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Palo Alto drops tunnels from menu of rail options

Original post made on Apr 27, 2021

As Palo Alto plods ahead in its journey to redesign three rail crossings, the City Council is facing a menu of imperfect options, each unappetizing in its own way.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, April 27, 2021, 2:01 AM

Comments (36)

Posted by JR McDugan
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 27, 2021 at 7:27 am

JR McDugan is a registered user.

The viaduct / "elevated freeway for trains" option needs to be taken off the table as well. It is not a viable option and is strongly opposed by the community. The two realistic options left are the trench, or "do nothing" / just build a bike bridge (or 3) over the tracks.

Note to editor: "Carlesbad" should be spelled "Carlsbad".


Posted by Palo Alto native
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 27, 2021 at 7:45 am

Palo Alto native is a registered user.

Churchill closure plus mitigations proposal had a 6 to 3 approval by XCAP Committee which spent 100s of hours researching and discussing alternatives. If Mountain View can close Castro Street in 1 day and Palo Alto has now spent 4 years with previous CC and staff supporting this proposal, why is more time and money now going to be spent delaying the decision. XCAP discussed City Criteria for grade crossings many times. The safety and huge volume of cars on Alma. We’re studied by traffic engineers. The best solution is Closure with mitigations. We need to live with ....not a perfect solution, but one that is the best alternative!


Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 27, 2021 at 8:19 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Interesting discussion last night with a lot of POV'S. A person needs to look at how any one city is situated on the coast line. MV has a more space between 101 east and the coast. Sunnyvale has lot of land east of 101 through Moffat field. Unfortunately PA is lacking much of a buffer between 101 and the coast line and much is already filled with water and tidal basin. We have already had flooding issues. The golf course is where it is because of the potential for flooding. Given our location on the coast line a tunnel would be a prescription for disaster. No other city is using a tunnel or even wants to use a tunnel. Most other cities on the tracks have already rebuilt their Caltrain depots. The tracks are where they should be so the discussion is what to do with the car interface.


Posted by GregPA
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 27, 2021 at 9:43 am

GregPA is a registered user.

Thanks for accurately quoting me on the disadvantages of the viaduct.

I hope that no one takes the quotes from me in this article as some sort of an anti-viaduct sentiment on my part. I was also careful to point out the big disruptions, the huge cost, and the impact on the creeks caused by the trench option, the significant property impacts of the underpass, and the uncertainty introduced to all the options by Caltrain's desire to be able to run four tracks through Palo Alto at some point.

We also went to a lot of trouble in the XCAP process and last night to try and quantify the noise impacts of the various alternatives. The data that we have today shows that there is not a real difference in noise between the alternatives. The noise prediction report shows that for all four alternatives, at the second row of houses the peak noise impact is 61 dBa in the worst case, which is about the volume of a normal conversation, and that much of that noise would come not from the trains but from the cars on Alma Street. No amount of train elevation is going to make that train sound louder as one moves farther away.

- Greg Brail


Posted by Alice Schaffer Smith
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 27, 2021 at 10:29 am

Alice Schaffer Smith is a registered user.

Why can't we just ask all the zillionaires in Palo Alto for a subscription to build the tunnel and be done with this issue.


Posted by vmshadle
a resident of Meadow Park
on Apr 27, 2021 at 11:14 am

vmshadle is a registered user.

Sorry, another grammar check, Mr. Sheyner.

"It will effect 20 times the people it currently effects," Otto said.

The proper verbs here are "affect/affects."


Posted by Mikey Palo Alto
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2021 at 11:15 am

Mikey Palo Alto is a registered user.

The U.S. does a pitiful job of planning and funding public transportation. Any costs should be looked at in the context of the larger picture: taking cars off the highways and incentivizing use of carbon-free public transportation. Too little too late, but let's start now to think longer term.


Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 27, 2021 at 11:50 am

Allen Akin is a registered user.

@GregPA: A question on the noise issue...

My acoustics book says line-of-sight between source and measurement points makes a HUGE difference, and based on the amount of street noise at the first and second floors of my house, I agree. -)

So while I can believe that there's little difference in the peak noise measured very close to the tracks, I'd also suspect that elevating the source makes a very large difference in the total number of people subjected to increased noise.

Is there a "noise map" that shows how the additional noise is distributed over the surrounding areas for each of the alternatives?


Posted by Art Liberman
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 27, 2021 at 12:10 pm

Art Liberman is a registered user.

