted that during the discussions, each of the cities believed that its particular projects would be costlier than those elsewhere. But after some initial talks of different formulas for splitting the money, they ultimately agreed that attempting to divide the funds based on prospective costs would not be a winning proposition, he said.

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Chip Taylor, public works director at Sunnyvale, said that staff from the three cities, including public works directors and transportation managers, considered various criteria, including the number of vehicles on each crossing and the multiple challenges each particular crossing faces. Each city, he told the council at the July 27 meeting, had hoped to "shift the money a little bit this way or a little bit that way."

Ultimately, they realized that all crossings have different challenges and complexities. Rather than devising criteria or ranking priorities, they agreed to split the money proportionately, based on the number of crossings.

"Let the cities deal with how they want to spend the money for their two crossings or the four crossings that they have inside their jurisdictions," Taylor said, summarizing the compromise.

Hendricks said he believes it is appropriate for the three cities to issue a recommendation on the grade separation funds. Hopefully, he said, the entire VTA board will ultimately accept this formula, he said, particularly since the agreement will not affect any other city.

"This is money that's allocated, that's only going to be used in those three cities, and those three cities should make that determination of how that is," Hendricks said at the July 27 meeting, just before the Sunnyvale City Council had voted unanimously to approve the letter.

If approved by the VTA, the agreement will both remove an important category of uncertainty in the planning process for grade separations and give each of the three cities a "big down payment" on their grade separation plans, Burt said. Each will now be able to leverage Measure B dollars to seek additional funding from regional, state and federal sources, he said.

"Measure B gave us something that's unusual, which is a major down payment that allows us, when we seek other funding, to already have a major share of the cost funded," Burt said.

Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada said at Monday's council meeting that the letter from the three mayors to the VTA solidifies the "handshake agreement" that staff from the three cities made about how the money would be spent. Mountain View is preparing to sign the letter as well, according to a report from Palo Alto's Office of Transportation.

"This will firm up the expectation that Palo Alto would receive 50% of that overall ($700 million) allocated for grade separation in the north county," Shikada said.

Meanwhile, Palo Alto is preparing to continue its discussion on grade separation alternatives on Aug. 23, when the council will be reviewing alternatives for the East Meadow and Charleston crossings.

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Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

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Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale strike deal over rail funds

Cities propose divvying up Measure B funds based on number of crossings at each jurisdiction

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Aug 11, 2021, 1:16 pm

In a move that they hope will boost their efforts to redesign Caltrain rail crossings, the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale have struck a deal for splitting the more than $700 million that they are entitled to under Measure B for grade separation projects.

The deal, which is detailed in a letter that the Palo Alto City Council unanimously approved Monday night, calls for splitting the funding proportionately based on the number of grade crossings in each jurisdiction. Palo Alto, which has four of the eight rail crossings in north Santa Clara County — Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill Avenue, East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road — would get 50% of the funding under this formula. Mountain View and Sunnyvale, which have two rail crossings in their respective jurisdictions, would each get 25%

The deal has yet to be ratified by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the regional transportation agency that is distributing the funds from the 2016 tax measure. But Palo Alto Vice Mayor Pat Burt and Sunnyvale Vice Mayor Glenn Hendricks, who serve on the VTA board of directors, have both come out strongly in support of the agreement. Burt told this news organization that his conversations with VTA staff have led him to believe that the agency will support the new pact.

If the VTA moves to formally endorse the formula proposed by the three cities, it would eliminate much of the financial uncertainty that has plagued the grade separation process in the three cities. While Measure B explicitly designated $700 million for grade separation at the three cities, the measure had not laid out the exact mechanism for distribution. Palo Alto staff and some members of the council had repeatedly voiced concerns about falling behind the other two cities in planning for grade separation and losing out on county funding.

The agreement between the three cities would alleviate those anxieties by ensuring that the funds would not be divvied up on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, with shovel-ready projects getting to the front of the line. Instead, each city would get its share of the funding and then determine when, where and how it would spend it.

"The cities of Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto have collectively come to this agreement and respectfully request that VTA accept this allocation plan for the life of the current 2016 Measure B Grade Separation fund," states the letter signed by Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein, Mountain View Mayor Ellen Kamei and Palo Alto Mayor Tom DuBois. "We look forward to working with VTA on its biannual budgeting process to identify more specifically when funds are needed as each city continues with its planning and environmental review process."

