Grade Separation Round Tables Start This Week

The City of Palo Alto is actively seeking participation to receive input regarding options for implementing grade separation for the four remaining Caltrain level crossings within the city. Each proposal for change brings its own significant technical challenges and requirements, financial implications, and if implemented, construction, as well as possible post-construction, impacts.

Four roundtable meetings (listed below) to share ideas and information have been scheduled for this month, with the first meeting on Tuesday evening November 14.

The CTRA would like to thank Nadia Naik of the Palo Alto based citizens’ group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) for her valuable presentation to the CTRA Board and College Terrace resident Fred Balin for summarizing key elements of this stage of city’s process and key background in efforts to keep all of us in the neighborhood better informed.

Download Nadia’s PowerPoint presentation here.

– Jens Jensen, CTRA Communications Director, 11/13/2017

Palo Alto Grade Separation Plans on Fast Track: Topic-Specific Community Roundtables Begin This Week

Each Roundtable is from 6 to 8 PM

  1. Charleston Road and Meadow Drive Train Crossings: November 14 at Mitchell Park Community Center, El Palo Alto Room
  2. Churchill Avenue Train Crossing: Thursday, Nov 16 at PAUSD District Office, Aspen Room
  3. Palo Alto Avenue Train Crossing: Tuesday, November 28 at City Hall, Community Room
  4. Trench and Tunnel Discussion: Thursday, November 30 at City Council Chambers

Each roundtable is open to any community member. While there is no requirement for registration, it is probably best to sign up via this link below so the city has an idea of how many people to expect.

As per Palo Alto’s Chief Transportation Official, Josh Mello, the goal of the roundtables is to hear from as many people as possible about what types of options they have thought about for the grade crossings. The meetings will be informal, and staff will respond to technical questions.
At the end of each meeting, attendees will be asked to fill out a card specifying up to three favored alternatives.

Some Backstory

The Caltrain electrification project is under way. After several months of nail-biting delay, the last third of $2 billion in needed funding to electrify the San Francisco to San Jose rail corridor and purchase 96 electric cars was approved by the Federal Transit Administration in May.

If schedule and plans are met, the new electric trains will be running in 2023 and increase the number of trains running in the peak hours in each direction from the current 10 up to 12. This will benefit commuters on the rail, but not east-west local motorists who will see an increase in wait times and queue lengths at each of the 42 rail crossings that are not grade separated, including the four in Palo Alto: at Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road.

Caltrain already runs with standing-room only during peak hours, and it is reasonable to predict by taking into account large projects underway (e.g. Stanford University Medical Center) as well as smaller ones; those currently in the entitlement process; and those to be enabled via General Plan updates (i.e., Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan and Stanford General Use Permit with Santa Clara County) that ridership demand will continue to increase, with pressure for more trains, and therefore greater delays at unseparated rail crossings.

Nadia Naik of the Palo Alto based citizens’ group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), estimates that the peak hour total will rise to 20 trains by 2030, and that does not include the potential of High Speed Rail, which she notes is still $30 to $40 billion in funding away from any chance to reach the Peninsula.

[Naik’s comments were part of a highly informative, interactive and jammed-packed, presentation to the CTRA Board at its October meeting. View her detailed PowerPoint supported with effective visuals.]

Therefore there is little surprise that municipalities up and down the corridor are working to put together grade separation plans and seeking sources of funding. Neither are simple tasks.
Several cities are ahead of Palo Alto in their planning process, including our two neighbors to the south, Mountain View and Sunnyvale with which we share a common, additional driver: an estimated $700 million to be set aside for grade separation as part of Santa Clara county voters’ approval of Measure B last November, which is expected to raise $6.3 billion via a half cent sales tax increase over 30 years.

To prevent a bait-and-switch as occurred in the implementation of Measure A in 2000, in which an unstated amount of funds to be set aside for Caltrain electrification were instead allocated to BART’s Silicon Valley Extension, north county leaders worked successfully to insert specific language in 2016’s Measure B to explicitly specify the amount ($700 million) and thereby help protect it from being siphoned off to other projects.

The Valley Transportation Authority has reiterated that the money will be allocated as written, and former mayor Palo Alto mayor Pat Burt, who pressed for the ballot language, has argued that it will be allocated in proportion to the number of unseparated grade crossings in the county. The city has four, Mountain View has two (Castro Street and Rengstorff Avenue) and Sunnyvale has two (Mary and Sunnyvale Avenues).

Under that calculation the city total share would be $350 million, which is unlikely to be enough to cover the cost of grade separations in Palo Alto.

It is conceivable, maybe likely, that the city will need to come to residents for funding via a voter-approved ballot measure. And that is one of the reasons why CARRD is concerned that the city has decided to both speed up and slim down its public outreach process, recently setting aside a well-establish, but lengthy, fully-integrated public process known as Context Sensitive Solutions, while still expropriating the name for it’s own stripped down version. The better the public participation, the more community “buy in” if funding comes to the voter, is CARRD’s view.

On the other hand, the city’s rail committees have discussed this matter over a number of years, and the overwhelming community sentiment expressed during this process is that under-grounding the tracks is the preferred alternative, albeit the most expensive. So, if the roundtables support this sentiment, especially after specifics and approximate costs of trench and tunnel are detailed and discussed in the 4th roundtable (November 30th in the council chambers), the process may indeed may be able to move faster.

According to its most recent schedule, following the four November roundtables, the city would discuss the roundtable input in December, decide on a preferred alternative in January, contract out for plans after that and be prepared to submit an application for funding by the summer.
But at the council rail committee meeting last week, faced with the problem of still-to-come technical reports to inform discussions as well community concern about process restrictions, council members appeared to realize that the schedule may need to be pushed back and need more public input.

So maybe there is a viable ground in the middle, for efficiency, effectiveness, and community buy-in. But take no chances, and inform yourself about the grade separation challenge by reviewing the CARRD presentation and attending at least one of the round tables.

– Fred Balin for the CTRA eNews