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Guest Opinion: Designing grade separations - headed for a train wreck?

Empowered stakeholders group is imperative for success of biggest transportation project in Palo Alto history

This Tuesday the City Council will determine the process for designing the biggest transportation project in Palo Alto history -- railroad grade separations across the city.

The proposed plan, driven by staff and Mayor Greg Scharff, runs a high risk of running the project off the tracks. While debate over "process" can make most folks' eyes glaze over, achieving community consensus on the design of this complex and very expensive project is crucial to its success.

Last year I worked with other mayors and officials to ensure that the Santa Clara County Measure B tax would contain hundreds of millions of dollars for Palo Alto as the funding foundation for the massive project of separating more and more trains from the ever-growing number of cars, bikes and pedestrians who need to cross the tracks safely and without gridlock. Because of our narrow Caltrain right-of-way, along with adjacent homes and Alma Street closely abutting the tracks, the project faces exceptional design challenges and big construction impacts. Every alternative has major obstacles and huge costs. Ultimately, the voters will likely be asked to support the design and provide large additional local funds.

The projects can seem like simple engineering issues for design options that have long been identified: aerial viaduct, berm, at-grade (road goes over or under the tracks), trench or tunnel. But the alternatives all have big ramifications and trade-offs. Underpasses or overpasses require the taking of up to 80 residences on the cross streets and Alma. An elevated berm builds a physical wall dividing two halves of the community and a trench or tunnel would likely require very large local funding.

When the city was dealing with the implications of the four-track High-Speed Rail Project, the council and staff committed to the community to using the "best practice" process called Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) to design the Caltrain corridor. Before CSS was developed, transportation engineers throughout the U.S. drove designs of highways, only to encounter local backlash when the designs did not reflect the community's values and needs.

Staffs and consultants are comfortable with evaluating alternatives based on quantitative measures of capacity, safety, design standard compliance and minimizing direct impacts. But they are not good at reconciling alternatives based on community values like "quality of life," "multi-model use," "aesthetic values" or "community cohesion." The misguided planning shortcut came to be described as "Design, Attack, Defend" or "DAD," which ultimately added time and expense or even doomed the projects.

CSS was developed as the best-practice alternative. It is a collaborative, interdisciplinary, and comprehensive approach involving all key stakeholders, including community members, technical experts, elected officials, agencies and interest groups. It balances project needs with community values and considers trade-offs in decision-making. The process is focused and effective with a defined schedule for completion.

CSS combines broad public engagement and input that feeds into an empowered multi-stakeholder group that is the backbone of the process. The stakeholders are typically advised by self-organized interest groups (i.e. neighborhood committees working with their representatives, tech business tenants advising Stanford Research Park). The stakeholder group is responsible for doing the tough collaborative problem solving and then making recommendations to the City Council, which makes the final decision. CSS has a long and widely recognized history of achieving success on contentious projects where consensus was thought impossible.

The staff proposal, now supported by the Rail Committee, heists the term "CSS" to describe a hollowed-out process that lacks the backbone of the empowered multi-stakeholder group. The proposed public participation strategies (website, social media, newsletters, community workshops) are valuable components but mostly one-way information tools seeking periodic "feedback" to the staff. Trying to use large public meetings to dive into complex issues is not effective at problem-solving decisions, but it is critical to have both the broad public and citizen representatives deeply engaged.

An empowered stakeholder group, dedicated to helping staff develop a consensus decision representing community values, is the right answer. This group would work directly with staff as equals, ensuring that community concerns, funding and transportation goals were being considered equally. Staff instead proposes that they will lead the problem definition, design and funding recommendations, which then would be reviewed and approved by the council Rail Committee.

The Rail Committee also proposed that residents and other stakeholders could be added to the Technical Advisory Committee (and now an additional staff recommended "Focus Group"), which would periodically "advise" staff but would not have any responsibility or authority for the central element of reconciling competing needs and coming up with the recommendations. This piecemeal process that would go from committee to committee embodies the DAD approach. Staff would DECIDE on the design, ANNOUNCE their decision, and DEFEND their position. In a true CSS process, staff and a multi-stakeholder group would together make the final consensus recommendation to the City Council.

A poor process risks building resentment, mistrust and entrenching perspectives, stalling the entire project for years and risking that we will miss out on accessing Measure B and other funds that become available while our traffic congestion hits a wall.

