Southgate residents see some irony in the City Council's decision to call its campaign to redesign its rail crossings "Connecting Palo Alto."
The effort, which has been slowly advancing for more than five years, includes three options for the Churchill Avenue crossing, which is just north of Southgate and which serves as the neighborhood's main conduit to cross the tracks and head east. Two of these — a viaduct and what's known as a "partial undercrossing" — feature large concrete structures along the tracks. But it's the third option — the closure of Churchill Avenue to traffic near the tracks – that many see as the most divisive of the lot.
With a price tag of between $50 million and $65 million, the closure option is the cheapest of the three and it would take the least time to implement — about two years according to an analysis by the city's consulting firm, Aecom. It would usher in a suite of traffic improvements, including a reconfiguration of the clunky interchange of Alma Street and Embarcadero Road, and it would feature an underpass for pedestrians and bicycles looking to get across the tracks. The closure alternative has also won the endorsement of the Expanded Community Advisory Panel, a specially appointed citizen committee that voted 6-3 after 18 months of deliberation to support this option.
But for resident Susan Newman, who lives in the Southgate neighborhood, the closure option — more so than other two — epitomizes division. Like dozens of her neighbors, she believes that it would direct cars to other parts of the city, most notably University South, while taking away Southgate's main route east across the tracks.
"Closure doesn't even begin to meet one of grade separation's primary objectives, to increase east-west connectivity to all modes of traffic," Newman, who spoke for a group of residents, told the council during a Monday night public hearing on the Churchill Avenue grade crossing. "It doesn't even begin to live up to the dream up of connecting Palo Alto."
She was hardly alone. Inder Monga, who lives close to Embarcadero, emphasized the heavy use that Embarcadero already gets from visitors to Stanford University, Town & Country Village and Palo Alto High School.
"Given its role, it's impossible for me to believe that shutting down an intersection nearby and redirecting cars going to Paly to Embarcadero will be resolved by mitigation. … This will not only increase traffic in Embarcadero and gridlock but in neighborhoods adjacent to Embarcadero to unreasonable and unsustainable levels," said Monga, who also spoke for a group of residents.
The Monday hearing did not bring the council any closer to its objective of choosing a preferred option for the Churchill rail crossing. With public testimony stretching well past 11 p.m., the council unanimously agreed to defer its own discussion of "grade separation" — an effort to redesign rail crossings so that roads and tracks would no longer intersect — until Nov. 15.
The hearing clearly demonstrated, however, that whatever option the city chooses would have to overcome significant opposition. Both the viaduct and the partial underpass have been criticized by XCAP for their visual impact and soundly rejected by residents who live next to the tracks. The group's final report, which was issued in March, notes that residents who own houses with their backyard adjacent to the train tracks "will experience a structure with a train running on it over 40 feet in the air."
"Because of the width of the rail corridor near Churchill, the viaduct would be constructed only a few feet from property lines, increasing the impact on the nearby properties," the report states.
The group's six-member majority also concluded that the partial underpass, which would depress Churchill west of the rail tracks and allow drivers to turn left or right on Alma, is "an expensive alternative that is unlikely to be improved with additional design iteration." The report notes that the underpass would create a "concrete structure whose roadways are more complicated than a simple underpass, due to a design that preserves some of its turns and not others."
The closure of Churchill was the only alternative that mustered majority support at XCAP, which failed to reach consensus on any of the design options for the two other rail crossings it was charged with evaluating: Meadow Drive and Charleston Road. Gregory Brail, a member of XCAP who voted in favor of Churchill's closure, called the alternative "an excellent option that would be an exemplary experience for those people who cross the tracks."
While Brail conceded that the viaduct would do a better job in connecting the city, he noted that the elevated structure would be less than 5 feet from the nearby property line. The underpass, meanwhile, would create a "concrete wall that divides the city," he said.
Several residents agreed and lobbied the council to support XCAP's recommendation. Churchill Avenue resident Jason Stinson alluded to reports from the city's traffic consultant, which suggested that the various road modifications and traffic signals that are proposed as part of this plan would mitigate its traffic impacts.
"We continue to hear from many people in the community about increased traffic congestion, but that's mostly based on their own residential observations and anecdotes," Jason Stinson said. "The actual data doesn't support that."
But others didn't buy the conclusions of the traffic study. Former Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who lives on Embarcadero Road, alleged that closing Churchill would cause "a cascade of changes that will change Palo Alto into a more expressway-oriented city by moving even more traffic to Embarcadero Road, a residential arterial already over-impacted."
Rachel and Thomas Kellerman, who also live close to Embarcadero, similarly suggested in a letter that the traffic mitigations proposed as part of the closure alternative will not be enough to protect the neighborhood from added traffic. Even XCAP, they noted, requested that the plan for Churchill include additional mitigations, beyond those recommended by the city's consultant, Hexagon Transportation Consultants.
"It is clear the mitigations proposed by the consultant have not yet been adequately studied and are likely insufficient to remedy the impact of a closure on traffic flow and bicycle and pedestrian safety. ... While a bicycle underpass at Churchill would be a welcome addition, empirical evidence indicates that that feature alone will not alleviate the hazards associated with adding substantial additional vehicular traffic to the Embarcadero corridor," the Kellermans wrote.