News Digest | September 6, 2019 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 6, 2019

News Digest

City manager rethinks rail committee

After receiving pushback for his initial proposal to establish a new committee to work on rail improvements, Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada is preparing to bring a revised plan to the City Council on Monday.

Much like in the original recommendation, which the council briefly considered on Aug. 19, the proposed Rail Blue Ribbon Committee would be charged with advising the council on both the best options for grade separation — the realignment of rail crossings so that tracks don't intersect with streets — and the best way to pay for these options. But unlike last month, Shikada is no longer calling for the committee to be made up entirely of former elected officials — a criterion that some argued is too restrictive.

If approved by the council on Monday, the Rail Blue Ribbon Committee would operate independently of the existing citizens group, which is known as the Expanded Community Advisory Panel (XCAP). Unlike XCAP, the committee would be subject by the Brown Act, which would effectively prohibit people with property rights next to the rail corridor to participate. The XCAP, by contrast, includes members who live near the tracks and who represent their neighborhoods in discussions on grade separation.

The new committee would not evaluate the technical aspects of various grade separation options, which would remain the purview of XCAP. Rather, it would take the information developed by staff and XCAP, consider funding options and craft recommendations for the City Council to consider, according to a new report from Shikada's office. And rather than prioritize neighborhood impacts, the new group would focus on the big picture, both locally and regionally.

So far, the idea of appointing yet another committee to work on grade separation has met a mixed reception.

"Why not simply appoint a few more members — former electives or whoever is qualified — to XCAP?" XCAP member Phil Burton asked at the group's Aug. 21 meeting. "Beef it up. Why duplicate and lose a lot of time in the process."

If the council agrees to form the new rail committee on Monday, it will have to decide how to pick its members. Shikada had offered several alternatives, including allowing each council member to select one or two individuals; establishing an open application process; or letting Shikada bring forward candidates for the council to approve.

—Gennady Sheyner

Bill for homeless students pushed to next legislative session

Homeless community college students who were hoping for the passage of a state bill to allow them to sleep in their cars overnight on campus will have to wait at least another year.

Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, who authored the legislation, has delayed the bill's vote in response to amendments he said watered down its purpose. As a result, he's making AB 302 a two-year bill, meaning it won't be voted on during this legislative session.

AB 302 has drawn much attention and anticipation throughout California as community college students have emerged as the latest faces of the state's housing crisis. Statewide, nearly 1 in 5 community college students are either homeless or do not have a stable place to live, according to a recent survey conducted by the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office and The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

The Senate Committee on Appropriations decided on Friday to delay the implementation of the bill until July 1, 2021, and that the legislation would not apply to any community college within 250 feet of an elementary school. Also, community colleges that provide one or more of three housing services to homeless students — emergency housing grants, hotel vouchers or rapid rehousing referral services — would be exempt.

"The recent amendments to dramatically weaken the opt-out provisions and delay implementation an additional 15 months weaken the bill to the point that it fails to address the reality that our students are facing today," Berman said in a statement.

Berman sharply criticized the exemption for community colleges within 250 feet of elementary schools, noting that he is not aware of any elementary students who attend school between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. when safe lots programs typically operate.

"Homeless students are not pedophiles that need to be kept away from children. They are men and women — many of them barely adults themselves — who are trying to improve their lives by obtaining a better education," Berman said. "They should be celebrated, not stigmatized."

He said he decided to make AB 302 a two-year bill plan and will work this fall with the governor's office to "identify ways to more urgently alleviate the struggles that our community college students are facing every day, in a way that treats them with the dignity and respect they deserve."

Preliminarily, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District has estimated that implementation of the bill could cost its campuses about $830,000 each per year for additional security, custodial support, fencing, signage and, if a parking lot is not available close to bathrooms, portable toilets.

A 2018 survey found that 11% of Foothill College students who responded are homeless and 41% are housing insecure.

—Elena Kadvany


13 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2019 at 9:32 am

If the previous committee doesn't do what you want, get a new committee!

I feel a committee must consist of residents as well as those who understand traffic engineering, as well as engineers with experience in building train track systems through difficult topographical areas.

We don't need politicians making engineering decisions.

20 people like this
Posted by Let's Solve This
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 5, 2019 at 10:42 am

How about requiring that everyone wishing to serve on the committee pass a test to demonstrate they understand the important rail crossing issues?

I'm sure Palo Alto Online readers could suggest lots of good test questions.

We know what happens at the state and national level when major issues are decided by politicians with no clue what they're doing. Palo Alto's hardly immune from this: we have local officials who think we have no traffic problems, lower parking requirements when we have too little, and approve offices like candy. A competency test to get on the rail committee could eliminate people just angling for self-promotion and let those who actually understand the problems finally get something done.

10 people like this
Posted by PhilB
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Sep 5, 2019 at 11:02 am

PhilB is a registered user.


