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."