News

Despite looming questions over Caltrain and high-speed rail, Palo Alto moves ahead with grade separation effort

With citizens committee preparing to issue its decisions, City Council raises concerns about changing landscape

Traffic waits on Churchill Avenue as a Caltrain train crosses on March 21, 2019. The Palo Alto City Council is scheduled to make a decision about its preferred alternatives for grade separation in the coming months. Photo by Veronica Weber.

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.

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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.

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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.

The Expanded Community Advisory Panel is in the process of picking an alternative for two south Palo Alto rail crossings, one of which is at East Meadow Road. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

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."

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Despite looming questions over Caltrain and high-speed rail, Palo Alto moves ahead with grade separation effort

With citizens committee preparing to issue its decisions, City Council raises concerns about changing landscape

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Sep 23, 2020, 2:33 pm

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."

Comments

Staying Young Through Kids
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Sep 23, 2020 at 4:51 pm
Staying Young Through Kids, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Sep 23, 2020 at 4:51 pm
13 people like this

The Embarcadero Road Underpass opened in 1936 (84 years ago).

The numbers below are not perfect and I acknowledge some major differences in how we live and get around Today vs 1936. The numbers aren't exact, but they're close enough to make a point.

A few things to remember on both sides.

There were FAR fewer people driving cars into and around Palo Alto in 1936. The ratio of cars to people was much different.

There were far fewer mass transit options then, and fewer people on bikes.

A lot more people walked, and a lot more people shopped close to home (although home delivery was perhaps as common then as now).

The numbers also doesn't include any of the people/traffic for all the additional Stanford staff, Stanford Hospital, PAMF, Stanford Research Park, and all of Palo Alto South of Oregon Expy which was mostly farmland at the time (yes, farmland made up a big part of Palo Alto back then).

My point...WHY WOULD WE CLOSE ANY CROSSINGS? We already have too few! Too few for cars, too few for bikes, too few for pedestrians (especially ADA).

PLEASE find a way to make things BETTER and futureproof the railway divide that has challenged our community for over 100 years. Our leaders in 1936 were literally 100 years ahead of their time! They built in a LOT of extra capacity at Embarcadero in 1936.

PLEASE think that way now!

1936 - Stanford Total Enrollment approx. 6,000
1936 - Palo Alto HS Enrollment approx. 600
1936 - Castilleja Enrollment approx. 200
1936 - Town & Country Village - Undeveloped
1936 - City of Palo Alto Daytime Population approx. 20,000

1936 - Embarcadero Railroad Underpass Opens w/ 3 Lanes!
1936 - Churchill Crossing 2 lanes
1936 - 7 Total Crossings in Palo Alto (1 : 2800 People)

2020 - Stanford Total Enrollment approx. 18,000
2020 - Palo Alto HS Enrollment approx. 2,200
2020 - Castilleja Enrollment approx. 420
2020 - Town & Country Village approx 12,000 (cars per day)
2020 - City of Palo Alto Daytime Population approx. 160,000

2020 - Embarcadero Underpass UNCHANGED w/ 3 Lanes and terrible ADA and cycling accommodations.
2020 - Churchill Crossing CLOSED
2020 - 6 Total Crossings in Palo Alto (1 : 26,000 People)

And...hats off to the University Avenue grade separation and train depot developers (finished in 1940). Showing its age, but still working pretty well 80 years later!


StatusQuo
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Sep 23, 2020 at 4:59 pm
StatusQuo, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Sep 23, 2020 at 4:59 pm
19 people like this

Totally unacceptable to close Churchill. The committee has lost all credibility.


Staying Young Through Kids
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Sep 23, 2020 at 5:11 pm
Staying Young Through Kids, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Sep 23, 2020 at 5:11 pm
13 people like this

@StatusQuo Absolutely! We need additional ways to cross the tracks, not fewer. We have a short sighted committee. We need some visionaries who can provide for the future of our town.


