News

New bike tunnels eyed as part of Palo Alto's ambitious rail redesign

As plans advance, city is considering new bicycle and pedestrian underpasses at Seale Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road

While Palo Alto's decisions about how to reconfigure its rail crossings are still months if not years in the future, the City Council is nonetheless queuing up plans to build underpasses for pedestrians and bicyclists first so that they'll be able to cross under the tracks even as work progresses on the ambitious roadway-redesign projects.

The ultimate goal of Palo Alto's grade separation effort is clear — rebuild the rail crossings so that tracks and roads would no longer intersect — but the exact locations, configurations and scopes the new road and bike amenities are still being hashed out, subject to community input, council review and approval from Caltrain, which owns the tracks.

This week, two options, one for Churchill Avenue and one for Meadow Drive and Charleston Road, appear to be pulling ahead. In both cases, the designs call for leaving the railroad tracks in their existing locations and building new underpasses for cars, bicycles and pedestrians under the tracks. Both are also relatively recent options that were pitched by local residents and that are now being further refined by staff and consultants. And the council is looking in both cases at starting with the bike/pedestrian underpasses.

"We've come to recognize there's a good chance we'd want to go with a bike and pedestrian crossing here, and perhaps down south, preceding the vehicular crossing," committee Chair Pat Burt said during a Tuesday, May 23, discussion of the Churchill Avenue grade crossing. "So that it's in place so that bikes and pedestrians continue to have full access when we do vehicular construction."

The new bike underpasses will also be explored as part of the city's update to its Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan, which is set to kick off later this year and take about 18 months to complete, according to Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi.

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Over the past several years, the city has entertained as many as 30 design concepts for its rail crossings. But finally, the city's vision for what the new roadways and bikeways may look like is starting to become less abstract and more concrete.

One idea that picked up momentum at the council Rail Committee's meeting on Tuesday is construction of a bike underpass at Seale Avenue as part of a "partial underpass" that the city is envisioning for Churchill. The council last year chose the Churchill underpass, which submerges Churchill west of the tracks and allows cars to turn onto Alma Street, over two other previously considered options: a soaring viaduct and the complete closure of Churchill to cars west of the tracks (the closure remains a backup option, should the underpass prove to be infeasible).

To retain access for bicyclists and pedestrians looking to cross the tracks during the construction period, the city is now looking at building a bike tunnel that would stretch along Seale and end at Peers Park. The east ramp for the bike tunnel would begin on Seale about 215 feet east of Alma. The underpass would then terminate in a location next to the Peers Park's tennis courts. The city still needs to figure out ways to connect the ramp to Park Boulevard, the main bicycle route in the area south of Paly.

The idea for the Seale bike path picked up steam this week when the Rail Committee unanimously agreed that this alternative is superior to another previously considered option: a bike underpass at Kellogg Avenue. The Kellogg option, which staff has been analyzing for well over a year, is now on the verge of being scrapped after staff and consultants determined that it would be far more complex to construct because of its location next to the Palo Alto High football field. The western portion of Kellogg ramp would effectively cut into the space currently occupied by bleachers on the field.

After hearing presentations on the two options, all three committee members agreed that Seale is by far the better choice, notwithstanding unanswered questions about how the path would connect to existing roads west of the tracks.

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"There's a lot more flexibility with this than with the Kellogg (underpass) but also with that flexibility there's not the path right there that you'd connect to," Kamhi said. "You'd really want to get over to Park."

How south Palo Alto plan is shaping up

A different debate is occurring in south Palo Alto, where the council is plotting new bike and pedestrian paths near the Meadow and Charleston crossings, which are being evaluated in tandem. The plan that city is currently considering envisions a single two-way bike underpass on the south side of Meadow and another one on the north side of Charleston.

The city had also considered another alternative — building bikeways on both sides of Meadow and Charleston — though that option now looks unlikely to move forward. A new study by Hexagon Transportation Consultants, the city's consultant for grade separation, concluded that this alternative "would not be able to adequately accommodate existing or future vehicle traffic."

Gary Black of Hexagon told the committee Tuesday that from a traffic-flow standpoint, building two bike paths on either side of Meadow and Charleston would create massive delays. That's because the bike improvements would require the city to prohibit various vehicular turns at the intersections of the two streets with Alma. These include the southbound off-ramp and northbound on-ramps on Alma at East Meadow and the southbound on-ramp on Alma at Charleston.

These changes, according to Hexagon's model, would push more traffic on to Charleston because cars on Meadow that would otherwise turn on Alma would now take Charleston to make the turn.

Furthermore, traffic going east on Charleston would no longer be able to turn left onto Alma to turn north. Rather, cars would need to cross Alma, make a U-turn at a roundabout and then make a right turn at the Alma and Charleston.

"The resulting increase in traffic on the connecting ramps on Charleston would just completely overwhelm the capacity of this design," Black said.

The Meadow underpass allows east-west car traffic on Meadow (shown in purple) to cross under the train tracks. Bicycles and pedestrians would get their own paths (shown in pink). Courtesy Aecom/city of Palo Alto.

The underpasses at Charleston and Meadow constitute one of three alternatives that the city is still considering for grade separation in south Palo Alto. Other options that remain in the mix are a trench and a "hybrid" design that includes raising the tracks and lowering roads.

