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Palo Alto approaches key decision on grade separation

Original post made on Mar 14, 2019

Faced with a series of expensive, complex and, in some cases, deeply unpopular options for redesigning four local rail crossings, Palo Alto officials are preparing to invest more money and time into their lagging effort to choose a preferred alternative for the ambitious project.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, March 14, 2019, 9:23 AM

Comments (30)

24 people like this
Posted by efs
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 14, 2019 at 10:49 am

efs is a registered user.

What I see missing from all this is any recognition that we are talking about a railroad that runs from San Francisco to San Jose, not just through Palo Alto. This desperately needs to be a regional discussion. The options might look much different if all cities were working together on a solution. A tunnel might even become more possible, but we can't have a "system" in which trains run up to viaducts and down into trenches all along the Peninsula.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2019 at 11:08 am

Posted by efs, a resident of Crescent Park

>> What I see missing from all this is any recognition that we are talking about a railroad that runs from San Francisco to San Jose, not just through Palo Alto.

It is bigger than that, even. It was historically part of a railroad network that served the entire United States, and in fact, played a major role in WWII. Sadly, a large part of that network has been replaced with an environmentally much more destructive road network. We can bring the railroad network back to life, and every significant step will be a net positive with respect to fossil fuel usage and CO2 emissions. Everyone will benefit. IOW, it isn't just about Palo Alto.

>> This desperately needs to be a regional discussion. The options might look much different if all cities were working together on a solution.

Absolutely. But, Palo Alto can't afford to fix this on its own.

Do no harm. Don't do anything right now. Palo Alto can't afford to build a below-grade solution on its own, so, doing nothing is the better option. We will just have to wait until the statewide and even national significance is understood.


14 people like this
Posted by Giraffe
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 14, 2019 at 11:34 am

Giraffe is a registered user.

I wish someone could tell me why closing Churchill would help anything. This would divert ALL of its traffic to Embarcadero, East Meadow etc, which are already too busy during peak hours. And it would divert the traffic 24 hrs / day, not just during peak hours. Leave it open and some people would choose to use it while some would not. Could also ban/restrict left turns to increase the time straight through traffic has to cross. And, I suspect that the traffic lights and train signals could be better coordinated.


4 people like this
Posted by Hassan
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 14, 2019 at 12:14 pm

"... increase the weekday trains from 92 to 114 trains ..." Is that really a big increase? "This will include about 20 trains per hour during the peak commute hours, or about a train every three minutes ..."
What are these numbers now??
I must be missing something about "... they see grade separation as the ideal solution to this problem". I hope somebody can explain.


5 people like this
Posted by Martin
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 14, 2019 at 1:45 pm

One reason why closing Churchill night help is because is two reasons:
1) Cost. Doing one grade separation is easier
2) Today, 92 trains cause gates to come down. Without the gates interfering with traffic timing, the remaining east Meadow crossing would now have additional capacity.
3) There's also more road-space to work with at E Meadow which could further be used to increase capacity and make up for closing Charleston.

I also wonder if anyone asked people who currently own the properties that might be affected would be willing to sell out. For example, one of the houses on corner of Meadow and Park is estimated at 3 million. What if city offered $5 million for it. Sure increases cost of the project by, but that could result in savings elsewhere. Or owners might be planning on selling anyway, so it'll save city headaches.


3 people like this
Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 14, 2019 at 1:53 pm

It's possible that the Transbay Terminal will only accomodate 10 trains per hour!

"Transbay Terminal — yet another problem. Train space might be too small"

Source: Web Link


11 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2019 at 5:41 pm

Let the Palo Alto residents pay for their own CalTrain solution! Of course, this may not leave them with enough money to pay people to take the SATs for their kids!


12 people like this
Posted by Wait for Palo Alto- they know best
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2019 at 6:54 pm

The world will just have wait until Palo Alto makes a decision, that is just the way things are. The world revolves around Palo,alto- so in another 20-30 years Palo Alto will reach a consensus that will make it through the Palo Alto process and given all the neighborhood watchdogs and busybodies, who knows if a consensus will ever be reached.
Do not expect the council to suddenly develop a spine and make a decision, plus the weekly’s “opinion” will be determined by whomever they are pleasing that month.
The best idea is to terminate the train on each end of,Palo Alto and then have people bike through town and catch the continuation of the line.


6 people like this
Posted by Wait another year
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 14, 2019 at 7:03 pm

With filseth et al focusing on pasz goals, I doubt any progress will be made this year on the plan.


10 people like this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 14, 2019 at 7:56 pm

DTN Paul is a registered user.

Prediction: No action, no decisions, more "study."


7 people like this
Posted by Staying Young Through Kids
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 14, 2019 at 8:41 pm

Staying Young Through Kids is a registered user.

Closing Churchill? This is a terrible idea that continues to lack much conversation...While there are a LOT of downsides, the one thing I haven't heard discussed much is the fact that PAUSD and PALY use Churchill as a main connection to their facilities.

