Caltrain plan to rebuild 120-year-old San Francisquito Bridge may upend city's rail priorities | September 30, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 30, 2022

Caltrain plan to rebuild 120-year-old San Francisquito Bridge may upend city's rail priorities

Agency plans to pick design for replacement structure by 2025

by Gennady Sheyner

For more than a century, the San Francisquito Bridge has supported freight and passenger trains crossing the border between Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

This story contains 933 words.

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Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by RPopp
a resident of Monroe Park
on Sep 28, 2022 at 6:06 pm

RPopp is a registered user.

Gennady, please tell us this is a typo…“Caltrain is set to spend the next two years planning for the project so that it can select a preferred alternative in 2025 and proceed with environmental analysis and permitting. The agency hopes to procure contractors in 2031 and build the bridge over the following two years.”

I don’t mind a thorough and detailed planning process but the construction needs to go faster… Hoping our Council can influence a better timeline. Web Link

Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 28, 2022 at 8:04 pm

JR is a registered user.

Caltrain cannot unilaterally decide to construct a new bridge without approval from the cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. It should be made clear to Caltrain that they need to present a proposal that is appealing to residents, otherwise it will be vetoed without consideration.

Posted by Jeremy Erman
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 28, 2022 at 10:53 pm

Jeremy Erman is a registered user.

RPopp, pretty sure that's not a typo: the other article I read about this specifically mentioned a 9-year process for designing, approving, and building a new bridge. Even given the long timetables of Bay Area projects, it seems weird to start out with a plan that long--hard to see how it will accommodate planning all of the other crossings at the same time.

Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 29, 2022 at 12:13 am

Leslie York is a registered user.

"Caltrain cannot unilaterally decide to construct a new bridge without approval from the cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park."

According to whom? Caltrain owns the right-of-way and the bridge. They can easily prove the bridge is on its last legs and is in need of replacement. Presumably the project would be financed by Caltrain so the cities don't have an economic stake in it.

"It should be made clear to Caltrain that they need to present a proposal that is appealing to residents, otherwise it will be vetoed without consideration."

Yeah, spend 10 years haggling over the design. Who has the authority to "veto" the plan? What standing do the cities of Menlo Park and Palo Alto have to "veto" it? The bridge is not on either city's property. Either the cities and Caltrain can agree to cooperate and work together or they can fight it out in court which will take even more years.

What you don't want is citizens complaining that the design for a new bridge is "too ugly" and spend another 10 years fussing over the aesthetics of the thing. Just build another trestle like the existing one.

Caltrain's fantasy of a train every six minutes may never materialize. Do they have enough ridership (fare-paying passengers) to support the labor needed to operate a train every six minutes?

There are not many viable options for grade separating Palo Alto Avenue. Forget about an overhead viaduct, trench, tunnel or loop-de-loop cloverleaves. It seems to me the most straightforward solution would be to pass auto traffic under the tracks like at Embarcadero. It shouldn't take CPA another 10 years to deliberate on a solution or pay consultants to study it to death. You would also have to devise a plan for routing traffic around the construction of such an underpass.

I think Gennady did an outstanding job of reporting this story as he always does.

Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 29, 2022 at 1:20 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

Please make the bridge evaluation a public document and seek a second opinion if warranted. This would address my concern about safety and the sagging timelines. This vague 2033 solution from the Caltrain organization is not inspiring and it is not a real surprise.

In the meantime consider one more action. 2033 is too hazy for me. I am assuming someone has asked Caltrain what they would do if an earthquake suddenly accelerated strucutural risks. We all know how rapidly earthquake damaged infrastructure can be returned to service in California with world class engineering. Find an outside, proven engineering company to "fast track" the new bridge. Avoid the 2033 risk.

PS A fresh coat of paint probably can be applied without obscuring the inspection of potential structural failures. Or maybe the very rusty image is what Caltrain wants to project. For the record, I walk on the adjacent footbridge to Menlo Park at least once a week.

Posted by CT resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 29, 2022 at 5:54 am

CT resident is a registered user.

At my job every time I want to stop some project, I try to attach it to some bigger plan or ask them to reconsider in light of some amorphous far away thing. Nice to see our city council use the same tactic by asking for reconsideration in light of both the downtown plan and the rail plan, neither of which the city council appears capable of ever executing.

Posted by Beatrice Walker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 29, 2022 at 9:23 am

Beatrice Walker is a registered user.