The trench alternative, while popular among many residents, is by far the most expensive option on the table, with an estimated price tag of about $950 million. It would also require the city to obtain permission from various regulatory agencies to divert Adobe and Barron creeks and from Caltrain to build the trench at 2% grade (Caltrain's preferred maximum grade is 1%).

The hybrid option is estimated to cost about $230 million, though some of its design elements — namely elevation of trains — has made it less palatable to residents in neighborhoods near the tracks.

The Rail Committee, which consists of Burt and council members Ed Lauing and Vicki Veenker, discussed the refined plans for the underpasses near Churchill, Meadow and Charleston and unanimously agreed to forward them to Caltrain for review. The committee also voted to favor the Seale bike and pedestrian crossing over the Kellogg one and supported adding a 4-foot-tall landscaped buffer zone between the sidewalk and Alma near Churchill. And given Hexagon's recent findings, members opted not to change the single-path configurations of the bike and pedestrian underpasses at the southernmost rail crossings.

Will construction be at 'a date uncertain'?

Even as Palo Alto continues to chisel away at the details in each of the city's grade-separation alternatives, it remains unclear when construction on the colossal project would actually kick off, how much it would cost and how long it would take.

Funding remains a big question mark. While the passage of Measure B in 2020 is expected to bring about $350 million to Palo Alto for construction, this is unlikely to cover grade separations at all four of the city's rail crossing.

Furthermore, the council has yet to kick off the planning process for its northernmost crossing at Palo Alto Avenue, choosing to lump it in with a broader downtown study that is not expected to start at least for another year.

That said, the city is hoping that its newly developed concepts will bring it closer to its ultimate goal of separating tracks from all city streets. Doing so is essential to accommodating more frequent Caltrain service that would result from the agency's current electrification project, and potentially, California high-speed rail service.

To further this effort, the council unanimously approved on May 22 a service agreement with Caltrain that would enable the transit agency to review Palo Alto's plans as they are being developed and ensure that they comply with Caltrain's regulations and design standards.

The agreement, which requires Palo Alto to pay $106,677 to Caltrain, is the first of what is expected to be a series of deals between the city and the agency as they work to refine plans for grade separation. The new service agreement would terminate at the end of 2024, after which time the city and the agency would likely enter into a new contract for collaboration on design reviews, budget development and requests for proposals for advancing the project, according to the agreement.

"It is assumed by the parties that the City of Palo Alto and Caltrain will collaboratively develop future scopes of work to reach consensus on the work needed to advance the project to the next phase," the service agreement states.

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Gennady Sheyner
 
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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New bike tunnels eyed as part of Palo Alto's ambitious rail redesign

As plans advance, city is considering new bicycle and pedestrian underpasses at Seale Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, May 24, 2023, 5:35 pm

While Palo Alto's decisions about how to reconfigure its rail crossings are still months if not years in the future, the City Council is nonetheless queuing up plans to build underpasses for pedestrians and bicyclists first so that they'll be able to cross under the tracks even as work progresses on the ambitious roadway-redesign projects.

The ultimate goal of Palo Alto's grade separation effort is clear — rebuild the rail crossings so that tracks and roads would no longer intersect — but the exact locations, configurations and scopes the new road and bike amenities are still being hashed out, subject to community input, council review and approval from Caltrain, which owns the tracks.

This week, two options, one for Churchill Avenue and one for Meadow Drive and Charleston Road, appear to be pulling ahead. In both cases, the designs call for leaving the railroad tracks in their existing locations and building new underpasses for cars, bicycles and pedestrians under the tracks. Both are also relatively recent options that were pitched by local residents and that are now being further refined by staff and consultants. And the council is looking in both cases at starting with the bike/pedestrian underpasses.

"We've come to recognize there's a good chance we'd want to go with a bike and pedestrian crossing here, and perhaps down south, preceding the vehicular crossing," committee Chair Pat Burt said during a Tuesday, May 23, discussion of the Churchill Avenue grade crossing. "So that it's in place so that bikes and pedestrians continue to have full access when we do vehicular construction."

The new bike underpasses will also be explored as part of the city's update to its Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan, which is set to kick off later this year and take about 18 months to complete, according to Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi.

Over the past several years, the city has entertained as many as 30 design concepts for its rail crossings. But finally, the city's vision for what the new roadways and bikeways may look like is starting to become less abstract and more concrete.

One idea that picked up momentum at the council Rail Committee's meeting on Tuesday is construction of a bike underpass at Seale Avenue as part of a "partial underpass" that the city is envisioning for Churchill. The council last year chose the Churchill underpass, which submerges Churchill west of the tracks and allows cars to turn onto Alma Street, over two other previously considered options: a soaring viaduct and the complete closure of Churchill to cars west of the tracks (the closure remains a backup option, should the underpass prove to be infeasible).

To retain access for bicyclists and pedestrians looking to cross the tracks during the construction period, the city is now looking at building a bike tunnel that would stretch along Seale and end at Peers Park. The east ramp for the bike tunnel would begin on Seale about 215 feet east of Alma. The underpass would then terminate in a location next to the Peers Park's tennis courts. The city still needs to figure out ways to connect the ramp to Park Boulevard, the main bicycle route in the area south of Paly.