Unfortunately, the council majority seems ready to abandon its commitment to the full CSS process and to go along with a staff/consultant driven approach, while the mayor appears confident that the solutions are straight-forward. I hope that, as the community becomes engaged with this massive project, the council will correct its direction before our overconfident leadership eventually wakes up and tells us, "Nobody knew it would be so complicated."

Related content:

Lawsuit blocks Measure B funds

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Comments

25 people like this
Posted by Young Palo Alto
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 3, 2017 at 10:36 am

Exactly why I am so glad Burt is no longer on Council. His continual promotion of process handcuffed us for far too long. This Council is finally getting things done. I'm with the mayor and our majority. Burt is old news...


36 people like this
Posted by Depends
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2017 at 10:47 am


Skimping on process up front usually causes disaster (and time delays) later.

No free lunch, that's kind of the point of process...

Does this really have to do with age groups, young Palo Alto vs old Palo Alto?

How much longer does the full CSS process add?





16 people like this
Posted by Young Palo Alto
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 3, 2017 at 10:55 am

We are 13 years overdue on our comp plan...this pattern must be broken.

Staff was clear - full CSS process will cause us to miss the train for for participation and funding in this opportunity, literally.

Staff and consultants, experts in their fields, say this is complicated but manageable. Adding the public process Burt demands is clearly unnecessary and will certainly be burdensome to the point of failure.


12 people like this
Posted by James S.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2017 at 11:05 am

Waste of time and money. Buying up 80 homes and building the platforms and tunnels...a lot of money! Fix the employee pension system and the infrastructure first!


33 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 3, 2017 at 11:38 am

Pat Burt is a registered user.

Just to clarify, the VTA has not set any deadlines that would risk us not getting our share of the Measure B funding should we use the full CSS process despite some inaccurate fear mongering to the contrary. Scharff has even backed away from his earlier false claims.
Hopefully, the city manager will clarify this on Tuesday. In addition, the recently reported lawsuit by Measure B opponents means that the funding will be further delayed.
Lastly, CSS has a long history throughout the U.S. and within the state of actually speeding up projects by achieving consensus and moving the projects forward in a timely manner. Short cutting has proven to be penny wise and dollar foolish.


34 people like this
Posted by Arthur Keller
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 3, 2017 at 1:18 pm

@Young Palo Alto. We are NOT 13 years behind in our Comp Plan. The update to our Comp Plan didn't even start 13 years ago.

Most of the delay in the Comp Plan was due to slowed down funding during the recession, and due to lack of interest and focus by earlier City Councils. A community process was started in 2015 when Karen Holman was Mayor and Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth were elected to Council. This process involved Palo Alto residents and achieved consensus in many areas.

The problem of achieving grade separations is as much about community buy-in as it is about engineering. Without community buy-in, there won't be support for the measures needed to fund it.

@James S. Grade separations are infrastructure. And there are alternatives to creating grade separations that may not require buying up homes.


2 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 3, 2017 at 1:41 pm

Pat, I truly appreciate your positive comments about CSS. However, it can go off the rails, as it did with the anaerobic digestion debacle. We had lots of community discussion and much buy in. And it went wrong. There were a few people who warned that it would not work, but they were ignored. I believe you supported this project, or am I wrong?


Posted by JK
a resident of Barron Park

on Sep 3, 2017 at 2:16 pm


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5 people like this
Posted by RR
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2017 at 2:54 pm

Given the Appeal of Measure B will delay funds being used for any purpose for at least 6 months (unless it is deemed to be fatally flawed in which case no funds would be disbursed), there is plenty of time to get good resident/stakeholder representatives in place that will improve the outcome.


14 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 3, 2017 at 2:55 pm

One alternative that I hope gets considered is using so-called “low clearance underpasses” to reduce the cost and impact on adjacent properties. See Web Link, which, in sum, points out that “Low clearance underpasses can reduce traffic congestion at intersections where other alternatives have been exhausted. Low clearance (2.4 m or 8 ft) underpasses are more compact and economical to build than standard (4.9 m or 16 ft) underpasses.” So this alternative greatly reduces the number of properties that would be impacted by the underpass approach. For emergency vehicles you could keep an at-grade crossing with special gates only accessible to the authorized vehicles. Also, if you combined low clearance approach with a somewhat higher roadbed for the tracks, there would be even less eminent domain. By the way, a berm does not really divide the city -- rather, it makes it easier to have many more pedestrian and bike underpasses that reduce the current division that an at-grade system entails.


