A community meeting on separating train tracks from roads is happening TONIGHT, Wednesday November 28 at 6-8pm at the Mitchell Park Community Center, in the El Palo Alto Room, 3700 Middlefield Road. This meeting will focus on the options still on the table for the Charleston Road and Meadow Drive crossings. The options for this stretch are:
1) Trench: Lower the train about 25' into a trench to go under the road;
2) Hybrid: Raise the train about 11' and lower the road about 5' to go under the tracks;
3) Viaduct: Raise the train about 16' to go over the road
Charleston and Meadow are close enough together that whatever is done at one crossing will be done at both. A future meeting on Wednesday January 23rd will discuss options for the other crossings at Churchill and Palo Alto Ave, as well as the (non) possibility of a Citywide Tunnel.
At the meeting tonight, rough cost estimates will be presented for the three options listed above, as well as pros and cons, possible barriers to constructibility, impacts to traffic during construction (likely loss of two lanes of Alma for 1-2 years), and 2D and 3D model visualizations of these options.
A common Palo Alto dream this past decade has been to put the train in a trench or better yet a tunnel: out of sight, out of mind. Unfortunately, paying for this dream would be a nightmare, as a white paper earlier this year showed these options to be astronomically expensive, literally billions of dollars. One council member estimated that to pay for the tunnel through development fees, the City would need to allow for 7 Sales Force Towers worth of development in our city, obviously way more development than residents are prepared to swallow. (The costs are shown on page 27 of the paper, which you can find at Web Link This White Paper listed the cost of trenching only under Meadow and Charleston at between $750M to $1 Billion. Even this "reduced" cost is enormous. To put it in context, in the past 23 years, the city's largest bonds where the 2010 and 2013 Libraries and Mitchell Community Center bonds, together worth $76M. So the low-estimate trenching cost is ten times more than the most we've borrowed in over 20 years!
There are two things to note on cost:
1) The city is expected to receive about $350M in 2016 Measure B funds to offset some of its grade separation costs. So whichever options are chosen for the four currently-at-grade crossings, the total cost will be reduced by that sum.
2) However much money we need to borrow to pay for the rest of the cost typically ends up costing the taxpayers about twice the sum received due to paying off interest. So if we need to borrow $400M, we'll end up paying about $800M at the end of the 30 or 50 year period.
All the options are expensive, but Trenching is the most expensive, and it is not necessarily the best option from a usage and aesthetic perspective. A pretty major downside of the Trenching option that was recently revealed is that homeowners next to the trench would likely need to lose all of their trees near the trench. The reason is that the Trench's retaining walls need ground anchors which extend into the soil about as far as the wall is tall, to keep the walls from getting pushed over by the soil they hold back. They need to keep deep-rooted trees away from damaging the anchors. At the last Council Rail Committee meeting I asked how far back would this tree exclusion zone extend and was assured this information would be shared at tonight's community meeting. Personally, I'd rather keep my trees! The Trench will need to be pumped free of water, given the water table is nearer to the surface than the full depth of the trench. How many hundreds of gallons of water will we be pumping out of our groundwater each year? How noisy will these pumps be? The Trench crosses two creeks, with potentially serious implications to our flood protection ability, as well as ecological impacts if we want to restore our creeks. It is not possible to cross the Trench, except by building a bridge over it. The Meadow and Charleston crossings would be bridges basically level with the ground, but north of Meadow and South of Charleston, if we wanted to add a bike or pedestrian crossing, it would need to be a bridge that went up and over, because the trench starts to rise to the surface, and the train needs 24.5' of vertical clearance.
I have been advocating for the Viaduct option, where the train is elevated basically on pillars, with open space between the pillars. This option has many advantages over the Trench:
1) It is more affordable, exactly how much more so has not yet been fully evaluated, but quite possibly half the cost of the Trench.
2) There is the possibility that the Viaduct can be constructed between the existing western track and Alma, leaving the track open through construction, and possibly for freight after, and thus avoid the cost and traffic impacts of building temporary tracks down Alma during construction (temporary tracks are required by the Trench and Hybrid options).
3) With the viaduct east of the western track, it pushes the train as far away as possible from the houses on Park Blvd.
4) No ground water pumping is required, no underground utilities are impacted, the creeks run free of obstruction.
5) People can potentially cross under the viaduct anywhere they have about 6'-8' of clearance (if there is no rail traffic on the western track)
6) Residents near the Viaduct can keep their backyard trees.
One reason people like the Trench and not the Viaduct is because of sound, so let me address that here. It is my understanding that dropping the train in a trench will reduce the sound of the train by 10dB, which is equivalent to halving its sound (each 10dB drop halves the perceived sound, and each 10dB increase doubles it). Raising the train on a structure increases the sound by about 4dB so an increase of about 40%. However, there are proven viaduct designs, for trains of the same speed as planned for Palo Alto (80mph max), which reduce the vibration and sound by 20dB compared to an elevated structure without these design features. Therefore, a viaduct so designed could actually be as quiet or quieter than one in a trench. In all options, the overall sound of the train will be reduced because the trains will be using more quiet electric motors instead of the loud diesel engines, and because without grade crossings, the train doesn't need to ring its bells and blare its horns.
The other reason people say they like the Trench more than the Viaduct is the visual impact of having an elevated structure behind their fences. But frankly, lots of people have elevated structures behind their fences, they are called 2- and 3-story houses, and are often much closer. The viaduct could be about 45' away from their back fences, about 15' clear above the ground closest to the crossings, and with a full-height sound wall they might be a total of ~40' from the ground, reducing in height beyond the crossings. The viaduct would be obscured by trees and with savings of potentially 100's of millions of dollars, surely we can make it aesthetically pleasing, cladding with wood or living walls, and obscuring with trees.
I am greatly concerned that this decision is being considered in a vacuum without taking into account what else we as a city may need to invest in, with climate change and sea level rise looming around the corner, and a 12-year deadline to get off fossil fuels else bake in a hell scape. Is blowing all of our money and borrowing half a billion dollars for this one project the best use of our resources? However you may feel about this project, I encourage you to attend the meeting tonight, to learn more about the project at the website Web Link and to let your city council members know how you feel, before they make a decision without your input.
(The attached image is based on a model I made in April. "Official" visualizations by the city's project consultants and cool movies from their 3D models will be shown at the meeting tonight.)