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.