I like the old bridge. It has an 'Ode to Billie Joe' vibe that adds character to Palo Alto.

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 29, 2022 at 9:45 am

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Posted by chris
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 29, 2022 at 10:42 am

chris is a registered user.

That bridge oldest piece of Palo Alto...can't see word "replaced" but all us heard of choice

Posted by Shirley 'Mac'
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 29, 2022 at 11:18 am

Shirley 'Mac' is a registered user.

Hopefully, the need to replace the old, old railroad bridge, will force City Council to approve an underground design for Charleston, East Meadow, Churchill Streets crossing, and quit haggling about going forward.

Posted by AdjunctProfessorville
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 29, 2022 at 11:20 am

AdjunctProfessorville is a registered user.

The amount of time, money and brain cells being burned to replace a bridge not much longer than a bowling alley is dumbfounding. That is all.

Posted by Barron Park Denizen
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 29, 2022 at 12:45 pm

Barron Park Denizen is a registered user.

Perhaps Caltrain is proposing a realistic timeline based on getting funding assistance and navigating the permitting process in Menlo Park and, in particular, Palo Alto. Or, if grade separation is desired, show us the funding.

Where is the City's train crossing evaluation seemingly heading?

Palo Alto Avenue--At-grade crossing; no change.
Churchill--Pedestrian undercrossing, or better, a vehicle undercrossing
Meadow and Charleston--Separation, with train elevated and roadway lowered.

Cost? 3 x $300 million = $0.9 billion? The entire original High Speed Rail proposition was sold to the public as being $10 billion. This cost is without Palo Alto Avenue included. Or a widening of the Embarcadero overcrossing. Measure B funding?--other cities to our south are getting there way ahead. Hard to see how this gets solved by a modest-sized city of 67,000.

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on Sep 29, 2022 at 12:56 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

"bus Caltrain passengers between the Palo Alto and Menlo Park stations"

After I stopped laughing at the above proposal, that riders would actually be down for getting off the train, and then waiting for a bus, that takes them to the next station past the bridge, then wait for another train to take them to wherever their original destination was ...

ok actually I'm still laughing.

NONE of this could be completed when CalTrain wasn't even running due to COVID? We are going to have to engineer another deadly plague to put a stop to ridership altogether to re-build that bridge. No way will people add an hour to their commute time, both ways, to accommodate this. They'll just drive cars. And won't it be snuggly on the 101 while everyone fights for space in the one "free" lane of the freeway their tax dollars bought years ago? Because with more cars on the road, converting all lanes but one to fastrak will be the one thing they can implement with zero dollars and zero advance notice. Well, they will have to spend more money on cameras that reach all across the lanes. But that's cheap and easy and they can do it in one night.

Even Carnac The Magnificent could see this one coming, in his grave.

Note to NeilsonBuchanan, remember the Embarcadero freeway in SF which was a bone of contention since it was built? It took an earthquake to get something done about that, too. Sometimes it requires a major shakeup to supercede earlier faulty (no pun intended) decisions.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 29, 2022 at 1:01 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

One wonders about quake risk….it’s clearly an old structure.
I think planning and action should be accelerated.
Don’t keep kicking the can on down the road, like with the other at grade rail crossings in Palo Alto. This is worthy of our politicians’ attention NOW.

Posted by ndn
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 29, 2022 at 1:10 pm

ndn is a registered user.

There are people with very valid concerns (Neilson Buchanan for one) and very workable solutions. . But it seems to me that many of the commenters are of the opinion that their desires should trump safety. But safety is paramount and temporary bussing is perfectly acceptable. Of course, for people who think only themselves count any whiff of temporary very minor change and safety for others is a trifling matter. I understand that. It seems self defeating to me. CALTRAIN rebuild that Bridge!

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 29, 2022 at 1:45 pm

Annette is a registered user.

This claims my attention: "while it continues to hold up reasonably well, Caltrain has determined that it is nearing the end of its lifespan . . ."

Good for Caltrain for monitoring this bridge and being proactive about improvements. This is exactly what they should be doing. It's hardly Caltrain's fault that Palo Alto has done nothing more about grade separation than talk, hold meetings, and pay consultants. There are, no doubt, people in Minneapolis who wish the proper authority had been proactive about the 35W bridge that collapsed into the river.

Posted by LongtimeResident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 29, 2022 at 3:18 pm

LongtimeResident is a registered user.