3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 3, 2017 at 4:30 pm

"... there are alternatives to creating grade separations that may not require buying up homes."

Indeed there are. Close those crossings and, instead of sacrificing 80 homes to the automobile, build more homes on the newly-idled road stubs.


21 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 3, 2017 at 4:59 pm

Closing off the Charleston and Meadow crossings would be a traffic nightmare. You could close Churchill, though that would increase congestion on the already very congested Embarcadero interchange, but people wouldn't be routed miles out of their way.

Charleston's a major school artery--are all those people who cross Alma to get to Gunn supposed to head down to San Antonio or up to Oregon and then back up or down again? Oregon/El Camino is already one of the most congested interchanges in the county.

There are no easy solutions here, let's not pretend that there are.


6 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 3, 2017 at 6:32 pm

"Closing off the Charleston and Meadow crossings would be a traffic nightmare."

The only options worse than closing the crossings are any of the proposed "solutions." All come with their own nightmares, the shared one being $$$$$$$$ we ain't got and ain't gonna get.

I propose it's time to step out of this stampede, and do a rational objective definition of the problem we think we're trying to solve. Are we really as bad off as we've led ourselves to believe? Is keeping the current grade crossings a viable solution, as it seems to be in Burlingame, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale?

What have those neighbors got that we ain't got, and how do we get it?


12 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 3, 2017 at 7:28 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Curmudgeon - A car was hit at the Broadway crossing in Burlingame just a few weeks ago. Their city council has its act together, and already has am approved plan to partially elevate the tracks, and depress the roadway. They are now just looking for the funds to do it, about $250m.


9 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 3, 2017 at 7:58 pm

@Susan
We have not used the CSS process in Palo Alto, although it has a strong record of success throughout the US and in California. We have used a variety of task forces and citizen advisory committees to advise the staff or council on complex issues, most with good success. Examples include the Infrastructure Task Force, the SOFA Plan and the Comp Plans. Opinions differ on the accomplishments of each of these efforts, but they achieved consensus on issues that often seemed intractable.
The one you may be thinking of was the Compost Task Force. They recommended that the city study new alternatives to use of compostable materials including anaerobic digestion or pursuing partnering with other entities regionally. The staff and council supported their recommendations. After staff completed their follow on study, the regional cooperation has been the best option to date.
CSS is designed to address large transportation projects and is a more clearly structured approach structured process than what we have used for other efforts. It engages the broad public and design experts. These feed into an empowered multi-stakeholder group that has to work through tough problem solving to come up with recommendations to the council and community. As we can see from the posters on this thread and elsewhere, there are a lot of widely varying opinions and preconceptions on what should be done to address our grade separation challenges. With a full CSS process, this will be a very difficult problem to solve, without its "best practice" process we are likely to come up with less good solutions lacking broad community support and we risk project delays from a community backlash while the number of trains and cars will move us toward gridlock.


3 people like this
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 3, 2017 at 8:11 pm

Norman Beamer: Your idea is a good one, but the last time I checked, the State of California requires a minimum of 14 feet of vertical clearance for an automobile underpass. If CPA can get a waiver from CalTrans to do, say, 8-foot underpasses, as they apparently can do in Hawaii, yours is a fine idea, provided no homes would be taken in the process. At $2 million per home, taking homes would add millions to the project and would be prohibitive.

The engineering study conducted by Mott, MacDonald concerns me greatly, particularly where it calls for taking dozens of homes for blocks around the crossings. I don't know what kind of edifice they contemplate building, but it sounds like a white elephant to me.

Anyone who reads the posts on this topic knows what kind of kooky and fanciful ideas "the community" can come up with, so there is a case to be made for leaving it to the experts. Trying to please every last citizen is noble but is likely to bog down the process for decades. This project has sat idle for many years due to inaction by CPA.


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 3, 2017 at 8:18 pm

"They are now just looking for the funds to do it, about $250m."

Yep.


2 people like this
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 3, 2017 at 8:20 pm

I also have reservations about the City Council being involved in the process. You may recall that the City Council endorsed the 2008 high-speed-rail bond measure, only to do a 180-degree about face only after they did their homework, studied the project and found out what a bad deal it is.