The idea for the Seale bike path picked up steam this week when the Rail Committee unanimously agreed that this alternative is superior to another previously considered option: a bike underpass at Kellogg Avenue. The Kellogg option, which staff has been analyzing for well over a year, is now on the verge of being scrapped after staff and consultants determined that it would be far more complex to construct because of its location next to the Palo Alto High football field. The western portion of Kellogg ramp would effectively cut into the space currently occupied by bleachers on the field.

After hearing presentations on the two options, all three committee members agreed that Seale is by far the better choice, notwithstanding unanswered questions about how the path would connect to existing roads west of the tracks.

"There's a lot more flexibility with this than with the Kellogg (underpass) but also with that flexibility there's not the path right there that you'd connect to," Kamhi said. "You'd really want to get over to Park."

How south Palo Alto plan is shaping up

A different debate is occurring in south Palo Alto, where the council is plotting new bike and pedestrian paths near the Meadow and Charleston crossings, which are being evaluated in tandem. The plan that city is currently considering envisions a single two-way bike underpass on the south side of Meadow and another one on the north side of Charleston.

The city had also considered another alternative — building bikeways on both sides of Meadow and Charleston — though that option now looks unlikely to move forward. A new study by Hexagon Transportation Consultants, the city's consultant for grade separation, concluded that this alternative "would not be able to adequately accommodate existing or future vehicle traffic."

Gary Black of Hexagon told the committee Tuesday that from a traffic-flow standpoint, building two bike paths on either side of Meadow and Charleston would create massive delays. That's because the bike improvements would require the city to prohibit various vehicular turns at the intersections of the two streets with Alma. These include the southbound off-ramp and northbound on-ramps on Alma at East Meadow and the southbound on-ramp on Alma at Charleston.

These changes, according to Hexagon's model, would push more traffic on to Charleston because cars on Meadow that would otherwise turn on Alma would now take Charleston to make the turn.

Furthermore, traffic going east on Charleston would no longer be able to turn left onto Alma to turn north. Rather, cars would need to cross Alma, make a U-turn at a roundabout and then make a right turn at the Alma and Charleston.

"The resulting increase in traffic on the connecting ramps on Charleston would just completely overwhelm the capacity of this design," Black said.

The underpasses at Charleston and Meadow constitute one of three alternatives that the city is still considering for grade separation in south Palo Alto. Other options that remain in the mix are a trench and a "hybrid" design that includes raising the tracks and lowering roads.

The trench alternative, while popular among many residents, is by far the most expensive option on the table, with an estimated price tag of about $950 million. It would also require the city to obtain permission from various regulatory agencies to divert Adobe and Barron creeks and from Caltrain to build the trench at 2% grade (Caltrain's preferred maximum grade is 1%).

The hybrid option is estimated to cost about $230 million, though some of its design elements — namely elevation of trains — has made it less palatable to residents in neighborhoods near the tracks.

The Rail Committee, which consists of Burt and council members Ed Lauing and Vicki Veenker, discussed the refined plans for the underpasses near Churchill, Meadow and Charleston and unanimously agreed to forward them to Caltrain for review. The committee also voted to favor the Seale bike and pedestrian crossing over the Kellogg one and supported adding a 4-foot-tall landscaped buffer zone between the sidewalk and Alma near Churchill. And given Hexagon's recent findings, members opted not to change the single-path configurations of the bike and pedestrian underpasses at the southernmost rail crossings.

Will construction be at 'a date uncertain'?

Even as Palo Alto continues to chisel away at the details in each of the city's grade-separation alternatives, it remains unclear when construction on the colossal project would actually kick off, how much it would cost and how long it would take.

Funding remains a big question mark. While the passage of Measure B in 2020 is expected to bring about $350 million to Palo Alto for construction, this is unlikely to cover grade separations at all four of the city's rail crossing.

Furthermore, the council has yet to kick off the planning process for its northernmost crossing at Palo Alto Avenue, choosing to lump it in with a broader downtown study that is not expected to start at least for another year.

That said, the city is hoping that its newly developed concepts will bring it closer to its ultimate goal of separating tracks from all city streets. Doing so is essential to accommodating more frequent Caltrain service that would result from the agency's current electrification project, and potentially, California high-speed rail service.

To further this effort, the council unanimously approved on May 22 a service agreement with Caltrain that would enable the transit agency to review Palo Alto's plans as they are being developed and ensure that they comply with Caltrain's regulations and design standards.

The agreement, which requires Palo Alto to pay $106,677 to Caltrain, is the first of what is expected to be a series of deals between the city and the agency as they work to refine plans for grade separation. The new service agreement would terminate at the end of 2024, after which time the city and the agency would likely enter into a new contract for collaboration on design reviews, budget development and requests for proposals for advancing the project, according to the agreement.

"It is assumed by the parties that the City of Palo Alto and Caltrain will collaboratively develop future scopes of work to reach consensus on the work needed to advance the project to the next phase," the service agreement states.

Comments

Paly Grad
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 24, 2023 at 5:57 pm
Paly Grad, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on May 24, 2023 at 5:57 pm

The Seale Avenue bicycle underpass is a great idea. I hope it gets built! This will provide a much safer bicycle route to Paly!