TimR
Registered user
Downtown North
on Sep 23, 2020 at 8:26 pm
TimR, Downtown North
Registered user
on Sep 23, 2020 at 8:26 pm
18 people like this

Using Oregon instead of Churchill off of Alma is a very perilous alternative going southbound. The visibility at the bottom of the exit is bad, it's at the bottom of a hill with on-coming traffic barrelling down, and it's is already very crowded at certain times of the day. If you want to have a chance, you have hold your breath and really hit the gas, and hope it works out. And then there's the issue of merging onto Alma from Oregon going south. Sometimes I just don't have the nerve for that one. The entire stretch of Alma is a mess; such a mess, that although bicycles are legally allowed, police used to escort daredevil cyclists off of it (remember those stories?). Closing Churchill will only add to all the pandemonium, which I realize most on the City Council don't care to think about--too pedestrian. But some of us actual citizens do care.


Rebecca Eisenberg
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Sep 23, 2020 at 11:46 pm
Rebecca Eisenberg, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Sep 23, 2020 at 11:46 pm
6 people like this

As I said in the City Council meeting, numerous resident surveys have shown that our community seeks a more liveable solution than the prospect of even *more* train tracks causing noise and pollution and dividing our community.

About 11 years ago, when the idea of undergrounding the train tracks was last explored, most discussion on the topic referred to a huge potential benefit of putting the tracks underground: that of creating an additional 45-50 acres of land that Palo Alto could use for housing, parks, and community services.

Given our huge lack of housing to support our workforce, as well as enormous rise in traffic, largely due to all of the commercial development during the past decade, one would expect that the City Council would at very least *research* the capacity of undergrounding the train to create a billion dollars of useable land. Nonetheless, the city council has refused to reopen that option, even given the fact that our city council's inability to produce affordable housing will soon open the door for our state government to enter our city and produce housing as it sees fit, per SB 35.

For those unaware of how enormously behind our city is in meeting our legal requirements to produce housing (whether we agree with those requirements or not), here is one data point: Palo Alto has permitted only 43 units of very low income housing in the past 8 years, despite our city's requirement to have permitted 691 VLI homes by 2022. Our city is 6% towards our goal that is due in 2022. And while much less wealthy California cities are on track to exceed their RHNA goals by taxing their largest businesses and taking advantage of the billions of dollars of CARES Act funding that the State has made available to fund affordable housing, our city council in March voted 7-0 to make budget cuts to community services rather than allow residents to vote on whether Tesla and Palantir should be asked to contribute -anything- to our economic recovery.

In fact, when eliminating all funding for the long-promised electric shuttles, none of our local leaders considered asking Tesla, who has employed thousands of workers here in Palo Alto for years, without paying one dime to city coffers, whether Tesla would consider providing electric shuttles to mitigate the traffic problems that Tesla itself created.

It is this lack of creativity and innovation that appears to be blinding our city council to the huge opportunity that could be created by undergrounding. By replacing noisy train tracks with parks and homes, we could improve the quality of life for residents, the increase value of homes currently located near Caltrain, and could reduce the gridlock created by the extremely limited crossings in Palo Alto. We could connect the east and west halves of our city, making it so much easier for retail and restaurants to attract customers, and finally creating genuinely safe routes for children to and from school.

Given this unprecedented potential opportunity to transform the quality of life and sustainability of our city, shouldn't our city council at very least *research* whether putting the train underground could help our city council fulfill at least a few of the promises it made when it committed to its 3 city priorities of housing, traffic reduction, and sustainability?


Not quite....
Registered user
Professorville
on Sep 24, 2020 at 8:25 am
Not quite...., Professorville
Registered user
on Sep 24, 2020 at 8:25 am
18 people like this

@RebeccaEisenberg

Your comments show you are not informed on this topic. We cannot build housing on the Caltrain tracks because we don't own them - Caltrain does.

