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Where the Palo Alto City Council candidates stand on rail crossings

Original post made on Sep 18, 2022

This year's seven City Council candidates explain which designs they support for Palo Alto's rail crossings and how to get the work done.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Sunday, September 18, 2022, 8:39 AM

Comments (19)

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 18, 2022 at 10:58 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Thank you Doria Summa, Ed Lauing and Alex Comsa for saying that the Churchill crossing needs more study to avoid pushing additional traffic into the neighborhood.

"Churchill crossing: the closure of Churchill may not be practical since the Embarcadero one needs to be studied too, and not sure if Embarcadero can handle the additional traffic that would be routed from Churchill."

Embarcadero has long been a mess and traffic now backs up PAST Casti and that's before Casti's multi-year construction at Embarcadero and Bryant has even started. In the 6 years of Casti hearings did our "planners" ever consider the impact of closing Churchill?

Maybe all the "stakeholders" could finally get out of their offices and look at what's happening with 2 closely spaced traffic lights at Paly and Town & Country and that only 4 cars maximum can turn onto El Camino further compounding this mess?

Back in the days of Jaime Rodriquez we've been hearing about the need for the stakeholders to meet and work things out. That's 10 years ago! Maybe now's the right time? Just a thought.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2022 at 11:24 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I think the undergrounding of the tracks is too late now that the electrification work is so close to being done. Therefore the undergrounding of the crossings is the only option that is now viable. I do like the suggestion of making roundabouts with pedestrian/bicycle tunnels as being the safest option.

However, Palo Altans don't like roundabouts. They work safely in all other countries and most importantly they don't top working in a power outage as there are no lights to go out.

Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2022 at 11:27 am

Donald is a registered user.

The current underpass designs for Charleston and Meadow do NOT separate pedestrian and bicycle traffic from auto traffic. They both have bidirectional paths on one side of the road, forcing those going in one direction to cross Charleston or Meadow twice at extremely dangerous crosswalks with no traffic controls at all to get to that path. This is not safe at all and is not separating non-motorized users from auto traffic. It is forcing them to cross right in front of cars with no assistance or protection. All parents of young children should be objecting.

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Sep 18, 2022 at 12:43 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

How long will this City Council (old and newly elected) be sitting in their chairs when it's time to start digging? I lived in the Chicagoland area many moons ago and in the suburbs, there were underpasses below almost every set of train tracks. In the city the "L" trains are all "el"evated as the nickname suggests. We could have done it like Chicago did but we didn't. It's a little bit (a lotta bit) late to start elevating the tracks. In the 1800's would have been a good time, since there were no such things as cars and the population was lower. Doing a study to find out what's the best way to correct a colossal blunder is a waste of money. Roundabouts are a scourge on humanity, especially anywhere near a railroad crossing. I predict (but trust me, I will have expired before this prediction comes to fruition) that street cars will be completely phased out before the first underpass starts construction. Like the underestimation of the cost of a waste water treatment plant in our backyard, whatever study is paid for to estimate the cost of building underpasses will have the 2090 City Council crying "we didn't calculate for inflation" and the project will never get off the ground. Or go unerground. We will have vacated Earth by then, and the few who will survive whatever cataclysm awaits us will be living in oxygenated domes on Mars. PS to Bystander -- imagine an electrical outage when the trains are electrified and stopped dead in the middle of an intersection. A roundabout won't help much but it sure will have people driving in circles trying to figure out how to get across the tracks!

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2022 at 1:33 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

MF, the roundabout I was thinking of would be on Alma and completely separate from the tracks. I think the trains electrical supply would be separate from the City supply from what we have been told. If there is an outage in the area, the gates still work and so do the flashing lights even if the traffic light has no power. I don't think Caltrain comes to a stop when Palo Alto has an outage, but if someone knows better, please correct me on that.

Posted by Fredericka Halsted
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 18, 2022 at 2:06 pm

Fredericka Halsted is a registered user.

Instead of creating an underpass, wouldn't it be far simpler to build an overpass that runs above the tracks?

Exercising Emininent Domain would provide the necessary acreage for such an undertaking.

