Don’t close Churchill Avenue at the tracks | An Alternative View | Diana Diamond | Palo Alto Online |

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By Diana Diamond

Don’t close Churchill Avenue at the tracks

Uploaded: Apr 1, 2019

Palo Alto is having a lot of trouble figuring out what kind of grade separations should be used at railroad crossings to accommodate an estimated 20 trains an hour running on Caltrain. After years of discussion, there is no real solution in sight. All four proposals –building a tunnel or a trench, having tracks on a 12-foot-high berm or putting the tracks way above the city are expensive -- and each is embedded with technical, aesthetic and cost problems.

Palo Alto is now considering closing off Churchill Avenue because with more frequent trains, the gates will be down and it will be difficult to cross the tracks without long waits. It would be easier to have a bike-pedestrian tunnel at the crossing to accommodate the students. The city doesn’t want to tear down any houses to build a berm there. The result: Drivers entering Churchill from El Camino would find a dead end at the tracks. Ditto for those driving down Alma to Churchill – there would be no way to cross the tracks. It’s a ridiculous idea.

Granted, the street closing would solve some neighborhood concerns about more traffic on their streets – and, practically speaking, Palo Alto would have to deal with only three grade separations, not the four at existing crossings (Charleston, Meadow, Churchill and Alma at the Menlo Park border) and perhaps save money. But the closure will result in. innumerable new problems for years to come, if not permanently.

It’s ridiculous because we need more, not less, grade crossings in town. Our east-west arterials are limited, and since thousands of commuters employed in this city use those corridors daily, the traffic is intense. We don’t solve traffic problems by closing down one street that commuters and students use daily.

A study by TJKM, a consulting firm, said traffic at the closure of Churchill would divert to other streets about 706 cars during the morning peak hour (8 a.m. to 9 a.m.) and 776 cars in the peak afternoon period (5:15 p.m. to 6:15 p.m.). But traffic is heavy more than two hours a day in that area, so more than 706 and 776 cars will be affected – say thousands.

Planners propose driver unable to cross Churchill could use the Embarcadero Road underpass. Nearby residents fear those cars heading toward Embarcadero would end up on their roads. A valid fear, particularly since the city doesn’t have plans yet on how to handle extra traffic on Embarcadero.

My concerns are several if Churchill is closed:
• What about the children, parents and teachers not being able to get to Paly High from Alma? Do they have to drive down El Camino every day?
• What about all the residents clustered in the Southgate portion of town – those living on the south side of Churchill between the tracks and El Camino. Churchill is their main way to get into and out of their area (the other option is to wind around Park Blvd.). Would they have to drive to Oregon every time they wanted to visit Rinconada Library or the Palo Alto Art Center?

As one Palo Alto online blogger put it: “Closing the Churchill crossing will have the same effect as the gates being down 100% of the time. Under the current situation, the gates are down, what, 25% of the time? That's a 75% improvement over closing the intersection completely.” Of course, with more trains, the gates will be down a lot more, but closing a street is much worse than having it available half the time (and more on weekends).

Installing a berm in the area would probably require some houses to be torn down, which is terrible, I know, and makes us all feel very uncomfortable. Yet I think it has to be done, since the train-crossing problem will not only continue but get worse in the future. I can only hope through eminent domain that the affected residents get a really high compensation for their homes.

So don’t close Churchill Avenue. That’s my uncomfortable solution.