The story doesn't mention the XCAP recommendation for new ped/bike crossings at Loma Verde and Seale. No matter which option is selected for the grade crossings, there will be years of dislocation of the current crossing points. Thank you Nadia for pointing out that the City must build these new crossings to enable our students to get to/from school.


Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2021 at 12:13 pm

Donald is a registered user.

The viaduct is the best option for non-rail traffic. The Meadow/Charleston plan for keeping the tracks at ground level is ridiculously complicated, with drivers wanting to turn left from Alma being forced to turn right and go around a roundabout a block away. Bicyclists and pedestrians going one way would have to cross the road twice. With a viaduct everybody can go straight or turn either way. Very simple and direct and easy to understand.


Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 27, 2021 at 12:45 pm

Annette is a registered user.

It is clear that the XCAP for this worked hard and delivered a thorough report that evaluated the pros and cons of each alternative. Good for them - and thank you to them.


Posted by felix
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 27, 2021 at 1:28 pm

felix is a registered user.

I too worry about the 3 creeks. I also worry about the viaduct.

Do people understand how high and long it is? 20 feet high. Cars are about 8 feet - those are additional I think, with sound walls. And wires and poles are even higher. So a lot is way up there.

Length - It would start at Ferne Ave (down by San Antonio) to the south and extend to (I think) to Loma Verde, north. Open to correction on that one.

Point is - the viaduct is massive, high and long cause it has to achieve the proper grade, not just a short up and down over 2 crossings.

There is no doubt it would change the nature of Palo Alto in dramatic ways, visually and to the fabric of our community - making our ability harder to knit ourselves together as one.

We didn’t have a north-south Geo-divide until Oregon Expy was created to service Stanford Industrial Park. The viaduct would add an East-West divide for south PA? That is good for no one.

And remember, the sleeping elephant is the North crossing - Palo Alto Ave near ECR. That’s not dealt with yet. At one time, a viaduct discussed as an option for the length of the city. Could it come back? How would you like that?


Posted by Evan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 27, 2021 at 2:45 pm

Evan is a registered user.

To Carlin or anyone else complaining about noise: You do realize Caltrain is electrifying the railroad right now, right, and that part of the reason for the noise is that we have at-grade crossings that require horns?

The very heavy diesel trains of today will get replaced with lighter, quieter trains. And, the sooner we can finally do the damn grade separation rather than arguing over it, the at-grade crossings go away and with that, so do the horns.

So even if it's elevated, the train will be much, much quieter than today.


Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2021 at 2:49 pm

Donald is a registered user.

The tracks already divide our community and I don't see how a viaduct will change that. It is as high as a 2-story house, of which there are many right next to the tracks. Yes, there will be poles for wires that are higher but they are sparsely placed. Saying an option will change our community is not much of an argument against it since the trains have changed life here and are going to change it more in the future. We have to do something, and whatever we do will bring change. The question is which change we want.


Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 27, 2021 at 3:17 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

@Evan: There will be more trains, in the long run a *lot* more trains, and possibly a doubling of the number of tracks so that more trains could pass a given point at once. Cumulative increases in noise would matter, even if the noise of an individual train is reduced. Increases in noise over a wider area would matter to the people in that area, even if the peak noise level right next to the tracks goes down.


Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Apr 27, 2021 at 3:41 pm

chris is a registered user.

For people who that a viaduct divides the city, it is much less divisive than train tracks at grade level with 20 or 30 trains an hour.


Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 27, 2021 at 6:21 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

We have people arguing against the use of cars, saying we need to use public transportation. That is a train or bus. A train is not a negative - it is suppose to be a positive. The whole point of putting denser housing next to the tracks is what half are arguing for. Go up to Redwood City at their train station. Huge amount of new apartments directly next to the tracks off Jefferson and shopping center. MP - all new building going up on ECR next to tracks in back.

We need to upgrade the use of busses on ECR - create indentations for the length of the busses so that they can load and unload - or wait - and not take over the street lane. Create a transportation center at SU and Embarcadero with overhang for the large buses on ECR and connection to smaller busses for SU campus and PA downtown. If we made better use of the buses on ECR that is where most of the apartments are - on the backside of the businesses coming down all the way from San Antonio.
You cannot argue about the use of cars without providing an upgraded transportation system. As you go up ECR in San Mateo County you can see the bicycle/pedestrian tunnels under the tracks.


Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 27, 2021 at 6:40 pm

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Still no mention of what will happen at Alma/ECR/Sand Hill.


Posted by Be realistic
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 27, 2021 at 8:04 pm

Be realistic is a registered user.

