News

Webcast: The Churchill dilemma

Improving safety at intersection is key consideration in grade-separation project

Weekly staff discuss the question that has been pitting Palo Alto neighborhoods against each other: Should the city close Churchill Avenue to cars near the railroad tracks as part of a broader plan to redesign the rail corridor? Read our story about the issue here.

Watch the webcast here or listen to the podcast version of the episode here.

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Webcast: The Churchill dilemma

Improving safety at intersection is key consideration in grade-separation project

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Nov 22, 2019, 5:15 pm

Weekly staff discuss the question that has been pitting Palo Alto neighborhoods against each other: Should the city close Churchill Avenue to cars near the railroad tracks as part of a broader plan to redesign the rail corridor? Read our story about the issue here.

Watch the webcast here or listen to the podcast version of the episode here.

Subscribe to the "Behind the Headlines" podcast

We now have a podcast! Listen to Behind the Headlines while you're on the go by downloading free episodes of our new podcast, now available through Apple or Google Play.

Webcasts are posted every Friday afternoon on PaloAltoOnline.com, as well as on Palo Alto Online's YouTube channel, youtube.com/paweekly.

Check out previous weeks' episodes in the "Behind the Headlines" archive.

Comments

James Thurber
Registered user
Mountain View
on Nov 25, 2019 at 12:34 pm
James Thurber, Mountain View
Registered user
on Nov 25, 2019 at 12:34 pm
2 people like this

Ladies and Gentlemen, here's the total poop and scoop about Churchill and Caltrain.

Let's say a concerned citizen donates $100 million to pay for an underpass. Great. The city won't spend a dime.

But Churchill will be, essentially, closed to all traffic during construction. Sorry folks, that's the way it works.

The build takes between eighteen and twenty-four months. That entire period has resulted in Churchill being closed to thru traffic. But folks have found another way to get from one side of the tracks to the other (the wrong side to the right side, as it were, and vice versa).

My suggestion is that Palo Alto simply use concrete barriers to CLOSE off Churchill - remove the railroad crossing gates, and extend the fence. Palo Alto High students, however, would appreciate a single, small student crossing which would be open a few hours in the morning and ditto after school. Otherwise, Caltrain is free to go.

If it DOES NOT work you can remove the concrete barriers and re-open Churchill. The total cost would be in the few thousands, if that. And the City would have saved, potentially, ONE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS.


DES
Southgate
on Nov 25, 2019 at 5:11 pm
DES, Southgate
on Nov 25, 2019 at 5:11 pm
10 people like this

It's not clear to me that Caltrain is being either reasonable or realistic. First there seems to be the "if we build it they will come" assumption that if they have the capacity ridership will triple. Yet Caltrain almost went under during the last recession, and THERE Will be another one -- we have one every ten years or so. Furthermore, mass transit ridership is actually declining in most of the country so I really have to question the rigor of Caltrain's projections.

Secondly I don't understand while Palo Alto and all of these communities need to be subjected to this. Why can't be stipulated that Caltrain can run no more than 6 trains per hour each way, i.e. maximum traffic of one every 5 minutes at the Churchill Crossing. If they need more capacity beyond that they should make the trains longer.

Who is the higher authority that can push back on Caltrain?


Ex Paly
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 27, 2019 at 10:26 pm
Ex Paly, Old Palo Alto
on Nov 27, 2019 at 10:26 pm
1 person likes this

I agree that Caltrain's ridership projections seem fanciful, just like the CA HSR ridership projections.

"Who is the higher authority that can push back on Caltrain?"

The California Public Utilities Commission. Good luck getting them to reduce Caltrain service.

"maximum traffic of one every 5 minutes at the Churchill Crossing."

That's just silly. A train that goes through the Churchill crossing also goes through Menlo Park, Atherton, San Mateo, San Francisco and some down to Gilroy — dozens of grade crossings. You can't limit the number of crossings through just one intersection.


plain facts
Palo Verde
on Nov 28, 2019 at 10:34 pm
plain facts, Palo Verde
on Nov 28, 2019 at 10:34 pm
9 people like this

Viaducts and tunnels are simply TOO EXPENSIVE and TOO COMPLEX to be practical options. The city just doesn't have the money at hand nor the political efficiency to get it done. I wish it weren't true but it is.

There are a number of logistical issues with the idea (creeks, property rights, construction complications), and a very conservative estimate places costs at $10 million per mile of tunnel bored and almost that much for each mile of viaduct.

