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Guest Opinion: Remembering Palo Alto's transportation history

Former mayor highlights moments in history to inform city's current rail-redesign effort

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As Palo Alto struggles to make tough decisions about rail crossings, it may be time to review history. It's not by accident that we have the city we have today — almost every street and park has a story to tell, often involving hard-fought political battles. Understanding the historical "bones" of our city — the rail line and a walkable grid street system rather than a car-dominated expressway network that defines many post-war communities — will stand us in good stead.

The train actually predates the city and Stanford! In 1861, the three counties voted to pay $600,000 of the $2 million cost to build a railroad connecting San Francisco to Menlo Park, and then the next year, to San Jose. Leland Stanford began to buy land for his horse farm in 1876; his agent Timothy Hopkins developed the 740-acre Hopkins Tract in 1887, which became University Park and then Palo Alto. Palo Alto incorporated in 1894.

Debates about how to separate trains and roads date back to 1913. Palo Alto petitioned the authorities for an at-grade crossing at Palo Alto Avenue like the one that exists today, but they ruled the safest option would be an underpass. The city passed a small bond measure, but World War I broke out and progress stalled. In 1919, the city petitioned to temporarily maintain the crossing to handle the sudden surge of 28,000 soldiers from the sprawling Camp Fremont Army facility nearby. In 1921, Palo Alto petitioned (successfully) to permanently keep the crossing open because traffic studies showed the ever-growing University Avenue would likely be a better location for a new crossing. Palo Alto High School was built in 1919 and the community pushed for a grade separation at Embarcadero Road to improve safety. In 1929, a terrible accident led to a citywide $60,000 bond measure to fund the separation. Much like today, neighbors were pitted against each other and, in part, the measure failed due to opposition from the Southern Palo Alto Residents Association, which called the project "narrow, unsightly and expensive" and perhaps "a bit far north."

In 1931, a coalition of Stanford University professors and political leaders from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties formed the Peninsula Grade Crossing Association and released a detailed proposal to eliminate every at-grade rail crossing on the Peninsula, to be financed with a state gas tax. The Great Depression stalled progress, and it took funding from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to build the bridge in 1936. Today, the historic bridge serves to slow cars down as they enter the walkable downtown area — something planners today should keep in mind as they consider whether to widen the Alma road bridge. In 1940, the County, the Southern Pacific, Stanford and Palo Alto worked together to do a double separation at University Avenue — a road underpass for cars along El Camino to go under University/Palm Drive and a hybrid underpass lowering University under the train and raising the tracks and station area. The State funded project followed years of debates and difficult decisions about relocating the tracks and station, cloverleaf designs versus side street connections, and with Stanford University allowing use of 4 acres of its land to complete the project.

The Stanford Industrial Park (now Stanford Research Park) and Stanford Shopping Center were conceived in the 1950s when both Stanford and the City were struggling fiscally, but no one told the residents that they would draw car traffic through the city. In 1959, the voters chose to separate Page Mill Road/Oregon Avenue instead of California Avenue since the newly built Bayshore Freeway (U.S. 101) was now dumping cars onto Oregon. The new, safer crossing proved so popular that traffic actually worsened. County planners urged the city to widen Oregon with money from the newly passed county tax measure, but that required removing 89 homes.

Opponents argued an expressway would divide the city in half, while supporters argued the city should get its fair share of county money to pay for the needed safety and traffic improvements. The contentious citywide vote barely passed after a last minute promise for "no trucks on Oregon." Instead of a freeway design with chain link fences and only two crossings, city leaders negotiated for a "garden-style" expressway with more street connections and crossings.

Palo Alto also successfully fought off the original plan for Central Expressway, which called for six lanes on Alma. Attempts to turn Menlo Park's Alameda de las Pulgas into Almaden Expressway, to connect a Willow Expressway to State Route 84, were similarly vigorously fought and defeated.

Lessons? Big, complex transportation projects have been planned and funded in the past. But they take time and an understanding of what's most important to Palo Alto's future. Let the Expanded Community Advisory Panel (XCAP) take needed time to study the options thoughtfully and understand what's most important to preserve and what we can change. Centuries from now, our rail infrastructure and a walkable grid system will be what we can thankfully fall back upon, with climate change threatening to dominate our mid-to-long-term future.

Yoriko Kishimoto is a former mayor of Palo Alto and served as the founding chair of its Rail Committee. She is also president of the Friends of Caltrain and Transportation Choices for Sustainable Communities, which is co-organizing a Green Streets for Sustainable Communities Symposium on March 12. Kishimoto is on the board of Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. She thanks Nadia Naik for sharing her research and Jay Thorwaldson for reviewing.