The agreement was hashed out by transportation planners from the three cities, who have been meeting as part of a subcommittee of the VTA's Technical Advisory Committee, Burt said. The collaboration grew stronger after VTA staff presented a contentious scenario last November that would have effectively frozen all spending on grade separations for decade and directed more Measure B funding in the near term to expanding BART service in San Jose.

The proposal solicited widespread backlash from members of the VTA board and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, who characterized the move as a betrayal of the VTA's promise to the voters when it was seeking support for Measure B. After the VTA board voted to oppose the shifting of funding toward BART, agency staff quickly scuttled the scenario.

If the VTA goes along with this approach, Palo Alto would be entitled to more than $400 million to improve its grade crossing. The $700 million designated for grade separation was based on 2017 dollars. In January, the agency showed a scenario based on year-of-expenditure dollars in which $887 million in Measure B funds would go toward grade separation.

Burt noted that during the discussions, each of the cities believed that its particular projects would be costlier than those elsewhere. But after some initial talks of different formulas for splitting the money, they ultimately agreed that attempting to divide the funds based on prospective costs would not be a winning proposition, he said.

Chip Taylor, public works director at Sunnyvale, said that staff from the three cities, including public works directors and transportation managers, considered various criteria, including the number of vehicles on each crossing and the multiple challenges each particular crossing faces. Each city, he told the council at the July 27 meeting, had hoped to "shift the money a little bit this way or a little bit that way."

Ultimately, they realized that all crossings have different challenges and complexities. Rather than devising criteria or ranking priorities, they agreed to split the money proportionately, based on the number of crossings.

"Let the cities deal with how they want to spend the money for their two crossings or the four crossings that they have inside their jurisdictions," Taylor said, summarizing the compromise.

Hendricks said he believes it is appropriate for the three cities to issue a recommendation on the grade separation funds. Hopefully, he said, the entire VTA board will ultimately accept this formula, he said, particularly since the agreement will not affect any other city.

"This is money that's allocated, that's only going to be used in those three cities, and those three cities should make that determination of how that is," Hendricks said at the July 27 meeting, just before the Sunnyvale City Council had voted unanimously to approve the letter.

If approved by the VTA, the agreement will both remove an important category of uncertainty in the planning process for grade separations and give each of the three cities a "big down payment" on their grade separation plans, Burt said. Each will now be able to leverage Measure B dollars to seek additional funding from regional, state and federal sources, he said.

"Measure B gave us something that's unusual, which is a major down payment that allows us, when we seek other funding, to already have a major share of the cost funded," Burt said.

Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada said at Monday's council meeting that the letter from the three mayors to the VTA solidifies the "handshake agreement" that staff from the three cities made about how the money would be spent. Mountain View is preparing to sign the letter as well, according to a report from Palo Alto's Office of Transportation.

"This will firm up the expectation that Palo Alto would receive 50% of that overall ($700 million) allocated for grade separation in the north county," Shikada said.

Meanwhile, Palo Alto is preparing to continue its discussion on grade separation alternatives on Aug. 23, when the council will be reviewing alternatives for the East Meadow and Charleston crossings.

Comments

Jim
Registered user
another community
on Aug 11, 2021 at 2:05 pm
Jim, another community
Registered user
on Aug 11, 2021 at 2:05 pm

So the smallest and richest of the three communities, which is attempting to fix the least of that area's traffic impacts will get half of the funds. And Sunnyvale, representing more population, taxpayers, and commuters than the other two cities combined, only gets a quarter of the funds.

Brilliant. And typical.


JR
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Aug 11, 2021 at 3:40 pm
JR, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Aug 11, 2021 at 3:40 pm

This is more than enough money for two pedestrian / bike bridges in South Palo Alto (one close to Charleston, one close to Meadow / Loma Verde) and improvements to the Cal Ave tunnel (maybe replace it with an overpass). Not one dime of this should be spent studying or building an elevated freeway for trains. With climate change approaching, we need to encourage people to get out of cars, which means not wasting money on infrastructure to support polluting motor vehicles.


Jeremy Erman
Registered user
Midtown
on Aug 11, 2021 at 3:56 pm
Jeremy Erman, Midtown
Registered user
on Aug 11, 2021 at 3:56 pm

This seems like a very equitable solution. The money can only be spent for rail crossings, not other transportation projects, so basing the money on the number of crossings each city must deal with is a good solution.


