After years of talking about the benefits of a "modernized" Caltrain system, Palo Alto officials on Monday shifted their attention to the thorny impacts of the project, which include downed trees, traffic impacts on Alma Street intersections and a new power station that officials say would bring a new eyesore to the Greenmeadow neighborhood.
The council's discussion centered on the environmental study that Caltrain recently released for its long-planned electrification, a $1.5-billion project that will enable the agency to add trains and accommodate a steady growth in ridership. The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) estimates that with the project, Caltrain's weekday ridership would go from today's estimated 47,000 to 69,000 in 2020 and 111,000 in 2040.
The agency's report also touts the environmental benefits of replacing the current fleet of diesel-burning trains with electric ones. Ultimately, the electrified Caltrain corridor is expected to be used by California's proposed high-speed rail system as well.
Even with these laudable goals, a letter that the council approved by a 7-0 vote late Monday night, with Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Marc Berman absent, contains a catalog of red flags the city hopes Caltrain will address as it proceeds with the project. Topping the list is the paralleling station, which boosts power along the rail corridor, that Caltrain plans to build in Palo Alto, either at Greenmeadow Way or just south of Page Mill Road. The equipment would be housed inside a compound roughly 40 feet wide by 80 feet wide and located next to the tracks, according to the draft Environmental Impact Report.
Though Caltrain plans to add vegetation to screen the power station from public view, city officials believe this is far from adequate, particularly if the agency chooses to place the infrastructure across from the residential Greenmeadow neighborhood. The city's letter to Caltrain notes that Greenmeadow is a historic neighborhood and calls the introduction of the new equipment "a great concern" from an aesthetic standpoint. It also points out that Greenmeadow Way is a "major access point from the neighborhood to Alma Street" and that the equipment would be "visible to many, if not most, residents and visitors, at some point during the day."
Mayor Nancy Shepherd was particularly blunt in her assessment of the Greenmeadow option.
"It is so obnoxious for that neighborhood," she said.
Elizabeth Alexis, speaking on behalf of the Greenmeadow Community Association, noted that the paralleling station will be directly visible from the neighborhood's park and community center, which lie two blocks east of the Alma/Greenmeadow Way intersection.
"It really is bizarre that they would choose to put it there," Alexis said.
The city's letter advocates for the Page Mill Road option, noting that the site is largely surrounded by commercial or industrial buildings and that the station "would be located adjacent to a structure of similar size and character."
Staff is also asking Caltrain to consider a location closer to San Antonio Road, which they said is also more industrial in character.
Another concern voiced by the council Monday pertained to trees, including the city's famous namesake redwood, El Palo Alto. The environmental analysis estimates that about 2,220 trees would have to be removed along the Peninsula, including 177 in Palo Alto. In addition, more than 3,000 trees along the corridor would need to be pruned.
Though the 1,000-year-old El Palo Alto would avoid the chopping block, the agency said that minor trimming would be required. Councilman Larry Klein stressed the importance of protecting the tree from damage. Caltrain needs to make sure, Klein said, that "trimming is just trimming and not butchering." The redwood, which is located near the Menlo Park border, is a registered historical site, he noted.
The city's letter also urges Caltrain to consider more ways to stem traffic problems at four Alma intersections that would be caused by the upgrades. A staff report from city planners notes that "local traffic would increase near Caltrain stations as more riders access the system."
"The increase in the number of trains would result in longer gate times, further affecting local traffic near the corridor," the staff report states.
The city suggests Caltrain looks at adding new amenities, including bicycle and pedestrian facilities, either near the intersections or near the stations that serve as destinations for the drivers.
Councilman Greg Scharff also raised concerns about Caltrain's ridership projections, which he suggested may be on the low side. He noted that many major employers now encourage transit use by buying Caltrain Go Passes for their workers. In Palo Alto, the purchase of Go Passes has been a condition of several recently approved developments, including the major expansion of Stanford University Medical Center and the Lytton Plaza office building near Alma and Lytton Avenue. Other cities along the corridor, including Mountain View, San Jose and San Mateo, also have strong "transportation demand management" programs that encourage transit as an alternative to cars.
"I think, if anything, we're going to have Caltrain capacity issues," Scharff said. "Caltrain needs to plan for it now."