1 person likes this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 3, 2017 at 8:23 pm

"If CPA can get a waiver from CalTrans to do, say, 8-foot underpasses, ... "

Better budget for acquiring low-profile emergency vehicles for those crossings. Also get funds to buy some for our mutual aid partners.


2 people like this
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 3, 2017 at 9:35 pm

"Better budget for acquiring low-profile emergency vehicles for those crossings. Also get funds to buy some for our mutual aid partners."

It seems to work in Hawaii.


5 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 3, 2017 at 9:54 pm

Pat,

"The one you may be thinking of was the Compost Task Force. They recommended that the city study new alternatives to use of compostable materials including anaerobic digestion or pursuing partnering with other entities regionally. The staff and council supported their recommendations. After staff completed their follow on study, the regional cooperation has been the best option to date."

No Pat, I was thinking of the one where we voted to undedicated about 11 acres of park lands in order to use anaerobic digestion to handle our sewage sludge and other organic waste streams. As I recall, it was suppose to happen in an industrial plant on this site. Now we find out that it cannot be done. Is your memory slipping? Pat, it is much better, as a politician, to just admit that you got it wrong on a particular issue. The old Texas two step won't work anymore. I really admire your service to our city, but please just tell us the complete truth. Thanks.


10 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 4, 2017 at 9:52 am

@Susan
Your latest post is getting off subject some, but I'll try to clarify.
Your first post likened CSS to a task force that addressed anaerobic digestion. That recommendation did come from the Compost Task Force. You now seem to be referring to a subsequent citizen initiative placed on the ballot, Measure E, to set aside 10 acres of former dump land for up to ten years pending a council decision on whether to use them for bio waste, food waste and green waste processing. Nearly two-thirds of the voters supported that measure, including me. Ultimately, staff recommended that the city not pursue use of that land for waste recycling and the land is now projected to be converted to parkland.
This was a significant community debate, but has little to do with whether we should use a full CSS process or a staff led decision making for grade separations designs. If you'd like to discuss other issues, feel free to contact me offline.


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 4, 2017 at 10:18 am

"Better budget for acquiring low-profile emergency vehicles for those crossings. Also get funds to buy some for our mutual aid partners."

It seems to work in Hawaii."

You've observed fire trucks zipping through 8-ft underpasses there?


2 people like this
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 4, 2017 at 1:16 pm

Off the top of my head I don't know how tall the tallest fire truck is, do you?

"You've observed fire trucks zipping through 8-ft underpasses there?"

Why don't you email the Honolulu fire chief and ask him/her to explain it to you?


4 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 4, 2017 at 3:21 pm

Pat,

My point is that very significant public debate and discussion will not, necessarily, provide the correct answer. The debacle of anaerobic digestion is a good example, I think. It was a heavily discussed and supported scheme, which you and most of our city council supported, with blinders on because it was part of reducing CO2...and you got it wrong. Now you say that CSS will, somehow, come up with the correct solution. Seems like process triumphing over substance to me.

The underpasses at Embarcadero and Oregon were very controversial at the time they were constructed, and how they are accepted as part of our common infrastructure. I think we would be much better off by skipping the entire CSS process, and let the engineers provide the best solution. At least they will get the job done of designing a horse, and not come up with a camel. It will also cost a whole lot less.


7 people like this
Posted by Depends
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 4, 2017 at 3:58 pm


The logic that public input (on other projects) eventually thrown out because of error, lack of guidance from whoever led that effort or whatever reason makes ALL public input wrong or unnecessary is odd.

What prevents having both, the estimated horse from engineers (who are to provide the "best" solution?) and a camel from the rest of whoever is invited to pipe in.

Like politicians, engineers don't always have the best ideas, and again, how long does this CSS take?

Any longer than arguing about not having it?




Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 4, 2017 at 5:44 pm

"Like politicians, engineers don't always have the best ideas..."

Keep that in mind the next time you enter an elevator, cross a bridge, or take off in an airplane. You know they all come from engineers' ideas, right?

But don't worry about the CSS. In the end, politicians will decide the outcome, which may or may not bear some resemblance to anything the CSS process considered.


Like this comment
Posted by Susan
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 4, 2017 at 5:57 pm

@Depends: The train tracks are essentially an engineering project, so let's leave it to engineers. Remember that bike bridge over Highway 101? Another hugely discussed project that got boutiqued out of existence by public discussion, including a design contest.

If you want to know how long a CSS process will take, ask Pat...then quadruple his answer. And multiply the final cost.