Donald
Registered user
South of Midtown
on May 24, 2023 at 7:13 pm
Donald, South of Midtown
Registered user
on May 24, 2023 at 7:13 pm

The underpass designs for Charleston and East Meadow are a nightmare for pedestrians and bicyclists. They take people out of their way with significant elevation gains and losses that will be hard on pedestrians and people in wheelchairs. They mix all speeds of non-motorized traffic, including small children, elderly pedestrians, all speeds of bicyclists and e-bikers on narrow paths with lots of bends and poor sight lines. And since the paths are only on one side of the road, everyone traveling on the other side will have to cross at an uncontrolled crosswalk to get to the path and cross again at the other end. This idiotic plan was clearly not designed by anyone who is experienced at designing pedestrian and bicycle facilities. The consultants hired by the city for this project are completely unqualified to be designing something like this, and I am appalled that the process is going so badly. Unfortunately, the City Council members on this committee seem equally clueless about how bad the designs are despite having tons of highly negative comments from the public.


Brian
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on May 24, 2023 at 9:35 pm
Brian, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on May 24, 2023 at 9:35 pm

Well, Donald. I'm not sure I agree that it will be a nightmare - just a bit inconvenient to have to go slightly down hill and then back up again. But I agree that the interchanges appear to be poorly designed. I'm amazed that (according to this article) that all northbound traffic on Alma will have to turn right on Charleston, go a couple of blocks to a roundabout near Mumford, do a U-turn, return to Alma, and then turn right on Alma. I'm certain that can't be correct, but the article repeats that description a couple of times. And assuming the Meadow interchange is a twin of the Charleston interchange, will the same be true there? Yikes!


Infuriating!
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 24, 2023 at 11:16 pm
Infuriating!, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on May 24, 2023 at 11:16 pm

Pedestrian Underpasses are terrifying for women and children. Look At what recently happened at the the shark underpass to Cal Ave. these are terrifying options that keep many of us unable to use them. If you go this route, please do consider live cameras at all times with emergency call bottoms to police.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 24, 2023 at 11:46 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on May 24, 2023 at 11:46 pm

"Funding remains a big question mark. While the passage of Measure B in 2020 is expected to bring about $350 million to Palo Alto for construction, this is unlikely to cover grade separations at all four of the city's rail crossing."

And just today there were articles about how Newsom's new budget won't be funding transit due to the state's growing deficit and about how ridership continues to tank and how weekend service has been shut off as an example od the other anticipated service cutbacks...


Neilson Buchanan
Registered user
Downtown North
on May 25, 2023 at 1:15 am
Neilson Buchanan, Downtown North
Registered user
on May 25, 2023 at 1:15 am

A community in the long run is defined by what it accomplishes. These plans continues to evolve and improve; however, the ulitimate goal is not planning. The goal is doing.

Palo Alto and its transportation agency partners can be more open about their respective responsibilities to deliver results on credible timelines. Who can present a credible timeline for one bike underpass or one grade crossing?


Donald
Registered user
South of Midtown
on May 25, 2023 at 8:21 am
Donald, South of Midtown
Registered user
on May 25, 2023 at 8:21 am

Brian,
Going down and up is a minor issue for most people, but can require significant effort for a wheelchair user. Also, crossing a busy street twice at uncontrolled crosswalks is more than an inconvenience. It is downright dangerous. The viaduct option, which seems to be off the table now, is flat and can have pedestrian and bike traffic on both sides, with no crossings. Much safer and more convenient.


funky
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 25, 2023 at 10:29 am
funky, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 25, 2023 at 10:29 am

Any of these tunnels (or underpasses) are a nightmare for pedestrians, especially when they are called “Bike Tunnels” by the media. Pedestrians are second class citizens in this city. If you want to see for yourself, just take a look at pedestrians being run down by bike riders in the CA Ave underpass or watching pedestrians being ignored by bike riders when crossing the street in the crosswalk. The riders are supposed to dismount when encountering a pedestrian in the underpass and stop at a stop sign at an intersection… especially if there is a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Why is there no enforcement of the laws protecting pedestrians? If there is going to be no enforcement, how about adding the pedestrian tunnel?


Eva_PA
Registered user
Ventura
on May 25, 2023 at 10:46 am
Eva_PA, Ventura
Registered user
on May 25, 2023 at 10:46 am

Yikes. No turning on Alma from either Meadow or Charleston/Arastradero? In addition to making it difficult for neighbors to navigate our town, this would cut off commuters coming to Palo Alto to work. There are only 2 exits for commuters to come in to Palo Alto, University and Arastradero. Now we want to take that stopped morning traffic on Arastradero and force drivers to use a roundabout? Please no.


staying home
Registered user
Crescent Park
on May 25, 2023 at 11:34 am
staying home, Crescent Park
Registered user
on May 25, 2023 at 11:34 am

I frequent the Cal Ave underpass, have never seen a collision or rude encounter between pedestrian and cyclist. Why would we leave an irrational fear that isn't happening today slow progress? As for wheelchair access, what is preferable, crossing Alma on a timed light with rail traffic, commuter traffic, and rush hour? Or a separated tunnel?

Please don't let perfection be the enemy of progress.


Resident
Registered user
Community Center
on May 25, 2023 at 2:39 pm
Resident, Community Center
Registered user
on May 25, 2023 at 2:39 pm

The plans for the bike and pedestrian underpasses are for 20 foot wide tunnels to safely accommodate bikes and pedestrians. And their slope is planned to be gentle. The Cal Ave underpass is a very old and outdated design that is not a relevant comparison to what is being planned today.