Does PAUSD plan to move their Corp Yard and Bus Parking?

Will all PALY and PAUSD traffic now be pushed to El Camino and Embarcadero?

The city council is horrified about the dissatisfaction of the voters if property acquisition is required as part of this process. The fear of using eminent domain is driving every decision. Well...when you make an omelette that needs to feed an entire region you're going to need to break some eggs.

I believe most of our 70,000 citizens, of whom perhaps 100 would be bought out of their homes, and the 30,000 or so (non voting) daytime employees would feel bad about taking these homes, but would swallow hard, and vote to keep 5 out of 6 crossings instead of just 4 out of 6. A loss of 1/3 or even 1/6 of our crossings (and the sensible geographic spread they offer) would be amazingly impactful to our city. Remember, there are no plans to make the Oregon or Embarcadero underpasses any larger!

Of course, exploring a way to keep the North Alma crossing open would be a HUGE win as well.

Without new stations it's not as if the additional trains will be taking locals from Charleston to shopping or jobs in Menlo Park, or from Downtown PA to Mitchell Park. And, no...MOST people will not walk or bike these distances in the rain, in the cold, or in the dark. Sure, some will, but most will not...

I'd beg the CC to be creative, spend more, or put it to the voters. This 50+ year decision is one which will span generations for our city. It's much too important to be made by such a small and divided body which already lacks full support of the public. This is a decision which requires not only input from the public, but a vote of the citizens of the city.

PS...As an example of what a loss of 2/6 of our crossings would be like...imagine El Camino or US 101 being reduced from 6 lanes to 4...fewer drivers? Probably not. More traffic congestion? Absolutely.

PPS...How does the city plan to get traffic from Northbound Alma (from Oregon North) to Westbound Embarcadero or to El Camino? Are Lincoln and Emerson or University Ave ready to handle that traffic? Will property need to be seized to make that work? Will this mean more traffic pushed into neighborhoods?

Lots of questions...Please problem solve, put together the BEST plan, get a cost (a real cost), and put it to the voters!





13 people like this
Posted by Safety Sandshrew
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 14, 2019 at 9:18 pm

Wait a minute... They want to do grade separation because they expect Caltrains to arrive every 3 minutes (which is awesome!) once electrification is complete, and these frequent trains will block road traffic. But electrification will be complete in 2021. And this grade separation won't be complete until 2031?? That is waaaaay too late. Within a year of Caltrain electrification, people will begin taking other routes to get where they need to go. Either they need to speed up the grade separation by a factor of 6 and complete it in 2 years instead of 12, or they need to come up with another solution that can be completed by the time Caltrain electrification is done. If it's not that urgent, then why do it at all?


20 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 14, 2019 at 9:21 pm

Palo Alto should not spend another second or another dime on this process. Caltrain's rider projections are about as valid as HSR's. The sky isn't falling and the world won't end tomorrow if we decide to leave everything as-is.


18 people like this
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 15, 2019 at 12:12 am

JR: You apparently haven't ridden Caltrain recently. I invite you to take any train between 7 to 9am at either University of Cal Avenue.


15 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 15, 2019 at 6:48 am

Annette is a registered user.

I am going to make a plea here for some smart sequencing of decisions and, ultimately, work.

I am against SB50 for all sorts of reasons, including that it is predicated on Palo Alto being transit rich. Even a cursory read of the grade separation situation leads to the conclusion that Palo Alto is transit challenged now and the process of getting to a better situation via grade separation is going to cause major circulation problems. Why add more cars, more parking issues, and more people to that scenario? Also, even if decisions were made quickly and construction was done the Arrillaga way (quickly, efficiently, and well) the improvement of just the train portion of "transit rich" is at least a decade away.

So why add to the problem by densifying an already dysfunctional corridor? Why not finalize the train decision, then get the work done, then assess whether traffic circulation has improved, then assess capacity for growth. Theory-based planning (or, more accurately, theory-based acting) hasn't served us well.


6 people like this
Posted by Martin
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 15, 2019 at 9:14 am

It might worth pointing out that Mountain View is planning to simply close the Castro street crossing and funnel cars over the existing Shoreline overpass where an extra ramp gets added.

Of course, a bike/pedestrian underpass will very likely to be built and neighbors should demand that - perhaps even extend it across Alma.

Lastly, is <1/2 mile detour really that harsh? I mean, there are plenty of areas along the corridor where residents need to drive a mile or more out of the way.


4 people like this
Posted by TBM
a resident of another community
on Mar 15, 2019 at 10:18 am

@ "Mountain View is planning to simply close the Castro street crossing"

The advantage is that the stub-end of Castro street can be re-developed as a pedestrian plaza with bars and restaurants which will add value of the adjacent transit hub.

The stub-end of a closed Churchill is not so ripe for development.