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 4, 2017 at 5:58 pm

"Off the top of my head I don't know how tall the tallest fire truck is, do you?"

I don't need to know. You made the claim, so the burden of proof is yours.


Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 4, 2017 at 8:32 pm

For grade separations, why not run a design contest? Lots of involvement, really nice ideas, lots of concerns, arrive at a conclusion. Then have the Council decide otherwise, and then discover all the dreams cost real $$.

Great process. Years go by, everyone gets older, nothing happens.

Some people love process for the sake of process. Others want to contribute to results. Not sure where this one is....


5 people like this
Posted by Robert Neff
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 4, 2017 at 11:19 pm

Robert Neff is a registered user.

It is too bad that the Palo Alto grade crossing discussion does not have all the crossing options in it's playbook. Sending the cars under the train requires about 14 feet less clearance than putting the train under the cars, and if you only lift the train 11 feet, then the roadway only depresses 11 feet. Look up Sunnyvale's options at Sunnyvale Ave here: Web Link (go to the documents tab.)

(I don't think it is realistic to build a new sub-standard crossing, unless it is like the one at Homer, and just for cyclists and pedestrians.)

Based on the first meeting community meeting, I found the current process enthusiastic, but frustrating, and not very useful, and I don't think it moved the process along much. I think a smaller, appointed committee, like in the CSS process is more likely to result in focused, useful community input.


Like this comment
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 4, 2017 at 11:57 pm

"For grade separations, why not run a design contest? Lots of involvement, really nice ideas, lots of concerns, arrive at a conclusion."

To be judged by whom?

Judging from the myriad ideas proposed here over the years, most people are not familiar with such things as water tables, creek crossings, vertical clearances, ownership of the right-of-way, etc., and many are oblivious to the extravagant costs involved (such as a five-mile tunnel through town). Better to have experts on such projects propose several designs and put the proposed designs to a non-binding vote.

Either the trains go under the cars or vice versa. The solutions fall into several broad categories: trench/tunnel, overhead viaduct, hybrid crossings with berms, or some giant monstrosity with cloverleaves a la Oregon expwy.

Palo Alto needs to find a better engineering firm, IMO. San Carlos used Heagon Transportation Consultants of San Jose.


3 people like this
Posted by Depends
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2017 at 12:24 am

Norman Beamer,

"By the way, a berm does not really divide the city -- rather, it makes it easier to have many more pedestrian and bike underpasses that reduce the current division that an at-grade system entails."

This makes sense. A berm anyway would not really "divide" two halves of the community anymore than Alma and El Camino do.


2 people like this
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 5, 2017 at 3:54 am

To me, the CSS process seems like an attempt to please every last citizen, clearly an impossible feat. It turns every "stakeholder" into an amateur civil engineer. In a past post one person suggested building a hyperloop on the peninsula. Aside from the fact that a hyperloop won't interface with freight, the project would require two dozen or so municipalities to fund such a massively expensive project.

The problem is, I think the guy who suggested it was serious.


4 people like this
Posted by keeps coming back
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 5, 2017 at 7:54 am

Ex-Mayor Pat Burt fails to face reality. Why should CSS all of a sudden be a success. It gathered no support except for the CAARD group previously, and certainly the HSR Authority just really ignored the effort.

There is not nearly enough funding for grade separations, and in the end expect to see a high-rise berm structure pushed through the peninsula, citizens like it or not, since such a solution is much cheaper then any other solution. Since Larry Klein left, nobody on council has a clue.


7 people like this
Posted by Joe Meyers
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 5, 2017 at 11:14 am

Why can't we be bold and forward-looking and in cooperation with neighboring cities combine the Alma Street corridor with the railroad right-of-way. With the full width available we could lower the tracks and have a roadway above it with cars, pedestrians and bicycles able to move freely right, left or straight at Charleston, Meadow, Churchill, University and Alma, without any encounters with local or high-speed rail.

This would require cooperation with Mountain View and probably Menlo Park, but with this shift to serious urban planning we could lay the groundwork for long-term solutions instead of spending heavily on band-aids one more time.


1 person likes this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 5, 2017 at 11:30 am

"Why can't we be bold and forward-looking and in cooperation with neighboring cities combine the Alma Street corridor with the railroad right-of-way."

If we could do that we could move way more people each day by converting the strip to a multilane expressway.