Here is another option, which I presented to Caltrain and the City council, at the meeting:

1) Extend Alma St over the creek into Menlo Park

2) Use the initial bridge infrastructure as a platform of a 2-track shoo-fly to rebuild the actual rail bridge

3) Once the new rail bridge is completed, pave shoo-fly bridge for autos

4) Close the current Palo Alto Ave rail crossing

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 29, 2022 at 3:18 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Safety issue. Have to fix it. Period. It is really too bad they didn't do this during Covid when many fewer train riders would have been impacted. Oh, well.

That said, according to Caltrain reps at the meeting where this was discussed, there are multiple jurisdictions that have to be engaged: San Mateo County, Santa Clara County (VTA), City of Menlo Park, Joint Powers Authority (JPA), City of Palo Alto, and Stanford. That'll take a while.

Posted by Old Steve
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Sep 29, 2022 at 4:09 pm

Old Steve is a registered user.

Until we passed the sales tax in Nov 2020, Caltrain had no idea whether they would even continue to operate. When that money started to flow, they could put this on a list and get it going. All of those agencies do need to be engaged, for various reasons, but Caltrain will be paying so they will have the largest say.

Posted by Marie
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 29, 2022 at 7:31 pm

Marie is a registered user.

What about the legal obligation to provide train tracks for freight trains continuously, which is one reason the costs for grade separations are so high?

We have some great plans for grade separation but it is my understanding that Caltrain has quietly said they won't approve any grade separations that won't accommodate four tracks, even though their current proposed solution is for two tracks in South Palo Alto. They want to be ready if things "change" in the future. Palo Alto has made all their plans based on the two track blended solution through South Palo Alto. If Palo Alto has to accommodate four tracks, it is back to the drawing board and probably quad gates and gridlock.

The problem is not Palo Alto. The XCAP working group has come up with some great solutions. The problem is Caltrain and Union Pacific (and the looming presence of HSR).

Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Sep 30, 2022 at 10:55 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

Watch the Caltrain’s full San Francisquito Bridge presentation to Palo Alto City Council’s Rail Committee here (beginning at the 49:45 mark): Web Link

There is clearly space for a temporary “shoofly” bridge to be dropped in (or built) across the creek on the upstream (El Camino) side of the existing 1902 bridge. Even if it was only a single-track bridge, this would still allow for coordinated two-way train traffic to continue, and therefore avoiding the “bus bridge”, while the old bridge is replaced … ideally with a pre-fab bridge that one or more carefully-placed cranes could more quickly drop into place than building a new bridge from scratch onsite.

Menlo Park’s dead-end of Alma at the creek could provide an ideal temporary equipment and materials staging area for this project. Ideally the bike-ped bridge could remain open with a detour around the staging area … but if not, a temporary closure and longer detour to the next downstream Palo Alto Ave. bike/ped bridge may be required.

Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 30, 2022 at 10:57 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

to Marie: I like your rationale.

And I encourage PA Weekly to deploy its ace reporter to summarize the rather clear powers of agencies involved in this scrum. Some have absolute power. Others have only the right to be consulted.

If we understood railroads and their powers, we all would be posting more rational comments when we understand those powers. Passenger and freight powers seem rather absolute. The wild card is who in the scrum has financial powers to buid new bridge or even paint the failing one.

Meanwhile every level of government has its hand out for funding from someone else. That is the proverbial description of a scrum.

My thanks go to Gennady for this summation.... and to Randy Popp for the Canadian video on how-to-fastrack a rail bridge.

Posted by Mildred Johnson
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 30, 2022 at 11:28 am

Mildred Johnson is a registered user.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

This bridge has been around since I was a child and it has served its purpose well.

Posted by Chase Belker
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 30, 2022 at 3:43 pm

Chase Belker is a registered user.

If the bridge structurally unsound, then replace it.

But if this is purely aesthetic measure, it is a waste of taxpayer money.

Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 1, 2022 at 7:59 am

Leslie York is a registered user.

"If the bridge structurally unsound, then replace it.

But if this is purely aesthetic measure, it is a waste of taxpayer money."

Did you read the article or watch the video? The bridge is on its last legs. It's 120 years old. Time for replacement.

Pat Burt wants to put a band-aid on it by "strengthening" it, even after a Caltrain rep explained to him why that's a bad idea — essentially you would have two major expenditures instead of one, but he kept coming back to "strengthening" instead of replacing. Get with it, Mr. Mayor.

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