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Sep 18, 2022 at 4:13 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

Bystander, I have never seen a roundabout smaller than the area between Alma Street and the train tracks. There is no space between the two. Where exactly would you locate the roundabout? Are you talking about between Churchill and East Meadow? It's the only stretch where you could fit a roundabout that wouldn't interfere with the train crossing. If you want to see what a roundabout would do, just drive on Alma Street during the "will it ever end" construction along the street that acts as a de facto roundabout, slowing everyone down. All a roundabout would do is create more delay, which is the primary issue. Safety should be our first concern. I've seen lots of kids walking and on bikes trying to get across Alma when the arms come down signaling a train, which only makes drivers do impetuous things like try to get through the intersection before the bottleneck starts. The issue for me isn't even about the train, but about the drivers who don't want to get stuck in traffic and endanger the safety of people who only have a couple of spots along Alma where they can cross the street. Slow down, we'll all get there, maybe a few minutes later, but all in one piece if everybody cooperates. As for the power outage, I was thinking of something apocalyptic a la "The Day After" nuclear scenario. I'm in agreement with Fredericka Halsted, who recommends building an overpass instead of digging below the tracks. It's a lot more feasible in cost and construction time. Keep in mind I have no engineering or finance background. I'm just saying what comes off the top of my head, like a candidate for City Council member would ;)

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2022 at 6:00 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

MF. Thanks for your thoughtful feedback.

I am no traffic expert, but I have used roundabouts of all sizes and some are fairly small. I agree space is very limited, but roundabouts do not need to have a large diameter to be efficient.

I think the thing that has to be remembered is that roundabouts are designed to move traffic efficiently, not to slow traffic or cause the same type of disruption as the traffic light sequences we see on Alma at present. I have often had to wait for the sequence to start over completely when a train comes and this type of thing would not happen with a roundabout and most of the roundabout being below the level of the tracks.

I am not saying this solution would be cheap. I am not even sure how much space something like that would need. I am just thinking that since it has been proposed it should have been given some bandwidth.

We are likely to end up with a mess because that is what happens in Palo Alto. I am not particularly optimistic that we will end up with any type of efficient or better intersection at any of the crossings we have. I would like to be proven wrong, but doubt it will happen.

Posted by WilliamR
a resident of another community
on Sep 18, 2022 at 8:05 pm

WilliamR is a registered user.

According to the drawings that were published a while back, the roundabout for Charleston would be about a block east of the Alma intersection. Northbound traffic on Alma would turn right at Charleston, loop around and go down a ramp under the tracks to go west on Charleston. Northbound traffic on Alma would turn left, go around and down to go under the tracks. Eastbound traffic on Charleston would come under the tracks and up the ramp. I believe there was some uncertainty whether the same plan would work at Meadow, since it's a narrower street.

Posted by toransu
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 19, 2022 at 11:46 am

toransu is a registered user.

As usual, most of the candidates have no political backbone. Haven't we been studying this for over 10 years? When will enough evidence be gathered to make a darn decision? Shockingly enough, there comes a time when sticking your head in the sand and pretending there's no problem just isn't enough, as much as people like Doria Summa, Ed Lauing and Alex Comsa would like to continue doing it.

Posted by Priscilla Stephens
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 19, 2022 at 12:13 pm

Priscilla Stephens is a registered user.

"Instead of creating an underpass, wouldn't it be far simpler to build an overpass that runs above the tracks?"

^ Yes, but the traffic engineers apparently cannot visualize such a basic concept.

"I'm in agreement with Fredericka Halsted, who recommends building an overpass instead of digging below the tracks. It's a lot more feasible in cost and construction time."

^ More costly studies (at taxpayer's expense) will be required before the PACC can tell the light of day in this ongoing matter.

And chances are that the newly elected PACC members will also deliberate on the progress of this issue.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 19, 2022 at 1:25 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

There is an overpass for San Antonio Rd and I think any overpass at Charleston or Meadow would have to be of similar height and length to accommodate train and wire clearance, and have a small enough grade for vehicles. That doesn't seem realistic to me.