That leaves us with just a few options. We could leave the situation as-is, and face uncertain but likely traffic increases in the years to come. We could cut a trench, but again that is up there in cost and will take a long construction period. --OR-- let me pitch the idea which I believe is not ideal but simply the best way we can go about this.

The HYBRID BERM. I know what you're thinking. "Ruins my wonderful view", eh? Well, that's a sacrifice we simply must make. The hybrid berm is to my knowledge the cheapest grade separation we could build. Import lots of dirt, compact it to create a sloped earthen berm to place the train tracks on top of, and you can remove the existing crossing grades and cut through for passage. It can be landscaped.

Constructible, compatible with freight, safe, won't delay traffic. Not too much noise, but most importantly FEASIBLE COST......

Its major downside is visual obstruction but that is something we just have to bite our thumbs over. Plain facts.


DES
Southgate
on Nov 29, 2019 at 8:25 am
DES, Southgate
on Nov 29, 2019 at 8:25 am
5 people like this

First, I don't understand why EX PALY thinks that the # trains can't be capped. If you don't want to limit rhe # trains, then you can require a 3 minute interlude between trains.

Regarding Plain Facts, I have a few of my own. the distance from the Palo Alto Train Station to Alma Apartments is 2.5 miles. You bring Embarcadero and Oregon Expressway back up to grade level and run the train underneath them in a trench or a tunnel for 2.5 miles. Not only would this reduce noise but it would essentially create a 2.5 mile greenway if a tunnel were used. The California Avenue train station would need to be subterranean. As to creeks et. al, folks have been diverting and burying those things since the Romans.

Please find me one person anywhere back east, in Chicago, or along the northeast corridor where an elevated train (or freeway) has enhanced the quality of life for residents and the neighbors. I can cite communities I know that have been destroyed by them.


TBM
another community
on Nov 29, 2019 at 10:42 am
TBM, another community
on Nov 29, 2019 at 10:42 am
11 people like this

@DES

Palo Alto has no power to cap trains and no entity outside Palo Alto has any interest in capping trains. As an interstate railroad, the Caltrain Corridor enjoys powerful Federal protections against local meddling.

A tunnel is technically possible but financially impossible. Two thirds of Palo Altans are never going to vote to increase their taxes by $6000 per year for 30 years to pay for it, and no entity outside of Palo Alto would have any reason to help finance it.


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2019 at 1:08 pm
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2019 at 1:08 pm
1 person likes this

It doesn't matter about the frequency of the trains, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, 15 minutes, there will always be places along the Peninsula where a NB train passes a SB train and the gates will have to wait closed longer, or even only be open for less than one minute.

Two way traffic on the tracks often means that the gates stay down longer or the gap between trains is short.


Ex Paly
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2019 at 6:54 pm
Ex Paly, Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2019 at 6:54 pm
4 people like this

"let me pitch the idea which I believe is not ideal but simply the best way we can go about this.

The HYBRID BERM."

How many residences will be taken?

""I don't understand why EX PALY thinks that the # trains can't be capped. If you don't want to limit rhe # trains, then you can require a 3 minute interlude between trains.

Who's going to limit the number of trains? Why Caltrain, of course! The city of Palo Alto has no authority to regulate the Caltrain schedule. Caltrain's response will likely be "Why should we mess up our peninsula schedule for one city?" You'd probably get the same response if you went to the CPUC.

There has been no outreach to Caltrain by the City of Palo Alto that I know of regarding the feasibility of a trench or tunnel. Caltrain owns the ROW and has the final say. For starters, there are all sorts of hydrological issues to deal with, ranging from creek crossings to aquifers to storm flooding.

In the 10+ years that CPA has been chipping away at the grade sep issue, they could have been working with Caltrain on the feasibility of a trench/tunnel and possibly submerging the stations. If Caltrain says "no" then it's off the table and no need to waste time studying the matter any further.

That's been the whole problem with this Palo Alto grade sep project. You can have all the citizen's committees you want working in isolation, but at some point Caltrain has to become involved, whether it's over the feasibility of a trench/tunnel or the construction of shoofly tracks or coordinating the construction of a viaduct if that's what the city decides to do.

That the city has been planning this for over 10 years with so little input from Caltrain is just plain incompetence.


Ahem
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 12:49 am
Ahem, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 12:49 am
1 person likes this

Ex Paly,

Palo Alto working with Caltrain is the blind leading the blind. It is hard to imagine, but Caltrain's bureaucracy is even more dysfunctional than Palo Alto's.

