Some of these anxieties were evident in the dozens of emails submitted to the City Council in recent weeks on the subject of "grade separation," the reconfiguration of rail crossings so that tracks and roads will not intersect. They were also reflected in some of the questions that residents asked at a Wednesday night community meeting, which was primarily focused on two alternatives: the closure of Churchill and the construction of a citywide tunnel.
About 100 residents attended the meeting at Mitchell Park Community Center to hear about these two options and learn about a recent traffic analysis that the city's consultant, Pleasanton-based TJKM, conducted around Churchill. Ruta Jariwala, principal at TJKM, said the study surveyed traffic at 24 intersections. It indicated that the closure of Churchill would divert about 706 cars during the morning peak hour (between 8 and 9 a.m.) and 776 cars during the afternoon peak hour (5:15 to 6:15 p.m.) to other streets.
The firm also identified eight intersections where traffic flows would be diminished by Churchill's closure: Alma Street and Lincoln Avenue; Alma and Embarcadero; Alma and Kingsley Avenue; El Camino Real and Embarcadero; Oregon Expressway and Middlefield Road; Alma and Oregon; and Embarcadero and Cowper Street.
It also proposed mitigations to improve traffic at these intersections. These include a restricted left-turn and a right-turn-only lane on Alma and Lincoln; traffic signals at Alma and Kingsley; and a new westbound left-turn lane and a northbound right-turn lane on El Camino and Embaradero. The study also recommends signalized intersections at Alma and Oregon and a restricted left turn on Embarcadero at Cowper during peak traffic hours. During these times, cars would be rerouted to Waverley, Jarwala said.
Some residents feel the study didn't go far enough. Numerous Professorville and University South residents attended the Wednesday meeting and submitted letters to the council, urging members to further study the impacts of Churchill's closure on nearby streets. Emerson Street resident David Epstein wrote to the council earlier this month that he and his neighbors are "most interested in safety and maintaining a residential environment on our street."
"It is already straining both goals with many cars speeding through our neighborhood along with bikes and pedestrians crossing the street at the Embarcadero/Emerson St. intersection," Epstein wrote to the council. "Before and after school in particular, we have a constant stream of bikes and students coming from and going to Paly. The mix of heavy traffic of cars, trucks and students is bound to have a disastrous accident at any time. A dramatic increase in the traffic will make it even more dangerous."
Thomas Kellerman pointed to the data in the analysis as an indication that the closure of Churchill crossing would have a "very significant" impact on the Emerson/Embarcadero intersection. Despite these findings, no mitigations have been suggested to address this impact, Kellerman wrote.
"In keeping with the council's resolution adopted regarding mitigations, it is incumbent on the council to require adequate mitigations prior to approving a closure of the Churchill Avenue crossing," Kellerman wrote.
Allen Edwards, who also lives near Churchill, took an opposite view and said Churchill should be closed. Shutting Churchill to traffic, Edwards wrote, would allow him to "use the intersection without risking a five-minute delay."
"We have friends there who would love to have Churchill closed at the tracks so that they can get the traffic out of their neighborhood," Edwards wrote.
On Wednesday, residents had a chance to see two different concepts for closing Churchill to cars and adding a pedestrian and bicycle pathway. Under the first alternative, the pathway would go just under the Caltrain tracks. In the second, which proved somewhat more popular, the pathway is lengthened so that it extends underneath Alma Street as well.
The community meeting didn't net any new ideas or decisions. Rather, as City Manager Ed Shikada told the crowd, it was a chance to get residents' feedback on what he called a "work in progress."
For the council, this progress is taking longer to achieve than most had expected. Even though the council has narrowed the number of grade-separation options under consideration from 34 to about six, it failed to select a preferred alternative by the end of 2018, as initially planned. On March 18, members punted the decision further and moved the deadline for selecting a preferred alternative to October.
One option that remains, despite major reservations by city staff and most council members, is a citywide tunnel. Much like at prior meetings, the city's consultants offered an array of reasons why a tunnel would be difficult to construct: the need for Caltrain to approve design exceptions, a construction period that would stretch for longer than seven years, the need to pump groundwater out of the tunnel and, most notably, a price tag currently pegged at between $2.5 billion and $3.8 billion.
Etty Mercurio, a consultant with the firm Aecom, said the tunnel would also require the city to completely reconfigure the Embarcadero Road overpass and build a new underground train station at California Avenue, which would require mining about 60 feet below the surface.
In addition to the closure of Churchill and the citywide tunnel, the council is also considering a tunnel just in south Palo Alto; a trench or viaduct for trains at the Meadow Drive and Charleston Road crossings; and a "hybrid" option that involves lowering roads and raising tracks at these two southernmost crossings.
The citywide tunnel option, which is one of the most popular and most expensive alternatives, continues to generate a broad spectrum of opinions, with some calling it the least disruptive option and others dismissing it as prohibitively expensive and, thus, unrealistic. Manish Baldua, who lives on Alma near the Churchill crossing, was in the latter camp. In a letter to the council, Baldua called the tunnel "the most disruptive option, causing massive environmental damages" and an "irresponsible spending of taxpayer's money."
Carlin Otto, who lives near the Charleston crossing, disagreed and called the tunnel an ideal solution — one that would improve east-west movement of cars, bikes and people and allow parks, tennis courts and other amenities to be built on top of it.
"Once the tunnel is in place, it can expand in the future (like London, Paris, New York) down to many levels and support many tracks," Otto wrote.
TALK ABOUT IT
Weigh in on the traffic study and read what others are saying about it on Town Square, the discussion forum at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.
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