Gary
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on May 26, 2023 at 5:10 am
Gary, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on May 26, 2023 at 5:10 am

Be easier and less destructive to the community to trench the train tracks. [Portion removed.]


Reality Check
Registered user
another community
on May 26, 2023 at 6:31 pm
Reality Check, another community
Registered user
on May 26, 2023 at 6:31 pm

All of this proposed permanent & flood-prone Rube Goldbergian bike ped-hostile underpass nonsense could be avoided with a viaduct that gets the soon-to-be far quieter electric trains completely and safely up and out of the way of surface-level human & vehicular movement and activity, creating new “activatable” and community-connecting/usable open space underneath as seen with the Ohlone Greenway between North Berkeley and El Cerrito:

Web Link

… and other modern RR viaducts as seen in the massive Melbourne (Australia) “Level Crossings” grade separation project:

Web Link
Web Link


Resident11
Registered user
Fairmeadow
on May 26, 2023 at 7:03 pm
Resident11, Fairmeadow
Registered user
on May 26, 2023 at 7:03 pm

Indeed, there is a lovely viaduct with a bike path and green space at the San Antonio crossing.

Just kidding about the lovely part. In reality you will find only ample amounts of trash, weeds, and spray paint, plus the occasional homeless or addict nodding off.


Donald
Registered user
South of Midtown
on May 26, 2023 at 9:54 pm
Donald, South of Midtown
Registered user
on May 26, 2023 at 9:54 pm

Maybe we could choose the viaduct option and have a design contest the way they did with the bridge over 101!

For those who don't remember, the design contest there set the project back by years. The choice arrived at after the design contest had environmental issues and was way too expensive so they had to start from scratch. The delays were quite costly, too. It was finally built but it could have been done faster and cheaper if the City Council had kept their paws off of the project.


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 27, 2023 at 4:45 am
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 27, 2023 at 4:45 am

In the unlikely event that Caltrain approves a train trench, what will that do to plans for bike/ped tunnels? Trenching the trains would involve a couple of creek crossings and now you want to throw ped tunnels into the mix? Would these tunnels go under the train trench in which case they would go deep underground?

There is the challenge of keeping a train trench dry and not turning into a water-filled canal during heavy storms. This could potentially bring all Caltrain service to a halt if the trains can't move due to flooding in Palo Alto. CPA has a poor record of keeping Oregon expwy and Embarcadero dry during heavy storms and there is no natural drainage along the ROW. Caltrain would be crazy to approve an open trench.

A viaduct would solve a lot of problems but would be aesthetically overpowering so close to residences. Before you go planting posies on the vacated roadbed if a viaduct were built, consider that CPA does not own that land and Caltrain (the owners) will likely want some kind of lease for it. They're not going to give away land for free. How much would that cost CPA?

That narrows it down to either automobile underpasses like at Embarcadero, or hybrid crossings where the rail roadbed is elevated and the roadway is slightly depressed, with cars passing beneath the tracks as has been done in San Carlos.

The rail committee needs to do a better job of looking at the big picture, IMO.


Jerry Underdal
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 27, 2023 at 11:54 am
Jerry Underdal, Barron Park
Registered user
on May 27, 2023 at 11:54 am

@Reality Check

Thanks for reopening discussion of the Viaduct option and providing useful links to better imagine what it could look like if implemented here. I was disappointed with reports that "progress" had been achieved in throwing the Viaduct into the discard pile along with the Trench. Given the weaknesses of the grade separation options currently being considered (including the plan to put bikes in tunnels at the Meadow and Charleston crossings) it's clear that the Viaduct option must be brought back to the table--this time for real.


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 27, 2023 at 12:28 pm
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 27, 2023 at 12:28 pm

The viaducts in the videos would have more aesthetic appeal if they were covered with some kind of foliage. A sterile gray concrete edifice that looks like it was designed in Sacramento by the DMV will be a tough sell in Palo Alto and could fail at the ballot box when it comes time to vote for funding. Even still, covered with foliage it will be a huge, overpowering thing. You'd have to rethink how the station platforms would access the trains which are high up on this viaduct.


Jerry Underdal
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 27, 2023 at 1:48 pm
Jerry Underdal, Barron Park
Registered user
on May 27, 2023 at 1:48 pm

I agree that it would be nice to add aesthetic touches but that adds cost. My baseline would be keeping the concrete supports free of graffitti. I'd be delighted if there were easily maintainable cosmetic add-ons, but that's a debate for later. For now, identifying benefits sufficient to overcome the hesitations of a public that seems to have rejected the very notion of a viaduct for whatever reason is the challenge. Without a general perception that this would be better for the city long-term (think 100-years) than the other choices, the Viaduct option cannot prevail--no matter how good it is.

To your point about station platforms, that would not come into play for the Churchill, Meadow and Charleston crossings.


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 27, 2023 at 2:40 pm
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 27, 2023 at 2:40 pm

"To your point about station platforms, that would not come into play for the Churchill, Meadow and Charleston crossings."

You can't have trains going up and down like a roller coaster. 1% is Caltrain's preferred grade. Having the trains go up on a viaduct and then come down at the stations would be a tough nut to crack. You've got the Calif. Ave. station located in between Churchill and Meadow.