Jim
Registered user
another community
on Aug 11, 2021 at 4:26 pm
Jim, another community
Registered user
on Aug 11, 2021 at 4:26 pm

Jeremy+Erman, you're literally arguing that the money be spent in the way that generates the least bang for the buck and does the absolute least to reduce regional congestion.

If there was sufficient money to fund all projects, that approach would make sense. With less than half the money needed to fund the proposed projects, it doesn't, not at all.


Jeremy Erman
Registered user
Midtown
on Aug 11, 2021 at 6:21 pm
Jeremy Erman, Midtown
Registered user
on Aug 11, 2021 at 6:21 pm

Jim, with all respect, I don't know what you're talking about. What does this have to do with "congestion?"

The article says there are $700 million dollars available from Measure B for grade separation at railroad crossings in Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and Palo Alto. There are eight crossings between the three cities. Officials in the three cities have agreed to split the money equally between each city's share of the crossings, so Palo Alto gets half for its four crossings, and Mountain View and Sunnyvale each get 25% for their respective two crossings.

Everyone knows that the $700 million isn't enough to cover the full cost of all eight crossings, but dividing the money relatively equally (each city is of course free to spend more or less on any particular crossing in their city) gives everyone reliable "seed money" to start the process of rebuilding the crossings and seek additional funding sources.

If you think this relatively equal division of funds between the eight crossings is inefficient, how would you divide the $700 million between the three cities to get more "bang for the buck?"


Jim
Registered user
another community
on Aug 11, 2021 at 6:41 pm
Jim, another community
Registered user
on Aug 11, 2021 at 6:41 pm

It's pretty simple. Without grade separations, the frequent traversal of HSR trains will CONSIDERABLY increase traffic congestion by stopping traffic every 6-10 minutes. That's why funding was allocated for grade separations in the first place - HSR will increase traffic congestion around any location without grade separations. And the "seed money" isn't meaningful - cities aren't going to be able to fill in the gaps with large amounts of funding elsewhere. They can't raise the 60% or more in additional funds that would be required for each one. So they're not going to build all 8 proposed grade separations. They'll simply do one of two for MV and Sunnyvale, and 2 of 4 in PA, and leave the others un-done.

All three parties knew that the available funding means that only half of the 8 would actually get done. That's why the fight over the funds was so long and protracted.

There are 8 grade separations proposed, with radically different traffic flows on them. An individual PA crossing encounters relatively low traffic. The Mary/Evelyn crossing in Sunnyvale represents the greatest traffic impact of the 8 (probably more than any other 3 crossings combined), since it's a high volume collector. It should have been a priority for the largest chunk of change, since it will directly impact SR-85 traffic. Money should be divided according to the potential for mitigating traffic congestion, not by the number of separations proposed. Bang for the buck, not "size of the wish list".

These are taxpayer funds. It's totally reasonable to expect it will be spent where it will accomplish the greatest result. And that's not happening here, since the greatest result is the greatest reduction in congestion caused by train crossings interfering with car traffic.


Jim
Registered user
another community
on Aug 11, 2021 at 6:42 pm
Jim, another community
Registered user
on Aug 11, 2021 at 6:42 pm

If you want a specific metric to use to divide the funds, then trips per crossing per day would be equitable, while addressing "bang for the buck".


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Aug 12, 2021 at 1:26 am
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Aug 12, 2021 at 1:26 am

What portion of Palo Alto's $350 million share has already been spent on consultants, engineering firms, studies and wheel spinning? After several years at the drawing board, there is still no viable concept for grade separation in Palo Alto other than the fatally flawed idea to close Churchill Ave.

Has anyone seen a preliminary HSR timetable? I haven't. The notion of an HSR train every 6 - 10 minutes is folly. Amtrak has one northbound and one southbound train per day. If time is of the essence, people fly between northern and southern CA.

Caltrain ridership is down roughly 90% as people have learned to work from home.

Believe the P.R. if you will, but it's still P.R.


William Hitchens
Registered user
Mountain View
on Aug 12, 2021 at 12:33 pm
William Hitchens, Mountain View
Registered user
on Aug 12, 2021 at 12:33 pm

Why is Mountain View getting 1/4 of the money when the City Council is dead set upon closing the Castro crossing, leaving it with only one crossing at Rengstorff? In truth, a grade separation crossing at Castro would be EXTREMELY difficult to approve and build because it would impinge upon the existing Caltrain and Light Rail stations AND also at least the first block of Castro St in downtown MV.

