Palo Alto banks on county funds to plan for rail redesign

Money intended for street repairs will be used for planning to separate roads from railroad tracks

Palo Alto's ambitious and ever-shifting plans for redesigning its rail corridor are about to get a welcome boost from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the agency in charge of distributing funds for rail improvements from the 2016 tax measure.

Palo Alto is one of three cities — along with Mountain View and Sunnyvale — that are eligible for the $700 million that were designated for "grade separations" — the physical separation of the railroad tracks from local roads at intersections using overpasses, underpasses or other structures. The VTA is now coming up with a plan to distribute the funds to the three north county cities.

But while Palo Alto's leaders don't know how much of the $700 million the city will get, they are about to cash in on VTA money from a different program, an annual allotment for street repairs. And because Palo Alto's streets are already deemed to be in relatively good shape, the city will be allowed to use its $1.3 million for other purposes, including planning for grade separations.

Unlike with the grade-separation fund, Palo Alto has plenty of discretion in how to spend the street-repair money. VTA guidelines specify that cities that have a "pavement condition index" of 70 or below — connoting a multitude of streets that need repairs — must spend the money from this program for maintenance and repairs.

But cities with streets in generally good condition can use the money for "other congestion relief projects and programs," according to VTA guidelines. Palo Alto, with its pavement score of 85, could potentially invest in new shuttles, bike lanes and the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit charged with reducing the number of solo drivers coming to downtown.

Instead of doing any of that, the city is planning to spend the vast majority of the funding — about $1 million annually — to study new designs for the railroad tracks at rail crossings.

The remaining $300,000 will go toward installation of traffic signals and upgrading the signal-communications network, according to a plan developed by City Manager Ed Shikada and approved by the City Council last summer as part of its adoption of the city's capital budget.

The city's decision to devote most of its Local Streets and Roads funding to grade separation, a project that isn't expected to be completed for at least a decade, underscores the huge amount of time and money associated with the planning effort.

The council in June approved an additional $1.2 million for the city's contract with the consulting firm AECOM, raising the total compensation to $2.5 million. It has already recently expanded a citizen committee that was advising staff on grade-separation alternatives and is considering creating another group in December to help come up with the funding for the city's preferred alternative, whenever it's chosen.

The extra $1 million from the VTA is expected to help with the rail-redesign planning, though it does not resolve the bigger question of who will pay for the actual construction of grade separations.

Palo Alto is bracing for the likely scenario that the city's share of the Measure B grade-separation fund will not suffice to implement whatever alternatives the council ultimately decides to pursue. Currently, the city is primarily looking to make changes at Churchill Avenue (including closing Churchill to traffic at the crossing) and at the south Palo Alto crossings of Meadow Drive and Charleston Road (where the city is considering a viaduct, a trench, and a "hybrid" option that combines lowering the road and raising the track).

Mountain View and Sunnyvale, meanwhile, have already narrowed down their preferred options for the two grade crossings in each respective jurisdiction.

To bridge the gap between how much the city will receive and how much grade separations are expected to cost, the council is preparing to place a tax measure on the November 2020 ballot. The measure, which the council will discuss on Sept. 16, will likely take the form of a business tax.

Last Monday, in discussing grade separations, Shikada told the council that Palo Alto will need to come up with new revenue sources to actually achieve grade separations. He also alluded to Palo Alto's potential of getting about $300 million from the Measure B funds (based on the fact that the city has more grade crossings than Mountain View or Sunnyvale), though the VTA has not determined that the number of grade crossings will be a factor in determining each city's allocations.

"We are operating with the assumption that, based on the concepts we've seen today and initial cost estimates, that there will be additional funding required beyond the $300 million that we may envision as Palo Alto's fair share of Measure B grade-separation earmark." Shikada said.


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2 people like this
Posted by RalphE
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 14, 2019 at 12:02 pm

If you removed all of the foot traffic and the bicycle traffic from the towns rail crossings using tunnels under the roads and the railroad tracks, like California Avenue, you could move a lot more vehicles through these intersections in the limited amount of time that you have between trains.

10 people like this
Posted by Rick
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 16, 2019 at 11:08 am

We wasted far more than that on the "bikeway" that no one wants and triggered a neighborhood revolt. Now we are taking needed street repair funds to "study" something that should have been completed a decade ago. Wake up Palo Alto!

9 people like this
Posted by Old Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 16, 2019 at 12:57 pm

Leave it be.

12 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2019 at 4:43 pm

Every penny and every second spent trying to adapt Palo Alto to Caltrain's antiquate approach to transportation is a complete waste of time and money.

The best thing Palo Alto can do is NOTHING. 15-20 years from now when self-driving cars put Caltrain out of business, Palo Alto will end up looking like the smartest guys in the room. San Carlos, Redwood City, and Mountain View will all be stuck trying to figure out what to do with communities blighted by very expensive, ugly, white elephants.

5 people like this
Posted by Family Friendly
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 16, 2019 at 5:05 pm

Self-driving cars will reduce our freeways to parking lots. There will always be a need for rail transportation.

12 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2019 at 6:51 pm


Try taking a family of 4-5 on Caltrain and see how "family friendly" it is on your pocketbook. Does anyone believe Caltrain is family friendly enough for a 7-10 year old to travel alone? A self-driving mini-van will be the family friendly vehicle of the near future.

Caltrain isn't really a transportation system. For the older crowd it is a new-age religion from the 1960s that they cling to long after giving up on bell-bottoms, communes, and yurts. For the younger set, wanting to virtue-signal green, Caltrain is just a fashion accessory.

8 people like this
Posted by I love Caltrain
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 16, 2019 at 7:33 pm

I love Caltrain is a registered user.

I don't ride Caltrain much but I love it because so many other people ride it. I can't imagine our streets with all those people in cars. If they are doing it for religious reasons or for fashion reasons or to "virtue signal", I don't care, I am all for it. They are helping us to reduce our transportation emissions and improve our air quality. I don't like Teslas either but I sure am glad that people are choosing to drive them.

I hope people can see the bigger picture and stop the sniping. Our planet is warming and it is no joke. Among the most important things we can do is to reduce our transportation emissions. Thank you Caltrain.

Like this comment
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2019 at 10:21 pm

A little too meta even for Palo Alto?

1 person likes this
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2019 at 1:35 am

"For the older crowd it is a new-age religion from the 1960s that they cling to long after giving up on bell-bottoms, communes, and yurts."

More grousing and bellyaching from Ahem.

"15-20 years from now when self-driving cars put Caltrain out of business"

How many thousands more vehicles will your Caltrain-free fantasy put on the roads? Every vehicle counts whether self-driving or not. With Bayshore and 280 reduced to parking lots you might make the trip from Palo Alto to the city in 4 - 6 hours, or am I being too optimistic?

Wait another 20 - 25 years and Elon Musk's flying trains will just fly over the crossings.

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