Jerry Underdal
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 27, 2023 at 3:23 pm
Jerry Underdal, Barron Park
Registered user
on May 27, 2023 at 3:23 pm

These are important matters of fact and choice that will need to be addressed when, and if, the Viaduct option is fully understood and its benefits compared with other choice. Personally, I know more about and have had more engagement with the Meadow and Charleston crossings, especially when Palo Alto was trying to get a handle on the suicide clusters that weighted the air across the city for years.

Why not remove the rails completely from ground level and put them 20 feet above street traffic, allowing bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists to move freely, concerned only about traffic on Alma? I disagree that the viaduct "would be aesthetically overpowering so close to residences." In South Palo Alto, there is a 100' right-of-way and the elevated tracks can be placed closer to the expressway which would put the homes along Park Boulevard at a greater distance from the rails than at present.


Local news junkie
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on May 27, 2023 at 4:39 pm
Local news junkie, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on May 27, 2023 at 4:39 pm

It’s easy to support the viaduct option if you live a distance from the two South Palo Alto crossings. The viaducts as shown in the videos in Reality Check’s posting are hideous—and would destroy the neighborhood. A definite non-starter.


Donald
Registered user
South of Midtown
on May 27, 2023 at 4:57 pm
Donald, South of Midtown
Registered user
on May 27, 2023 at 4:57 pm

The viaducts would result in a simple, wide open and easy to navigate design. Most bicyclists I know would prefer that to a complicated and circuitous underpass, assuming that enhanced bikeways and improved intersections are part of the design. However, the City Council seems to have given up on the viaduct because of political pressure from a small number of people who claim it will interfere with their privacy. I personally think that their concerns can be addressed with proper engineering, but City Council won't even direct staff or consultants to study that.


Local news junkie
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on May 27, 2023 at 6:56 pm
Local news junkie, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on May 27, 2023 at 6:56 pm

Donald: With all due respect, the “small number of people” you refer to are the neighbors of the two South Palo Alto crossings. The “political pressure” they exerted is their right to free speech. Of course, neighbors want to influence the City Council’s decisions. I’m glad that they have, according to your post.


Jerry Underdal
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 27, 2023 at 8:30 pm
Jerry Underdal, Barron Park
Registered user
on May 27, 2023 at 8:30 pm

@local nws junky

I don't know whether the number that actively opposed viaducts for Meadow and Charleston was large or small, but it always seemed to me that the default position, without the benefit of a back-and-forth community discussion would be negative. Memories of racket from elevated trains in Eastern cities and squealing wheels on curved segments of elevated BART lines are hard to dismiss. After reading Cedric de La Beaujardiere's argument in favor of modern viaducts on Town Square a year-and-a-half ago (Web Link though, I changed my mind. He addressed many of the concerns I had well enough to make me think it made sense to explore this option.

I don't think that's happened yet, but hopefully it will.


Local news junkie
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on May 28, 2023 at 9:07 am
Local news junkie, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on May 28, 2023 at 9:07 am

Jerry Underdal:
Unfortunately, the link you posted didn’t work for me. I did go to the official high-speed rail site to see its renderings of viaducts. These are MASSIVE structures. Would you want one a couple of houses away from you? I don’t. It’s as simple as that.


MyFeelz
Registered user
another community
on May 29, 2023 at 2:33 pm
MyFeelz, another community
Registered user
on May 29, 2023 at 2:33 pm

A "committee" of 3 people are deciding the fate of everyone who lives along Alma Street or frequents businesses there? And forcing people in wheelchairs to have to huff and puff to get uphill because 3 people who are able bodied can't conceptualize living with a handicap? And making elderly people step lively so as not to get run over by a bicyclist who wants to go 35 MPH through a tunnel yelling "move aside" while whizzing past? Because a bicyclist knows if they slow down while going downhill, they will have to pedal hard when they get to the uphill. BOO HOO. These committee members won't even be sitting there by the time their replacements "celebrate" the groundbreaking event. More pie in the sky whizbang ideas from the Lollipop Guild. I demand to see the Wizard. NOW.


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 29, 2023 at 8:04 pm
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 29, 2023 at 8:04 pm

"A "committee" of 3 people are deciding the fate of everyone who lives along Alma Street or frequents businesses there?"

Worse, this panel of amateurs has been spinning its wheels for years with scant input from Caltrain, which owns the very property they are debating over. Hopefully that will change with the new agreement.

Watch a video of one of their meetings and you'll see why, despite all the meetings and planning and engineering studies over 10 years, they have naught to show for it but some whiz-bang computer animations.


Jerry Underdal
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 30, 2023 at 8:30 am
Jerry Underdal, Barron Park
Registered user
on May 30, 2023 at 8:30 am

@local news junky

"I did go to the official high-speed rail site to see its renderings of viaducts. These are MASSIVE structures. Would you want one a couple of houses away from you? I don’t. It’s as simple as that."

Sorry for the delay in responding. I needed a friend's help to get this link for this video showing the viaduct option as presented to the committee. Web Link

You and I are looking at the same resource and coming to different conclusions as to whether the viaduct, in light of what we know about the options available, would be the preferable choice. I encourage anyone who wants to weigh in on the viaduct option to watch the video first so we share a common reference point for our differing opinions.


Jerry Underdal
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 30, 2023 at 9:17 am
Jerry Underdal, Barron Park
Registered user
on May 30, 2023 at 9:17 am

[Post removed; successive comments by same poster are not permitted.]