Another local paper published a front page story on 11/25 about Caltrain CEO Jim Hartnett. In 2015 the Samtrans board selected former Redwood City councilman Jim Hartnett to head Caltrain even though Hartnett did not even meet Caltrain's own minimum qualifications for the job which required a bachelor's degree in business, engineering, planning, or a related discipline, and 12 years experience leading and managing a large complex and highly integrated organization. "Hartnett's management experience was limited to overseeing a small law firm in Redwood City".

Hartnett's lack of qualifications pretty much guarantees he is a political hack and Caltrain's growth projections are complete bunk.

As long as Palo Alto taxpayers are footing the bill for this boondoggle they can do whatever they want. If Hartnett doesn't like it, he can go pound sand.


Ex Paly
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2019 at 5:36 am
Ex Paly, Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2019 at 5:36 am
Like this comment

"As long as Palo Alto taxpayers are footing the bill for this boondoggle they can do whatever they want. If Hartnett doesn't like it, he can go pound sand."

Ah, so CPA could come in and tear up the tracks at Churchill? No tracks, no trains, no conflict with surface traffic, no need for grade separation.

See you in court!


TBM
another community
on Nov 30, 2019 at 8:58 am
TBM, another community
on Nov 30, 2019 at 8:58 am
2 people like this

"As long as Palo Alto taxpayers are footing the bill for this boondoggle they can do whatever they want."

The California Public Utilities Commission has the exclusive power to modify a grade separation Web Link and the California Transport Commission favors expanding rail capacity because trains are more "green".


plain facts
Palo Verde
on Nov 30, 2019 at 11:49 am
plain facts, Palo Verde
on Nov 30, 2019 at 11:49 am
3 people like this

@TBM

Thanks for that link- that is a good reminder to us that CPUC has the power at the end of the day.

I notice this passage:

“the proportions in which the expense of the construction, alteration, relocation, or abolition of crossings or the separation of grades shall be divided between the railroad or street railroad corporations affected or between these corporations and the state, county, city, or other political subdivision affected.”

Any chance that we can get CPUC to make Caltrain pony up money for grade separation?


Ahem
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 12:56 pm
Ahem, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 12:56 pm
6 people like this

How about paying for grade separation the way Palo Alto pays for everything... taxes.

How about a special property tax assessment on Caltrain's real-estate holdings (right of way, stations, parking lots) in Palo Alto? Or, what about a sales tax on ticket sales?

With a special property tax assessment on Caltrain's real-estate holdings, a sales tax on ticket sales, a special tax on commercial real-estate development, and some leftover CalHSR boondoggle funds, Palo Alto could probably build a tunnel the whole length of Palo Alto.


TBM
another community
on Nov 30, 2019 at 1:07 pm
TBM, another community
on Nov 30, 2019 at 1:07 pm
1 person likes this

@"Any chance that we can get CPUC to make Caltrain pony up money for grade separation?"

Not likely, a grade separation has minimal benefit to Caltrain, some reduced gate maintenance costs, most of the benefits go to the city. A viaduct could even increase Caltrain's maintenance costs.
Anyway Caltrain has no money, it is a quasi public service that operates at a loss. When Caltrain wants to make a capital investment, they go with a begging bowl looking for County and State grants. Underprivileged Palo Alto can cut out the middle man by begging for grants directly.


DES
Southgate
on Nov 30, 2019 at 2:12 pm
DES, Southgate
on Nov 30, 2019 at 2:12 pm
7 people like this

I feel that there are so many hidden agendas (such as high speed rail) and half truths (don't want to have to close Alma during construction) that no one is being forthright with the voters.

Time and again the polls have shown an overwhelming preference of the residents for a trench or a tunnel. Yet as I previously noted, a 2.5 mile trench starting south of University Station, requiring that both Embarcadero and Page Mill be brought back to grade level) should be examined and penciled out. I have seen other cities use trenches simply to reduce noise and hide unsightly rail systems.

An added benefit if covered would be a partial greenway near the school, actually improving both the quality of life and the attractiveness of the city for the next 50 years.

Does this longer view for the betterment of the city mark me with the perjurative "residentialist" label?


Madias
College Terrace
on Nov 30, 2019 at 2:54 pm
Madias, College Terrace
on Nov 30, 2019 at 2:54 pm
1 person likes this

The answer to the question posed in the article is :
“Yes”

Let’s move on


Ex Paly
Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2019 at 3:25 pm
Ex Paly, Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2019 at 3:25 pm
1 person likes this

"Time and again the polls have shown an overwhelming preference of the residents for a trench or a tunnel. Yet as I previously noted, a 2.5 mile trench starting south of University Station"

That's it. I'm weary of posting the same explanation for why this solution isn't as easy as you think it is.