Like this comment
Posted by Joe Meyers
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 5, 2017 at 11:54 am

@Curmudgeon: Yes, with trains below.


Like this comment
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 5, 2017 at 12:51 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Joe Meyers - too expensive, we have public employee pensions we need to pay off.


Like this comment
Posted by Paula
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 5, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Wouldn't all these issues disappear if the HSR went up the 101 corridor? Isn't industrial land cheaper to acquire? Isn't it better to move the high speed trains away from neighborhoods, schools, pedestrians and cars? Sure, the Caltrain tracks already exist, but that's no reason to compound the problem by adding 2 more tracks and trains going 100+ mph. Someone please tell me why this wouldn't work. I believe the Rail Authority is high-handed, self-interested and close-minded which is probably the correct answer.


2 people like this
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 5, 2017 at 1:03 pm

"lower the tracks and have a roadway above it with cars, pedestrians and bicycles able to move freely right, left or straight at Charleston, Meadow, Churchill, University and Alma, without any encounters with local or high-speed rail."

Basically you have described putting the trains in a trench. It's part of the M.M. engineering study and is quite viable, involving zero parcel takings. In the M.M. study the 2% trench only goes up to Matadero Creek and wisely avoids the hugely expensive reconstruction of the three crossings which are already grade separated.

"There is not nearly enough funding for grade separations"

The city has been giving lip service to grade separation and spinning its wheels on the matter for years now. A flawed engineering study was commissioned by the city and there has been lots of discussion here about tunnels, trenches, berms and viaducts by the amateur civil engineers, but not one thought has been given to funding -- sales tax, property tax or bond sales. Prop 1a, which funds high-speed rail, passed in 2008; that's 9 years that the city has done nothing.


2 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 5, 2017 at 1:11 pm

@J0e Meyers:

"Why can't we be bold and forward-looking and in cooperation with neighboring cities ..."

That is the same type of language that was used to push through the anaerobic digestion wreck. We refused to listen to sane voices, who opposed that course. Now we are paying the price.

Best not to be bold, anymore. Let's just get practical and simple solutions. Pretty much most of us want to rid ourselves of the PA Process. We are big enough boys and girls to live with the consequences.


Like this comment
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 5, 2017 at 2:00 pm

"Wouldn't all these issues disappear if the HSR went up the 101 corridor?"

Paula, the trains (Caltrain and freight) have been there for 150+ years and aren't going away, period. The problem at hand is how to cross the tracks without automobile traffic having to wait for passing trains. That problem has existed for decades, well before HSR came into the picture.


5 people like this
Posted by Tunnel It
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 5, 2017 at 2:39 pm

This is a once in a century opportunity to radically transform Palo Alto. Put the trains below ground (tunnel or trench) and we eliminate train noise and rid our neighborhoods of the these locomotive eyesores. Trains below grade can allow the City to think big as to how to use the old train corridor (parks, open space, biking and running trails, etc..) If Jerry Brown wants HSR to come through Palo Alto he'll need to figure out a way to pay for below grade trains - otherwise the line ends in Mountain View.

Any community process that doesn't result in below grade trains will be a failed process - so I think we can skip it and just design the train corridor that provides the most benefit for Palo Alto.


1 person likes this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 5, 2017 at 2:56 pm

What are the costs of a MP-MV deep tunnel, an MV-MP berm, and the south PA ditch, amortized on a per-passenger basis over the life of the bond issue? Can they be recouped from fare increases?

Does anybody on this planet know?


2 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 5, 2017 at 4:02 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Tunnel It - there is a whole popular genre called "urban fantasy". It doesn't have anything to with urban planning, but interestingly both make use of a lot of magical thinking. The magical thinking around tunnels is only considering the benefit (to a small number of people in Palo Alto) while ignoring the cost. Even if there were billions of dollars sitting around waiting to be be spent, there are better uses for it anyway.


2 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Sep 5, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

Until 2016, Caltrain and taller vehicle drivers suffered a number of old low-clearance underpasses (ranging from a low of 8.5 to 13 feet) in a residential area just north of downtown San Mateo. Despite numerous bright "low clearance" warnin signs and lights, a variety of taller vehicles (eg campers, trucks, jacked-up SUVs, motorhomes, and U-hauls) would smash into the bridges ... triggering an impact-based warning signal to shut down train traffic pending a bridge safety assessment.