Also, I don't think we'll see HSR "crawling" up the Southern Pacific/Peninsula Commute tracks anytime during our lifetimes unless it's in a tunnel or a trench --- which is impossibly difficult and expensive. The legal and logistical problems are just too great for HSR to be even remotely viable in SC Valley and on the Peninsula. The sole legitimate rationale for grade separation crossings is to eliminate a huge increase in traffic congestion for at-grade crossings when Caltrain is electrified and it doubles (well, that's the plan) its number of trains per day.


Jeremy Erman
Registered user
Midtown
on Aug 12, 2021 at 6:07 pm
Jeremy Erman, Midtown
Registered user
on Aug 12, 2021 at 6:07 pm

William Hitchens, I believe Mountain View still plans to build a grade separated crossing at Castro street, but with an underpass for bikes and pedestrians only, not cars.


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Aug 14, 2021 at 12:30 am
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Aug 14, 2021 at 12:30 am

Grade separation in Palo Alto has been studied to death, taking many years and costing a couple of million dollars.

After all the consultants, engineering firms and even private citizens have finished spinning their wheels, it is clear that there is no design that pleases everybody and meets all of the necessary requirements. I am convinced the most viable solution is to leave everything as it has been for 150+ years. Add quad gates at the crossings at a fraction of the cost.

The most practical option is a viaduct, but it would never fly with residents. A viaduct would be big and imposing and way out of place along the ROW. It would look into back yards of residences. Two stations would have to be modified to access the elevated trains. It would pose a seismic risk. A viaduct would likely face such resistance among residents that it would likely die at the ballot box when it came time to vote on funding.

Closing Churchill Avenue is the worst idea of all, as it would be counter to the very thing grade separation is supposed to accomplish: to facilitate, not impede, crossing the RR tracks. It would only force traffic congestion into surrounding neighborhoods.

Palo Alto has been suckered into believing the pie-in-the-sky P.R. put out by Caltrain and CAHSR. 10 trains per hour? Yeah, right. People are working from home now and Caltrain ridership is down by roughly 90%.

CPA could spend another 30 years studying grade separation but the fundamentals will remain unchanged.


Jeremy Erman
Registered user
Midtown
on Aug 14, 2021 at 1:16 am
Jeremy Erman, Midtown
Registered user
on Aug 14, 2021 at 1:16 am

If it was up to me, I'd leave the crossings mostly the way they are, but the politicians are obsessed with "grade separation crossings" to accompany electrification. At one point they made it sound like this was because of the dangers of electrocution, but the connectors, as far as I know, will be on poles high in the air, not an electrified "third rail" on the ground.

Money seems to be the main hindrance to rebuilding the crossings, except that I don't think anyone has a practical solution for creating grade separation at Palo Alto Avenue--a narrow bridge crosses the creek through the El Palo Alto Park, and how could anyone redesign or even widen the crossing without destroying the creek and the park?

Oops.


CGPA
Registered user
Downtown North
on Aug 15, 2021 at 9:24 pm
CGPA, Downtown North
Registered user
on Aug 15, 2021 at 9:24 pm

Everyone reading this will be dead before Palo Alto so much as changes a single bolt at any of its crossings. The residents want something that is impossible to afford, namely a $100 Billion trench that has as much chance of being built as a freeway to Mars.

As a result, the city will award numerous consulting contracts to well connected consultants for the purpose of studying a trench. The consultants will kick back half of what they receive to the council members reelection campaign funds. Then, surprise, the money will run out. Until the next time, when the exact same thing will happen.

The residents will be delighted that the council is studying a trench, as if the $100 Billion cost will be magically discovered on a shelf somewhere, any day now. As a result, no one will worry about the fact that all $350 million will be gone without a single thing to show for it.


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Aug 16, 2021 at 10:18 am
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Aug 16, 2021 at 10:18 am

If Caltrain is smart they will unilaterally say "no" to a trench.

If a Palo Alto rail trench were to become flooded with rain water during a heavy storm, the trains won't move and Caltrain will be immobilized. Pumps do fail, and there is no natural drainage along the ROW. CPA has a poor record of keeping its auto underpasses dry.

Burlingame studied the possibility of submerging the trains and ultimately abandoned the idea.


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