Here's a clue: The final decision to build a trench or tunnel and develop the land on the ROW does not rest with the residents of Palo Alto, period. If you can't figure out why, go back and read some of the dozens of posts I've made on this very topic while our myriad rail committees spend another decade spinning their wheels and getting nowhere.


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 4:35 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 4:35 pm
1 person likes this

Posted by DES, a resident of Southgate

>> I feel that there are so many hidden agendas (such as high speed rail) and half truths (don't want to have to close Alma during construction) that no one is being forthright with the voters.

True, most politicians know that you can't get too far ahead of "the people". Abraham Lincoln, for example, commented about this directly to his friends, and, for example, always did as much to free the slaves as he could at any time given the political situation-- which depended directly on the military situation. Finally, on Jan 31,Feb 1, 1865, shortly before the end of the war, and, Lincoln's assassination, the 13th Amendment was passed and signed by Lincoln. So, it turned out, after a bloody civil war, that both Lincoln's supporters and opponents were "correct" about his intentions.

This isn't quite the issue slavery was, but, it is related to an equally significant, for our time, issue. If our grandchildren are to have the opportunity to have grandchildren, then, we will have to "fix" the drivers for climate change. We don't have much time. Rail transport will be a very significant part of the working solution. But, the political process just can't directly address voters about all these related issues-- it is too daunting for the general public. But, we need rail. Caltrain, and, the ROW, are our part of it. Let's not blow it.

>> Time and again the polls have shown an overwhelming preference of the residents for a trench or a tunnel.

There are a lot of reasons why this isn't going to work in this specific case, even though it is, -in general-, a great idea. The details just don't work. This has been reworked in private and public many times.

>> Does this longer view for the betterment of the city mark me with the perjurative "residentialist" label?

I'm an unashamed residentialist. But, a serious effort was made to look at the trench/tunnel options and they just don't work out-- the devil is in the details. Let's find alternatives that will meet the Requirements as best as possible and move ahead. The rail ROW is critical both for our local residential/residentialist goals of controlling traffic as much as we can, while meeting our historical global obligations.


Ahem
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 10:54 pm
Ahem, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 10:54 pm
10 people like this

What does climate change have to do with whether Caltrain is above or below ground? Caltrain would be electrified either way. In fact, Caltrain would HAVE to be electrified to go underground.

[Portion removed.]

Meanwhile, the city of San Francisco is going to spend $500 million to build an enormous steel and concrete seawall around the entire perimeter of SFO to make sure the largest single contributor to greenhouse gasses on the planet will continue to operate even as sea levels rise and flood surrounding homes, businesses, and transportation infrastructure.

[Portion removed.]


TBM
another community
on Dec 1, 2019 at 1:26 am
TBM, another community
on Dec 1, 2019 at 1:26 am
2 people like this

"What does climate change have to do with whether Caltrain is above or below ground?"

Moving Caltrain below ground would be a net contributor to climate change.
Cement production is a big emitter of CO2 Web Link , all of the heavy excavation equipment would run on diesel, and the excavated dirt would be hauled to Nevada by diesel trains. A train consumes more energy operating in a tunnel due to air friction Web Link .

The "save the planet" grade separation option is the bicycle underpass.


Not helpful
Registered user
Midtown
on Dec 1, 2019 at 8:17 am
Not helpful, Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 1, 2019 at 8:17 am
8 people like this

@Ahem. If you want people to listen to what you have to say, I'd suggest finding other ways to say it. When comments on difficult topics are vitriolic and absolute, thoughtful people tune out. And it's thoughtful people, not tribal thinkers, who are going to make real progress on these issues.


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 1, 2019 at 8:28 am
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 1, 2019 at 8:28 am
9 people like this

@Anon: “while meeting our historical global obligations.”

What ?


DES
Southgate
on Dec 1, 2019 at 9:17 am
DES, Southgate
on Dec 1, 2019 at 9:17 am
8 people like this

The problem with NOT building a trench or a tunnel is that the alternatives are dire. Examples of communities and historic neighborhoods which have been destroyed by elevated structures are easy to find, which is why at great expense communities are tearing them down all over the country now.

The cost? I do know that the cost is always unaffordable if someone doesn't want to do it.

As to the rigor of this entire enterprise, one thing I did learn from a "town meeting" is that the entire traffic analysis is based upon a single day's worth of data. Why? "Because that's all we ever use." I wonder, what day of the week did they pick? What month of the year? What was going on at Stanford that day? At Paly Hi? Good enough for city council etc., apparently.


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