Closing the Charleston crossing is no less idiotic now than it was a couple of months ago. People are literally trying to slit the veins of the city, or stop the blood flow, whatever. The cost, you say? Why China, Japan, and pretty much all developed countries have the funds for infrastructure? Only the first economy in the world cannot afford a damn viaduct. Sorry for the anger; this post will be deleted but there is no patience, any more. What century are we in ...
Web Link
Web Link


Posted by AlexDeLarge
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2021 at 8:13 pm

AlexDeLarge is a registered user.

Well, that bike/ped crossing at Fabian Way is coming along nicely after nearly 10 years. This should be a cinch...


Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 27, 2021 at 9:06 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The harder they work to find a cheap solution the more it will become obvious that the most expensive solution, tunneling, is in fact the best solution.

Ypu want it cheap, you get it cheap.


Posted by WilliamR
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2021 at 10:11 pm

WilliamR is a registered user.

@ Peter

After you invest a couple of billion on the tunnel, then what? JPB is still going to own the ground-level right-of-way. It's not Palo Alto's real estate to build on.


Posted by roger
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 27, 2021 at 10:37 pm

roger is a registered user.

what are other cities going to do?---we do not live in a vacuum----who is going to pay for this?


Posted by Rob
a resident of Mayfield
on Apr 28, 2021 at 2:38 am

Rob is a registered user.

Dont forget all the other underground projects that exist. Why would they nix a 400 million plan but instead want one 3 to 4 times as expensive. 2 years ago they ripped all of downtown up into Stanford. Many years ago Facebook was talking of making a tunnel to caltrain. And lets not forget the underground water tower downtown by the train under the soccer field


Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 28, 2021 at 8:36 am

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"JPB is still going to own the ground-level right-of-way. It's not Palo Alto's real estate to build on."

Easy = they sell the air rights for a LOT of money.

Much of NYC and Chicago are built on air rights over the train right of ways.

Web Link

Web Link


Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 28, 2021 at 9:29 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

All - get in your car and ride ECR up through San Mateo County. The majority of the rails are on an elevated berm because the Caltrain is in commercial sections of the cities. The Depots have been revitalized and the parking all planned out. Ride south - Caltrain is planned with lite rail stations sharing some of the load.
Palo Alto Caltrain is in a residential section of the city. That is a problem unique to PA. Every one else has moved on and has their ducks in order. No one is going to make tunnels. Your closest neighbor MP has extensive new building on ECR. If they were going to do anything different it would already be done.


Posted by Bil
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 28, 2021 at 11:38 am

Bil is a registered user.

Looks like any of the options studied have serious downsides, wonder if it could be that there is no viable alternative, at least any alternatives should have been considered years ago, recall the San Antonio overpass from 1960, but hindsight is always 20-20. ;-( One way to ease congestion at Alma/Embarcadero site would be to reconstruct the bridge and underpass. Not a simple undertaking but the site is a choke point, and probably would be opposition to it. May sound silly, but how about a band-aid approach to the Charleston/Churchill intersections - post traffic officers there to direct traffic during peak hours? It has been tried in other areas with a degree of success...


Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 28, 2021 at 11:50 am

Bystander is a registered user.

One word, incompetence. I don't get this at all. Why it is a city by city issue and why it is not Caltrain's issue. We have 5 crossings at grade. We used to have one at Cal Ave which I'm told was very useful for those who lived here then. We have 2 high schools both the same side of the tracks and approximately half the students have to cross the tracks to get to school.

The incompetence to not have worked this out decades ago is beyond ridiculous. Anyone would think this was a poor, third world country, looking at our infrastructure. In fact, poor countries are able to make their commuter trains much better than ours, and that is embarrassingly beyond reproach for us.


Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 29, 2021 at 10:55 am

Me 2 is a registered user.

"There will be more trains, in the long run a *lot* more trains, and possibly a doubling of the number of tracks so that more trains could pass a given point at once. "

I seriously doubt that there will be that many more trains. As long as we have a Residentialist mindset on the peninsula, we won't have enough density to support much more frequent train service. Why do you think VTA keeps wanting to take away bus service from us?

Fixed rail doesn't work when our jobs and housing are spread across the peninsula and South Bay as it is today and into the future. And now that jobs and people are fleeing San Francisco, there's less of a need to feed the city.

Besides, our Residentialist-led housing price inflation has done it's job of driving people out. I guess that's what you all wanted anyway.


Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2021 at 3:01 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Dear Me2,

Please read the Stanford GUP EIR (last round). It clearly states that Stanford's growth alone will fill the additional capacity this increase the train service increase will provide. Help me understand why they aren't helping to pay for that grade seps that service increase necessitates.



Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 29, 2021 at 3:20 pm

Allen Akin is a registered user.

@Me 2: Caltrain's service plan is summarized here: Web Link It calls for an increase from 5 to 8 trains per hour during commute hours, and an increase from 1 to 6 trains per hour mid-day and weekends. If HSR ever happens, that would add 4 more trains per hour.

The way I read the boarding numbers, the need for more trains doesn't depend on housing density in the middle of the line. Most people are coming from or going to San Jose and San Francisco. If tech companies keep expanding on the Peninsula, that demand would continue to rise.

"Fixed rail doesn't work when our jobs and housing are spread across the peninsula and South Bay as it is today and into the future."

Agreed. Continued explosive growth would require a lot more than just Caltrain expansion. It would require decades of transportation projects and tens to hundreds of billions of tax dollars. Here's an example in San Diego: Web Link


Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 29, 2021 at 8:04 pm

Me 2 is a registered user.

"Please read the Stanford GUP EIR (last round). It clearly states that Stanford's growth alone will fill the additional capacity this increase the train service increase will provide. "

This presumes that people who will be working at Stanford live near a Caltrain station. Chances are, given how the peninsula and South Bay are laid out, they won't be.

" Caltrain's service plan is summarized here: Web Link It calls for an increase from 5 to 8 trains per hour during commute hours, and an increase from 1 to 6 trains per hour mid-day and weekends. If HSR ever happens, that would add 4 more trains per hour."

Caltrain's projections are on shaky ground. They have a "build it and they will come" mindset. Heck, even before COVID-19, Caltrain ridership leveled off and even *fell* a bit. The straight line projection fallacy is all over the Caltrain plan.


Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 30, 2021 at 12:33 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Today on the news Biden is talking Amtrak and all of the funding for transportation. I am a fan of Amtrak - was in Aptos area when the ACE went by - WOW. A number of local employees lived in the upper valley trail lines - took the train and had a car at the golf course. This really worked well for them.
PA has a limited role due to location but that role will expand when we get the Dumbarton rail crossing. That will hook up with the Caltrain.

HSR's big problem is that we are using a lot of foreign companies to do the job. That is contrary to Biden's "Use America" POV. We could increase our participation if we used a US company like Bechtel to manage this job. Hey HSR - get this project completely under US labor and management. We cannot have this much US money and labor going out the door.


Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 30, 2021 at 8:24 pm

Me 2 is a registered user.

"HSR's big problem is that we are using a lot of foreign companies to do the job"

Uh no. HSR's big problem is that it's unnecessary when we have airports.


Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 30, 2021 at 11:53 pm

Leslie York is a registered user.

As proof of the incompetence of Palo Alto's committee of amateur rail planners, time and money continue to be spent studying trenches and tunnels without any outreach to Caltrain whatsoever. Caltrain (PCJPB) owns the right-of-way, the tracks, the trains and the stations. How does Caltrain feel about its tracks, trains and two stations being submerged? We don't know because we've never asked. What happens if storm flooding makes a trench/tunnel impassable, halting all Caltrain service up and down the peninsula? What happens if pumps break down? CPA has a horrible record of dealing with flooding, c.f. Oregon expwy. What about the water table and creek crossings? There is no natural drainage along the rail ROW. Will there be four tracks in this contemplated trench/tunnel? Caltrain will require it. How much will that add to the cost? A trench/tunnel would have to address these potential hazards.

Palo Alto is the only peninsula city even considering a trench/tunnel. Burlingame has already studied and rejected the idea.

All Caltrain has to do is say "no" to a trench/tunnel through Palo Alto and that will be the end of that. All that time and money spent for naught.

A rail trench/tunnel is a nice solution if you live in Fantasyland.


Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 1, 2021 at 9:06 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Correcting my statement above - the ACE and Amtrak comes through Alviso with an ACE, Amtrak station on Tasman and Lafayette St. near the Santa Clara Convention Center, Great America, and ball park. There is a lot on money invested in rail systems despite our arguments about Caltrain. If the Dumbarton rail crossing gets put in we have a lot more opportunities to spin our rail opportunities. How about getting an ACE to Sacramento from the PA train Depot? They used to have a big jazz event there on Memorial day - jazz bands all over the old part city. Better than driving - or taking a BIKE. We are going to have to start rationing the bike people who seem to be driving the PA road department. Need to get people back on the rails.


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