Eager to take advantage of recently acquired federal and state grants, Palo Alto is preparing to speed up its tortuous, decade-long effort to choose preferred alternatives for redesigning three rail crossings – Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road.
The renewed push to make to a decision is driven by a pair of grants for work on the rail redesign: $6 million from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and $23.7 million from California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA). There is, however, a catch. To meet the deadlines dictated by the grants, the city would have to make its final decisions on all three crossings by June 2024, according to the city's Office of Transportation.
To give the effort a boost, on Sept. 19, the City Council's Rail Committee approved a list of studies that, per the staff's estimates, will take about four months to complete. Officials believe the studies will help them get to the final decision. The studies will evaluate the pros and cons of each existing alternative when it comes to east-west connectivity, traffic congestion, pedestrian and bicycle circulation, costs, private property acquisitions, environment impacts and visual impacts.
The studies will be performed by the city's rail consultant, Aecom.
Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said the staff believes these studies will fit within the city's timeframe for reaching a decision, which they will help to inform.
"We need all the pieces to fit together in a timely fashion," Kamhi said.
Not everyone, however, is convinced that the city can meet the deadline of getting to a decision by next summer. While Council member Pat Burt approved the staff's request to advance the studies, he worried that speeding things up will keep the city from fully evaluating things like bike improvements, for instance. He called the timeline "ambitious" and said he is "not sanguine about being able to get to this point."
"It seems we may be in a place where we need to select our local preferred alternatives without having resolved some of the issues where some in the community might say, ‘We have concerns with this,'" Burt said at the Sept. 19 meeting.
In response, Kamhi suggested that it may be impossible to address all community concerns regardless of what alternatives the city chooses.
"There's not necessarily an alternative or a decision or anything that is going to make everybody happy," Kamhi said. "There are going to be tough decisions that would have to be made for this project to ever move forward."
The city's recent experiences only underscore the complex and contentious nature of the rail discussion. Council members have struggled for well over a decade to determine what alignments to choose for grade separation, a redesign of rail crossings so that the tracks and roads no longer intersect.
After evaluating nearly 40 different options for the city's four rail crossings, the council has chosen to indefinitely defer Palo Alto Avenue crossings, to pursue an underpass at Churchill Avenue (or to close Churchill to cars near the tracks if the underpass proves too difficult to construct) and to study the Charleston and Meadow crossings in tandem. Currently, the council is considering three options for these two southernmost rail crossings: a trench for trains, an underpass for cars and a "hybrid" design that combines a raised track with a lowered road.
Burt opined that picking an alternative before resolving some of the outstanding design issues could lead to community pushback. The council, he added, may have to choose between opting for a different alternative or moving ahead with the initial one and just have faith that it will be solved adequately down the road.
"I'm not sure how to overcome this dilemma but I think we need to be open that that's potentially what we're going to face," Burt said.
That said, all three Rail Committee members – Burt, Ed Lauing and Vicki Veenker – agreed that the staff should move ahead with the proposed analyses, which will collectively cost about $109,000. Lauing called the package of studies "good value" and wondered if the city should pursue additional studies or go deeper on any of the proposed analyses.
Kamhi said that anything more in-depth would require more time than the city has and noted that there will be further analysis in later phases of the project, when the city is conducting environmental reviews for the various alternatives.
Veenker, meanwhile, urged the staff to not lose sight of an important question: What will the redesigned corridor look like? The proposed visual impact study, she noted, focuses on a shadow analysis of elevated trains rather than the overall aesthetics of the various alternatives.
"At the end of the day, that's what people see," Veenker said. "All the other stuff has to be right and it's critical and it's a priority, but I just want to make sure we have that factored in."
While the recently approved grants offer a welcome boost to Palo Alto's grade separation efforts, resident Steve Rosenblum said he was concerned that the funding will end up forcing the city's hand on selecting grade separation alternatives. Rosenblum, a resident of Old Palo Alto, who over the years has been active in the grade separation discussions, said he doesn't want to see the city "forced into making a quick decision on a project that's going to have a long-lasting effect on the community."
"If we make a decision about these things with unresolved major concerns, we might regret making that decision," Rosenblum said.