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26 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 14, 2020 at 5:35 pm

Bicycling advocates have been their own worst enemy.

In a city controlled by real-estate interests, the solution to every problem gets twisted around to build, build, build. Unfortunately bicycling advocates drank the developer Kool-Aid and foolishly started believing a more urban Palo Alto would be a more bike-able Palo Alto.

By allying themselves with developer's and their urbanization plans, bicycling advocates were able to get a few bike paths built, but what they did not realize was urbanization induced road congestion would destroy bike-able infrastructure faster than it could be built.

Bike path construction will never make up for the loss of the ability for bikes to safely share the roads with cars.

4 people like this
Posted by J S
a resident of another community
on Feb 15, 2020 at 5:43 am

One of the biggest losses started in what is now Palo Alto -- the loss of the Blossom Line branch out of Mayfield (California Ave. Area). The line branched at the industrial facility that later (until recently) became Fry's Electronics, carried south at an angle, and then went on all the way to Los Gatos. This line was a vital link for passengers from parts of the South Bay to Stanford and on to San Francisco, but almost all of it was destroyed to make Foothill Expressway.

A small part of the original line remains in the Cupertino/Saratoga area, serving a freight branch line to the cement factory.

8 people like this
Posted by Richard
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 16, 2020 at 1:21 pm

Remember after the CA High Speed Rail bond initiative passed, per Ms. Kishimotos's endorsement, when the city authorized the citizen rail corridor study in 2010? The city subsequently approved and published that report in 2013. After releasing this reasonably well investigated report, the city then promptly buried and ignored it and dropped the ball completely on rail grade separations which were needed with or without high speed rail

Web Link

Years later after Caltrain gets funding for electrification, the city, again ignores the rail corridor study and proceeds to start from square one, and here we are. Pretty much where that 2013 report left us. Sad.

Like this comment
Posted by Judith Wasserman
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 18, 2020 at 1:03 pm

2010? There were studies and urban planning charettes in 1998. They were stashed in drawers like the Ark of the Covenant.

Like this comment
Posted by Richard
a resident of another community
on Feb 18, 2020 at 2:09 pm

Perhaps the most forgotten form of effective transportation was the Palo Alto Bus system. My grandmother used it from 1964 until the city sold or gave it to the county transit system. The frequency of busses was cut along with the number of routes. Theis meant she could no longer walk to Louis and Colorado and travel all over the city do do her shopping, medical visits and such. Thus my mom had to drive cross town to get her then all around town in the car back to my grandmothers house and then home again. Some benefit to the residents that was.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 18, 2020 at 4:09 pm

The rail and grade separation issue did not die in 2013. When the 4-rack HSR option was beaten back and replaced by the “Blended System” concept in 2012, Caltrain started to move forward on their electrification. The city council kept an active Rail Committee and they commissioned the Hach Mott MacDonald study which looked at 2-track grade separations.
However, there wasn’t any local or state money to build the separations. The SVLG looked at a county tax in 2014 and they ended up putting it to the voters in 2016. Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto negotiated $700M in that tax for grade separations in their cities, which was a real big down payment. Consequently, in 2017, the city started moving forward with looking at all of the alternatives, along with a bunch of pros and cons for each option.

3 people like this
Posted by Richard
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 18, 2020 at 9:32 pm


After the 2013 citizens report, the city of Palo Alto basically did nothing about grade separations, and certainly did previous little that I am aware of looking for funds at the state and or local level, an obvious potention source of funding for such a large, expensive and regional project. The Hach report was dropped and ignored almost as quickly as the 2013 citizens report. If you have attended any of the recent rail corridor meetings, you would assume that the city just recently discovered that there are rail tracks running through town, and oh my, what are we to do about it?? Who knew?? Nothing in any previous report or study was brought into the most recent discussion about rail separations that I am aware of. The city, again, started from square one trying to come up with any sort of solution. Meeting after meeting over more than a year basically advanced the process nowhere spending a lot of time reminding attendees that there are rail tracks running through town, but little more. Things have advanced quickly more recently, thankfully. Concerning the svlg tax you mention, remember that that was initially a county tax to only pay for a $4B Bart tunnel from alum Rock to down town San Jose. Only after protests were the words changed to toss a bone to grade separations to ensure its passage. The funds from that tax that can go to rail separations are capped at the $700M mark, funds to Bart are unlimited over the life of the tax. A classic svlg regressive tax to ensure that their corporate sponsors, some of the wealthiest companies in the world, pay nothing to mitigate the traffic congestion that they are largely responsible for, but residents pay for the mass transit that benefits their bottom line.

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