However, if eminent domain is chosen, PA should pay a 50-100% premium over prevailing prices to account for the extra locational value and to allow the owners to buy a new house in Palo Alto. It wouldn't be fair to kick them out of the city against their will.

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 19, 2022 at 3:46 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

Opinions still are all over the place and PA is dithering and getting nowhere fast. Why doesn't Palo Alto just go with below grade underpasses similar to that at Page Mill Rd, which seems to work pretty well. It's time to stop trying to please everyone and go with the best engineering solution to provide the best and least restrictive traffic, bike, and pedestrian flows. Electrification will wait for no city. And forget the HSR. It'll never come up the Peninsula along Caltrain tracks.

Posted by Bill Bucy
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 21, 2022 at 9:59 am

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

Frankly, we should have turned this whole issue over to the Castilleja folks. They seem quite adept at pushing aside objections to projects and bulling through a solution.

I'm only half kidding. Regardless of what 'solution' is chosen, many, many people are going to be angry. But a decision is needed A
SAP so planning and financing can be pulled together and work started.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 21, 2022 at 10:19 am

Online Name is a registered user.

@Bill Bucy, hah! Maybe Casti can fund some of the crossings, esp Churchill, given what they cost the city and its residents for 6+ years of hearings, consultants and dissension.

Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 21, 2022 at 10:37 am

Leslie York is a registered user.

After studying the problem for over a decade, paying engineering firms and holding coffee klatsches at Mitchell Park, no solution has emerged which ticks all the boxes and pleases everyone. That should tell us something.

Palo Alto could spend another 10 years spinning its wheels and studying the problem to death, and it will still face the same obstacles to grade separation as now.

Caltrain's and HSR's fanciful ridership projections may never materialize. The more I read about all these infeasible non-solutions the more I think the do-nothing approach might be best.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 21, 2022 at 11:31 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Leslie York raises excellent points. We know ridership is down and we know that layoffs are up, especially at tech and real estate companies. We know -- or SHOULD know -- there have long been traffic chokepoints throughout Palo Alto contrary to former Mayor Kniss's claims we have no traffic problems and the city's having awarded multi-million dollar contracts to fix traffic light timing to a former city transportation czar who couldn't even fix ONE problematic traffic light for almost a decade!

As someone who lives near intersections that have long regularly regularly backed up so badly that cars regularly get stuck in intersections and frustrated drivers create their own lanes, I'm bemused by the concern about traffic backups at RR crossings.

For DECADES the transportation "planners" have ignored the idiocy they perpetuate by putting bus stops 3 car lengths away from major intersections that cars can no longer get around because they've put bollards at EVERY intersection to "increase visibility." More than 3 cars waiting at a light during rush hour?? Whooo could imagine.

Why are the backups at RR crossings be so much more dangerous than what we've long been experiencing where the problems so much easier and cheaper to fix??

I don't get it. But sure, let's keep wasting more money on lane reductions, road furniture, bollards at every corner ....

Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 23, 2022 at 5:33 am

Leslie York is a registered user.

Taking residential properties for grade separation and building an overhead viaduct for trains are two concepts that are sure to face so much resistance from residents that they're non-starters.

Submerging the trains in a trench or tunnel involves crossing several creeks and we don't know how Caltrain would feel about having their trains submerged.

Overpasses over the tracks are infeasible due to the height involved and the slopes of the approaches.

Closing Churchill doesn't solve any problems; it only creates more.

What's left is to run auto traffic under the tracks like at Embarcadero.

I don't know why it's taking so many years to arrive at a decision when the options are fairly clear cut.

Now that the right-of-way is electrified, you can forget about a trench or tunnel. Construction would require a shoofly track likely on Alma Street and that would have to be electrified, too. You will still have diesel freight trains. Can you imagine a long freight train lumbering down Alma Street in the wee hours? I can't.

The do-nothing option seems more and more attractive.

Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 28, 2022 at 11:39 am

William Hitchens is a registered user.

Sounds like they're STILL in the middle of the talking phase. When will they come to unanimity and move to the planning & construction stages? I'm not holding my breath.

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