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 30, 2023 at 9:32 am
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 30, 2023 at 9:32 am

That video is misleading. It depicts a two-track viaduct. Will that fly with Caltrain when the HSR "blended approach" is taken into account? Will it have to be a four-track viaduct over all or part of its length? Also, the video does not state the slope that will be required to get the trains up and down on this viaduct. 1% is Caltrain's preferred slope. Anything over 1% requires Caltrain approval. Does any part of this scheme involve a slope greater than 1% and if so, what is the maximum slope and will Caltrain approve it? At 1% it takes 100 feet to elevate the tracks by one foot. If the structure is, say, 20 feet tall, it would take 2,000 feet to bring the trains up and another 2,000 feet down. That's about 3/4 mile just for the ramps up and down.

This is what happens when a panel of amateurs tries to design a solution with no input from Caltrain. Will Caltrain allow the abandoned roadbed to be landscaped? What would Caltrain want for CPA to landscape and use it as a bike path or whatever?

The devil is in the details.

A viaduct has all kinds of practical benefits, but you'll hear arguments to the effect of "it divides the city", "Berlin wall" and "sterile gray concrete structure". I would expect it to face a lot of resistance from residents.


Donald
Registered user
South of Midtown
on May 30, 2023 at 12:35 pm
Donald, South of Midtown
Registered user
on May 30, 2023 at 12:35 pm

The hybrid option is almost as good as the viaduct from a traffic perspective, and is much lower than the viaduct and has lesser grades for the trains. It would still require pedestrians and bicyclists to go down and up a bit but it would be less than the underpass options and the distances would be shorter. It would not divide the city any more than the tracks do already.


Local news junkie
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on May 30, 2023 at 12:48 pm
Local news junkie, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on May 30, 2023 at 12:48 pm

Jerry Underdal:
Thanks for reposting the link. The viaduct pictured in the video is a little less objectionable than that pictured on the high-speed rail site. But is either "official" or just ideas/proposals?
Neighborhood character is a "thing." Barron Park has its own character, so does Old Palo Alto, Crescent Park, Ventura, South of Midtown, and any other neighborhood in Palo Alto, including Charleston Meadows, where I live and where a viaduct would go through. Of course, neighbors are objecting to this massive structure. Luckily, there are other options.


Jerry Underdal
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 30, 2023 at 2:42 pm
Jerry Underdal, Barron Park
Registered user
on May 30, 2023 at 2:42 pm

@Leslie York

"A viaduct has all kinds of practical benefits, but you'll hear arguments to the effect of "it divides the city", "Berlin wall" and "sterile gray concrete structure". I would expect it to face a lot of resistance from residents."

So would I. Unless residents come to see the benefits of a viaduct option it won't figure in our city's future--ever. And that's regardless of the cost. People whose attitude is "I wouldn't take that if it was free!" will not support, in the exchange of ideas or the levying of taxes, this answer to our grade separation dilemma.

I don't know the answers to the important and difficult questions you've raised. They need to be answered, but not by me. I'm no expert. Let's hear from people that are rather than prematurely give up on an idea that holds promise. Thanks for your engagement on this matter.


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 30, 2023 at 3:58 pm
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 30, 2023 at 3:58 pm

The first question that needs to be answered is, how many tracks are we designing for, 2 tracks or 4? This will affect all four design options: hybrid, viaduct, trench, automobile underpass. This requires input from Caltrain.

Next do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the grades involved to get into and out of the trech/viaduct/hybrid, keeping n mind that 1% is Caltrain's preferred slope.

Given the number of years they've been at it with three different engineering firms,CPA should already have some of this information on hand.


Donald
Registered user
South of Midtown
on May 30, 2023 at 6:57 pm
Donald, South of Midtown
Registered user
on May 30, 2023 at 6:57 pm

It isn't just Caltrain. Union Pacific uses the tracks for freight trains, and a grade that exceeds 1% will cost them money. Unlike Caltrain, they have no incentive to approve an exception and negotiating with them could be very slow and unproductive. I am concerned that any option that relies on grades of 2% could advance for years and then simply get denied by UP, leaving us back at square one with all the Measure B money spent on other cities that had their act together sooner.


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 31, 2023 at 12:25 am
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 31, 2023 at 12:25 am

Good point about freight trains, but UP does not have an ownership stake in the ROW and thus has no authority over what may be built on it. UP merely has trackage rights, i.e. the right to run freight trains on the ROW. I'm sure Caltrain would have freight in mind when asked to approve a grade over 1%.


MyFeelz
Registered user
another community
on May 31, 2023 at 8:59 pm
MyFeelz, another community
Registered user
on May 31, 2023 at 8:59 pm

Every time I use BART to cross the bay, when it goes down underwater I hold my breath. Disaster movies like "Titanic" and "Inferno" and "The Poseidon Adventure" fill my head. We are in serious earthquake country. Anything that is built here has to be seismically sound, or it will be the next movie. I think that's a missing element in all of the new LEGO buildings sprouting up -- we won't know for sure until the next "big one" if they can withstand a severe quake. Tyvek covering plywood might play somewhere else, but not here. But we're doing it anyway. Let's call it "an experiment".

