The long controversy behind the Churchill Avenue rail redesign has put the city and its residents at a frustrating but understandable impasse.
But Southgate resident Michael Price believes he might have the answer.
Considering the long checklist of requirements that Caltrain, the city of Palo Alto and its residents have demanded, two options the City Council has been considering — a closure of Churchill and a viaduct — haven't been able to satisfy all sides of the debate.
Price is seeking to find a compromise between supporters of Churchill's closure — who hate the idea of a viaduct going over their backyards — and those who have argued that closing the street would cut off their access to Alma Street and drive traffic to Embarcadero Road and other east-west crossings.
"The idea is to keep the intersection open mostly and to separate the bike and pedestrian from the traffic as much as possible," Price said Friday during an episode of the Weekly's "Behind the Headlines" webcast. "And to avoid taking any properties, leave Caltrain where it is so Caltrain won't object, and don't build any big structures which are gonna be ugly (or) unsightly in people's backyards."
Price, CEO of Pro-Teq Inc., an automated earthquake mitigation company, proposes a sort of T-formation for Churchill Avenue and Alma, where west Churchill is crosses beneath the tracks in an underpass and the intersection of Alma and Churchill is likewise lowered. Cars would not be able to go straight on Churchill through the intersection.
Churchill east of Alma would remain at grade, allowing cars wishing to go north on Alma to make the right turn off Churchill. For bicyclists and pedestrians, the design also creates a separate pathway that involves a tunnel and an overpass.
The idea received a boost this week, when the City Council voted Tuesday to authorize more analysis of the alternative.
Price's proposal comes at a time when Caltrain is preparing to electrify the rail corridor and start running more trains, potentially creating traffic jams at rail crossings because of increased gate-down times. Caltrain plans to host a community meeting on its construction activities for the electrification project in Palo Alto this Tuesday, Jan. 28, from 6-7 p.m. at the Embarcadero Room of Rinconada Library, 1213 Newell Road. The agency plans to begin installing poles along the rail corridor in the coming months.
To prepare for this eventuality, the City Council has been considering possible alternatives for "grade separation" — the reconfiguration of the rail crossings so that roads and the tracks would no longer intersect.
About two years ago, the city had 37 ideas for grade separation. Last year, they narrowed down the list to seven, yet city officials also recognize that these ideas are far from perfect.
Or, as Price put it: "All the alternatives on the table stink."
Though the cost of his idea remains a mystery to Price and the council, Mayor Adrian Fine said it was an option "worth exploring" during Tuesday's meeting.
Not everyone likes the idea of building an underpass at Churchill. Several residents said this week that they fear this would bring more traffic to their street and compared the design to a "freeway."
But Price believes his approach is a step forward to creating a viable solution that might allay not all but many people's concerns about the crossing. He said he started to think about something different around the time of a community meeting last summer. It became clear to him that there wasn't going to be consensus on what to do, he said.
"Nobody's gonna be perfectly happy, but maybe nobody will be perfectly unhappy either, so that would be a win in my view," Price said.