See photo: Web Link

Caltrain just spent nearly $40m in a multi-year project to fix and increase clearances on these:

Web Link

See Caltrain's "San Mateo Bridges Replacement Project Page" here:
Web Link

Knowingly and deliberately building (or even advocating the building of) one of these non-idiot-proof overpasses today is the height of preposterous irresponsibility.

See videos of low-clearance bridge strikes here: Web Link

Oh, yeah, have fun asking local fire chiefs about all those 8-foot-tall fire trucks they are to acquire. (Alarm comes in ... map the route ... Oops, OK, listen up guys ... everyone off that truck, we've gotta take the low-clearance "Tonka truck" to this one!).


2 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Sep 5, 2017 at 4:28 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

Just wanted to recommend the Caltrain-HSR Compatibility Blog's clear-headed analysis of Palo Alto grade separation issues going back to 2009. The blog is run by a local physicist/rocket scientist who has a long interest and passion for rail, particularly HSR ... so while it's quite wonky, he's got the gift of presenting technical stuff in a clear and widely accessible way:

If you were to read just one Palo Alto grade seps related posting, it should probably be this one:
Web Link

If you search the blog for Palo Alto, you'll find a treasure trove of lots more clear-headed technical analysis accompanied by and backed with actual dimensions, examples, drawings and maps, where appropriate:

Web Link

My takeaway is that it's pretty clear that a "split" grade separation where the tracks go up some and the road dips down some is the best solution overall. The "dividing the community" trope of berms is really more a bit of hyperbolic nonsense in that the division is more psychological than practical. As can be seen in San Carlos/Belmont, with berms, punching through (or leaving) more bike/ped (or even auto) underpasses is quite doable. Even more so with viaducts, where there can also be new linear parks and paths underneath (if they are high enough).

Note also that since Caltrain service cannot just be shut down for years of grade separation construction, temporary bypass tracks (called "shoofly" tracks) are constructed while the main line is under construction ... these double-track shooflies have to go somewhere, and this could mean a lengthy strip of yards, homes or parts of Alma must be temporarily be "taken" before being returned ot their original use.

Don't forget that Caltrain electrification has begun, and the spiffy new cleaner, quieter, all-electric, state of the art high-performance Swiss electric multiple unit (EMU) trains are now in the final design & construction pipeline with deliveries beginning in just a couple years. See: Web Link


1 person likes this
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 5, 2017 at 5:46 pm

Reality Check: Thank you for the thoughtful analysis. That puts the kybosh on the "low vertical clearance" solution. Besides, it is doubtful that Caltrans would grant a waiver for the reasons you cited.

"a 'split' grade separation where the tracks go up some and the road dips down some is the best solution overall"

This is also called a "hybrid" crossing. It would definitely be indicated at Churchill Avenue.

Re: shoofly tracks. I wonder if Caltrain could go single track through the construction zones for the duration of construction. I've seen this done in S.F. with construction of streetcar tracks. I'm not a railroad engineer so I don't know. If they take homes they'll have to compensate the owners at "fair market value" and raze the structures. Figure $2 million per property. But construction detours will definitely have to be part of the "Palo Alto Process" or CSS, another reason to get professional engineers involved.


9 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2017 at 8:00 pm

All of Caltrain electrification is a train wreck.

Caltrain electrification is just the whole CalHSR boondoggle in miniature. A system that is not designed to serve the transportation needs of the region but to funnel federal, state, and local tax dollars through construction companies and unions into political campaign coffers.

Like the CalHSR boondoggle Caltrain electrification is 60 year old technology even before the decade long construction process is even started. Like CalHSR the construction cost is to high and will end up way over budget. Like Cal HSR Caltrain electrification will only serve a very small fraction of the regions population (<1%), and like CalHSR when Caltrain electrification is finished a ride will cost way to much compared to the alternative.

Worst of all, like CalHSR, Caltrain electrification will divide communities and destroy homes and lives through through the taking of private properties and blight.


1 person likes this
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 5, 2017 at 8:43 pm

"Caltrain electrification will divide communities and destroy homes and lives through through the taking of private properties and blight."

Will it bring about famine, flooding and pestilence too?


4 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2017 at 9:06 pm

@ODB,

Q: "Will it bring about famine, flooding and pestilence too?"

A: No, but nice attempt to create a thinly disguised straw-man.

What's wrong? Dividing the community and destroying the homes and lives of your neighbors through the taking of property and blight not enough for you?




Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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