The real issues are NOT JUST POLITICAL. Disclosure: I am serving on the Citizens Advisory Panel. The issues include cost (meaning tax increases), possible house takings via eminent domain, construction time and impacts, visual impacts, noise, traffic on local streets.

If you think the issues are just engineering, I invite you to come to the next XCAP meeting and see otherwise. Today, Thursday, at 4 pm, at City Hall. Ground floor level, community meeting room on the left side of the lobby.

21 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 5, 2019 at 12:12 pm

Can somebody explain this for me?
I recall that in early 2017 the city council said there was such a rush to come to a decision on grade separations within a year that there was no time to set up a community advisory committee of any kind, otherwise we would lose our share of the Measure B dollars if we did not reach decisions by early 2018.
Then, last year the council and staff set up the CAP, but did not initially allow them to do anything other than advise on public outreach while still insisting that a decision had to be made by then end of 2018 or we would be over run by the increase in trains before the separations were built.
In spring of this year they expanded the CAP into an XCAP and gave them a bit more of a role to look at design alternatives, but they were not authorized to try to arrive at consensus or make recommendations. Also, that decisions on design would be completed by the council this October. Then the city manager proposed last month a RBRC, whether instead of the XCAP or in addition to it is not clear, and that the RBRC would be composed entirely of former council members. Now he is proposing a different composition to the RBRC, in addition expanding the role of the XCAP.
Meanwhile, the Finance Committee is exploring a business tax, in large part to fill much of the hole in the grade separation funding beyond Measure B dollars, but without council agreement on the uses of the tax or its amount.
In the meantime, Caltrain is deciding whether south Palo Alto needs to be able to accommodate passing tracks in the future and the VTA is sending confusing signals about how Measure B dollars will be spent.
So, on Monday there will be another herky-jerky, half baked process change because there is not enough time to do it right, but there seems to be plenty of time to do it over.

1 person likes this
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 7, 2019 at 1:11 am

You can't have too many rail committees.

Does the city need yetanother rail committee comprised of amateurs and politicians with no background in engineering. people who don't know who owns the right of way (hint: it isn't the City of Palo Alto) or don't know where the northern city limit/county line is?

Grade sep in Palo Alto is a very complex matter involving water tables and creek crossings and shoofly tracks and potential property takings. I don't think the city will be well served by yet another committee of unqualified amateurs, each with their own agenda.

Like this comment
Posted by CGPA
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2019 at 2:41 pm

CGPA is a registered user.

A committee will just come up with something that will cost a hundred trillion dollars. This is why the committees never get anywhere. Instead of a committee, we need a number.

Maybe we should float a ballot initiative: a base level plan with a berm that costs every property owner in the city $20K each, spread over 20 years in a bond proposal, a trench that costs every property owner in the city $1M, except we charge property owner a block from the tracks another $5M, or a tunnel, where the prices of the trench are tripled. Then see what gets passed.

Only then will any progress be made, because until we reject the last two plans as unworkable, the committee will arrive at the conclusion that A) We MUST have a tunnel, gold plated, and B) the other nearby cities will no doubt line up to pay for it (those same cities that paid build their own berms) so the cost to Palo Alto will be free! And then we'll be right back where we started.

The reality is that an elevated berm is the only feasible alternative, but of course the people living nearby will fight tooth and nail to build a tunnel. You have to reroute rivers and water lines and sewers, the costs are unfathomable. And they'll NEVER be willing to pay for it. So if you don't get agreement on what people will pay for, it's just more of the same. The people living nearby will demand we spend trillions, the rest of the city just wants to cross the tracks.

1 person likes this
Posted by Casey Jones
a resident of Nixon School
on Sep 9, 2019 at 2:52 pm

One option is to do nothing. When/if the train actually comes to fruition then you would have time to observe and decide based on what issues arise.

Like this comment
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 9, 2019 at 4:47 pm

How does Caltrain (PCJPB) feel about having its trains placed underground given the flooding risk? They own the rail infrastructure and will have to approve any scheme Palo Alto dreams up.

If a tunnel floods then the trains don't move, either northbound to the city or southbound to San Jose/Gilroy. Let's face it, CPA has a less than stellar record of keeping the Oregon undercrossing from flooding.

I've read where the city of Burlingame considered a trench/tunnel and concluded it would be too costly and impractical to keep the trench/tunnel dry rear around, so they nixed the idea. What makes CPA think its experience would be any different? You see, there is no natural drainage along the ROW through Palo Alto.

In addition, trench/tunnel construction would require building a shoofly track to circumnavigate the construction zone so you would have Caltrains hurtling up and ddown Alma day and night.

Ultimately all this talk of a trench/tunnel may be whistling Dixie. First sound out PCJPB to see if they would agree in principle to a trench/tunnel. If they say "no" then that settles that.

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