As Palo Alto approaches a critical juncture in its multiyear journey to redesign its rail crossings, city leaders are confronting the uncomfortable possibility that their complex and expensive effort could be upended by shifting plans involving Caltrain and the state's high-speed rail project.
That's the reality that the City Council wrestled with on Monday night, as it considered the city's progress on its plan for grade separation — the redesign of the corridor so that tracks don't intersect with local streets at crossings. Several council members indicated that given the uncertainty over Caltrain's future, as well as its own upcoming study on grade separation, the city may need to halt its effort.
In addition, staff is still monitoring the slow and uncertain progress of the planned high-speed rail system, which may include a four-track section that would conflict with some of the alternatives that the city is contemplating.
These questions are becoming more critical for the city as it approaches its latest deadline for choosing grade-separation alternatives. The decision, which the council had initially planned to make by the end of 2018, has faced numerous delays — most recently because of the pandemic. Under the city's current timeline, the council is set to rule on proposed alternatives for the Churchill Avenue, East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road crossings by the end of this year.
The city has already taken some major strides to meet this deadline. On Sept. 9, the citizens group known as the Expanded Community Advisory Panel, voted 6-3 to support the closure of Churchill Avenue to traffic in conjunction with various biking and traffic improvements at Embarcadero Road and Oregon Expressway. The panel is now in the process of picking an alternative for the two south Palo Alto crossings, where the current set of alternatives include a trench, a viaduct, an underpass and a "hybrid" that combines raised tracks and lowered roads.
The effort has taken its toll on the group, which began its work in fall 2019. The group saw five of its 14 members — including representatives from the Palo Alto Unified School District and the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce — drop out, leaving it with nine members. The pandemic forced the group to transition from a period in the spring with no meetings at all to a frenetic schedule of long, weekly meetings.
Nadia Naik, the group's co-chair, also pointed to the challenge of engaging citizens in discussions about concepts for bike improvements and tunnel alignments at a time when they are dealing with the disruptive effects of the pandemic.
"Frankly, everything that we do is tainted by this moment," Naik told the council on Monday. "And that's something that will loom, no matter what, over whatever report we'll give you."
Both the panel and the council are also keeping an eye on the California High-Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain, which have their own designs for the railway. Both agencies are also facing major funding challenges. Though the authority released its environmental analysis for the San Francisco-San Jose segment in July, the system remains unfunded and contentious. Caltrain, for its part, has seen its ridership drop by about 95% during the pandemic and is placing its hopes on Measure RR, a one-eighth cent sales tax that would bring in about $100 million in annual revenues.
Despite the budget challenges, Caltrain is preparing to advance a study of all 42 at-grade crossings along its right of way, a broad document that will also evaluate the agency's investments in the grade-separation projects. The effort is expected to kick off at the end of this year and proceed for about two years, Sebastian Petty, Caltrain's director of policy development, said at the July 24 meeting of the Local Policy Makers Group, which includes elected leaders from jurisdictions along the corridor.
When asked by Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine about the impact of the project on cities' own grade-separation efforts, Petty said cities can proceed as they have in the past.
"Caltrain will support them as best we can," Petty said. "There are some resources pressures there."
But Caltrain's uncertain financial outlook and long-term plans are giving some Palo Alto officials pause. Councilwoman Liz Kniss wondered on Monday whether the effort has "gone off track."
"Because we're in middle of COVID, trains are running empty, yet we have a measure on the ballot this fall to put more money into the trains," Kniss said.
Some suggested that XCAP's report should present the pros and cons of various alternatives, rather than issuing actual recommendations about the design that Palo Alto should pursue. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois pointed at the possibility of Caltrain and California High-Speed Rail Authority constructing a four-track segment in Palo Alto, an option that has not been entirely eliminated by either transportation agency. Given this uncertainty, and many others, he suggested slowing down.
He also noted that the city is unlikely to get answers from Caltrain to critical questions, including exemptions to allow 2% grade for below-grade tracks in south Palo Alto. Such work would require a service agreement between the city and Caltrain for the additional analysis, with the city footing the bill.
"It seems crystal clear to me that Caltrain, however politely, is telling us that we should stop for now," DuBois said.
Given the amount of uncertainty, DuBois suggested that the council should talk about how to "wrap up" XCAP's work.
Councilwoman Lydia Kou agreed that the report should not commit to specific recommendations, notwithstanding the fact that the committee already approved the closure of Churchill as a preferred alternative. Prior to the council's discussion, the members heard from numerous residents who opposed the closure of Churchill, an alternative that has split neighbors in the Southgate and Old Palo Alto neighborhoods.
"When XCAP chooses an alternative or makes a decision or takes a vote on something, it causes the community to have a lot of angst," Kou said. "I think that's not something we want to do right now, in such an early stage."
Council members also expressed frustration about the failure of the California High-Speed Rail Authority to analyze the impacts of a possible four-track segment. City Manager Ed Shikada called the absence of mitigations for the four-track portion "just unforgivable." The city also submitted a letter to the rail authority earlier this month, criticizing the EIR for failing to explore grade separations as a mitigation for the increased number of trains.
"There is no rationale for excluding grade separations as a feasible mitigation particularly given the Federal Rail Administration's conclusion that the Palo Alto at-grade crossings are among dangerous in the State," the Sept. 8 letter states.
While the COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer of uncertainty, both Shikada and Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said Monday that grade separation is a long-term project that looks well beyond the pandemic.
"Although COVID right now has definitely impacted ridership on Caltrain … we fully anticipate that Caltrain will again pick up the riders, will again be integral to employees and people trying to travel to and from Palo Alto," Kamhi said. "Maybe it won't happen this month or next month, but sooner or later Caltrain will be back and operating and (it) will be significant."