Alma street has too few crossings. The way the neighborhoods that surround the tracks don't go in a straight line is the problem. Let's tear down some property, and build more streets that go straight from Middlefield that pass the tracks at Alma. It would be cheaper and quicker than any plan the 3 Stooges can visualize. So much of what our CC does is verbal masturbation. I know that portion will be removed but it's a word with a meaning that applies here, and it's not obscene. What's obscene is wasting our tax payer dollars on something we have no say in. Caltrain will make the decisions.


Old Steve
Registered user
St. Claire Gardens
on May 31, 2023 at 10:51 pm
Old Steve, St. Claire Gardens
Registered user
on May 31, 2023 at 10:51 pm

My Feelz:

Modern bldg codes allow residential wood construction up to a certain height specifically because the building type has been proven to survive earthquakes. We don't allow soft story garages below anymore, so you see woodframe on top of concrete podiums. Caltrain won't design it because they are not paying for it. They will consult, to make sure their requirements are understood. Caltrain has hired a CM/GC for Castro Street. Palo Alto cannot get out of its own way, and likely will never be able to. Quad gates and quiet zones would be much cheaper, but will also cause a good deal of traffic chaos.

Don't hold your breath....


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2023 at 8:37 pm
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 4, 2023 at 8:37 pm

At a recent meeting the rail committee was informed that quad gates would not be required at Palo Alto Ave. for the planned quiet zone which covers Menlo Park and extends into Palo Alto. Instead, an 8" raised barrier would be constructed to separate the two directions of traffic. The crossing will have to be restriped and the signage upgraded.

There was no discussion of how this would fit into future plans to grade separate the crossing, and no discussion of trestle replacement at the creek.


David Coale
Registered user
Barron Park
on Jun 6, 2023 at 8:11 pm
David Coale, Barron Park
Registered user
on Jun 6, 2023 at 8:11 pm

The bike/ped crossing at Seal Ave should be at Churchill instead. There was a lot of support for closing Churchill to cars all together and this option is a backup plan to the citizen’s proposal for a crossing at Churchill – still be studied more. To save time and money, go for the closed option at Churchill now and move the bike/ped crossing from Seal to Churchill. That way you only have to build one crossing that is bike/ped (where most Paly Students now cross). This is much less expensive then building two crossings, one for cars and one for bike/ped – both of which still need a lot of study (time and money) to look into and may not even be viable after great expense.

This option will help alleviate traffic, give safe passage for bikes and peds (our school kids) and point Palo Alto towards active transportation and away from cars, which supports our Sustainability and Climate Action Plan.

@ Leslie York, thanks for your info, the devil is in the details; 2000 feet is less then 1/2 a mile, not 3/4 of a mile.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 6, 2023 at 9:38 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 6, 2023 at 9:38 pm

And there's a lot of opposition to closing Churchill -- from parents and kids trying to get to/from Paly, from people trying to use Embarcadero which is already gridlocked much of the day and which is one of three access points to 101 and which will get worse when the multi-year Casti construction starts ...


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 6, 2023 at 10:52 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 6, 2023 at 10:52 pm

The big issue hardly mentioned about closing Churchill are the school buses.

The other issue is that Paly people will park in the neighboring residential streets and walk into Paly.

Additionally, PAUSD Churchill office will be hit by closure too.

It is also a well used street for access to Stanford, both the University and hospital, as well as Shopping Center and PAMF.

These are reality issues.

KTVU is reporting money being opened up for these crossings.


Palo Alto Res
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jun 7, 2023 at 7:26 am
Palo Alto Res, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jun 7, 2023 at 7:26 am

The City fails to recognize how important an artery Churchill Ave. is for both cars, pedestrians and bikers. Paly and the district have limited entrances and Churchill Avenue provides access to: district, Paly, Paly football field, Paly highschool, Paly gym/athletic center, District bus parking, Paly school parking, and Paly parent pick up and drop off loop for Paly students.

Really the city should just trench the train and provide grade separation at Churchill. This would make this very used Churchill Avenue an incredibly safe route for bikers and cars at Churchill. Trench the train, or if this not possible, raise the train. Provide a grade separation at Churchill.

Instead, the city has decided to build yet another redundant bike and pedestrian underpass at Seale and Alma. Why is it not surprising all the useful city routes for bikers and pedestrians always favor Old Palo Alto?

KIds trying to get to Paly have to deal with the crazy traffic at Embarcadero, where there is little barrier between the pedestrian walkway that bikers and pedestrians use at Embarcadero (near Paly's only other entrance) or now, kids have to go further east to Seale, which is just a few blocks from the North California underpass.

Not surprised Old Palo Alto neighborhood gets yet one more connection to Palo Alto south of Alma, while anything west of Embarcadero that is not Old Palo Alto City, gets ... well the rubbish.


Leslie York
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 8, 2023 at 3:39 am
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 8, 2023 at 3:39 am

"2000 feet is less then 1/2 a mile, not 3/4 of a mile."

Read the post again. 2,000' up + 2,000' down = 4,000'. 4,000 / 5,280 = apx 0.75 mile.

"The big issue hardly mentioned about closing Churchill are the school buses."

PAUSD has a yard near the Paly campus, with lots of vehicles coming and going.

CPA can't even keep Oregon expwy and Embarcadero underpasses from flooding during a heavy storm. How do you think they will they keep a train trench from flooding? Answer: they won't. There is no natural drainage along the right-of-way. Caltrain would be nuts to approve a trench.


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