I suggest that the city should arrange for the house on the East corner of Churchill and Alma be picked up and re-located onto the stub-end of Churchill on the West side of the tracks. The vacant plot on the corner of Alma/Churchill can then be used as the entrance to a pedestrian underpass that crosses Alma and Caltrain.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 15, 2019 at 10:34 pm

^ I love hanging out on the stub-end of California Avenue. Not.


11 people like this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 17, 2019 at 12:04 am

This article made me laugh. The topic of grade separation in Palo Alto has become high comedy.

"It's time to do something about grade separation! Let's have another coffee klatch at Mitchell Park and maybe we'll have a workable plan in another 15 - 20 years."

"Palo Alto should not spend another second or another dime on this process. Caltrain's rider projections are about as valid as HSR's. The sky isn't falling and the world won't end tomorrow if we decide to leave everything as-is."

He is absolutely right.

Don't be suckers, Palo Alto. The looming Caltrain expansion may never come to pass. Stranger things have happened, e.g. CA HSR disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Leave it to Palo Alto to spend billions on studies and planning and construction and "cost overruns", only to have this predicted avalanche of Caltrains never materialize. CA HSR and the "blended approach" are dead so there won't be bullet trains whizzing through town at breakneck speeds.

So Palo Alto will spend billions to grade separate and be on the hook for higher property taxes and bond indebtedness for generations to come for a HSR project that died a merciful death, and for Caltrain expansion that never materialized. Suckers.

Seriously, leaving the crossings as is is the least disruptive option, both economically and in terms of disrupting the cityscape. Palo Alto was never designed to accomodate so much rail service. Problem #1 is that so many of the residences are built right up against the tracks with no room for expansion.


2 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2019 at 12:22 am

Just close the crossings. That’s what Mountain View is doing at Castro. Would save a lot of money.


4 people like this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 17, 2019 at 1:40 am

"Mountain View is planning to simply close the Castro street crossing."

We did that over a half century ago It's called "California Avenue".

We closed it 50+ years ago yet the trains keep coming!


2 people like this
Posted by @Annette
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2019 at 1:53 am

"I am against SB50 for all sorts of reasons, including that it is predicated on Palo Alto being transit rich."

It's a jobs center with a Caltrain stop. That's exactly where the housing should go, and rightly so.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 17, 2019 at 1:54 am

I remember the grade crossing on El Camino just south of Page Mill.
We ripped out the tracks. Problem solved.


2 people like this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 17, 2019 at 3:09 am

"I remember the grade crossing on El Camino just south of Page Mill."

That was not part of the main line. It was part of the Los Altos branch. The tracks were later taken up and Foothill Expwy. built on the right-of-way.


2 people like this
Posted by bob.smith
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2019 at 3:20 am

Palo Alto city council should follow Tesla's lead and ask all residents who want a tunnel to pay a $10,000 deposit.


20 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2019 at 4:19 pm

Caltrain electrification will probably never be completed.

No one expects this project to be completed within budget and we are no longer in a social/political environment where the voters and/or the federal government are going to put up with paying 2-3x the initial projected cost.

The contractors that received the sweetheart deals for this boondoggle are already revising their plans to suck as money as possible out of the initial budget with the full knowledge that it will never be completed and never have to actually function.

Hawaii's HART, California's CalHSR, and PCJPB's Caltrain electrification have never been about transportation. They have always been first and foremost a way to funnel taxpayer dollars through sweetheart contractors and into the political campaign coffers of developer friendly politicians.

Like HART and CalHSR, Caltrain electrification is sadly just another real-estate scam.


19 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 17, 2019 at 5:18 pm

Nothing I've seen in all the past discussion, this article, or any of the followup, has demonstrated the need for the referenced "deadline". There aren't any good options. That is, no preferred options that the city can afford on its own. Without regional/state support, the City of Palo Alto doesn't have a "make things better" option that CPA can afford.

There is no "deadline" for making a bad decision. Let's just put this on hold for a while. Other funding will probably materialize in the next decade. For now, let's just make do.


7 people like this
Posted by TBM
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2019 at 5:20 pm

^^^^ Where are you getting your 'facts' from?

The latest status report shows that the electrification program is coming in on budget: Web Link

Real Estate costs are 1.44% of the overall project expenditure.



Like this comment
Posted by spike
a resident of Esther Clark Park
10 hours ago

Tunnel. The real estate developers will pay for it gladly. Give them the lots over the tunnel.

Voila!


Like this comment
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Old Palo Alto
4 hours ago

"The latest status report shows that the electrification program is coming in on budget"

This time around the cost of electrification is being picked up by Caltrain (PCJPB).

When CPA builds its gold-plated trench/tunnel/viaduct/stairway to heaven, the new ROW will have to be electrified all over again, and who will pick up the tab? PCJPB sure as heck is not going to pay twice to electrify Palo Alto. My money is on CPA paying to have the new, grade separated ROW through Palo Alto electrified starting from square one at the city's expense, not at the railroad's expense.This is the price CPA pays for dragging its fanny year after year.

When you snooze you lose.


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