Even if you could build on the land, the width of the Right-Of-Way is too narrow (you are talking 72 ft near Churchill for the entire ROW and 100 -150 ft near Meadow/Charleston).

Also, the tunnel has significant eminent domain (property impacts) due to the need to build temporary tracks for Caltrain to continue to operate while the tunnel could be built - something that in your comments to City Council you said was unacceptable. So you can't be against eminent domain and be pro-tunnel.

In your comments you said you'd been all over the website and couldn't find any information - well, at the bottom of the page - you can see the plans for ideas no longer being considered. See here: Web Link

And here's the video showing the property impacts of a Citywide tunnel: Web Link

Councilmember Tanaka (current encumbent in this election) keeps trying to peddle the same story and it simply is untrue.

Another reality - burying the train means burying the stations - that adds billions to the costs. I know you support a business tax to pay for this - and I agree businesses should pay their fair share - but you have to be realistic about where you spend the money you could collect.

Spending billions to underground a train and stations when we don't even have funds to safely re-open our schools or upgrade our other city infrastructure is naive.

You are attempting to sell Palo Altans on a dream that isn't based in reality and it is not helpful. Housing and grade separations are two very complicated issues and you're trying to cleverly weave them into one fix for all - which is a fantasy.

Folks working on the grade separations tried hard to find a tunnel alternative that could work - but it can't be done - and weaving tales that it can be done and accusing people who say it can't be done as lacking "vision" is irresponsible.


Martin
Registered user
Downtown North
on Sep 24, 2020 at 8:25 am
Martin, Downtown North
Registered user
on Sep 24, 2020 at 8:25 am
22 people like this

I've watched all their VR videos, and think this is a "solution, in search of a problem". I suggest that we wait and see: a) how Covid-19 affects long term commutes, b) how an electrified Caltrain system operates, and it's affect on auto traffic, and c) if and when HSR materializes.

Right now, we have our schools closed, businesses leaving town, and University Ave drying up. Let's focus, on what really matters!


Not quite....
Registered user
Professorville
on Sep 24, 2020 at 8:39 am
Not quite...., Professorville
Registered user
on Sep 24, 2020 at 8:39 am
10 people like this

@Staying young through the kids

I live in Professorville and have been following this issue closely.

Unfortunately, the Council and the Staff specifically limited XCAP's work to only focus on Churchill. Numerous times XCAP's chair and others raised the issue of Embarcadero being outdated and likely needing to be rebuilt as a potential opportunity for better design and improved (but carefully controlled) traffic flow - especially for bikes and peds. XCAP also repeatedly pointed out the relationship of Embarcadero traffic with downtown traffic - and how alternatives for PA Ave could impact Embarcadero and should be considered with the other crossings.

The City Manager and Staff told the Council that PA Avenue (Alma) would be looked at as part of an eventual Downtown Coordinated Area Plan - so, unfortunately, it was removed from XCAP's purview - something many XCAP members complained about ever since.

Interestingly, while XCAP was told they couldn't think about modifying the existing Embarcadero structure, the mitigations for the closure of Churchill actually call for modifying the existing Embarcadero road bridge by adding a lane at the narrowest spot along Alma (but not impacting the "choke point" below where we have 2 lanes going in 1 direction and 1 lane in the opposite direction).

The XCAP has done a good job given the limits that were placed on them - but clearly, there is much more to do before any big actions are taken - that will be the work of the next council. This election cycle- be wary of candidates offering simple solutions to complex problems.


Staying Young Through Kids
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2020 at 2:34 pm
Staying Young Through Kids, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Sep 24, 2020 at 2:34 pm
6 people like this

@Not Quite Thank you for mentioning all of this and I agree that some candidates might use this forum to ask Santa for a thoroughbred when a hard working mule is what the family needs.

I was aware of the XCAP limitations and my comments are intended to sound the alarm of coordinated crossing capacity (cars, bikes, peds) across our entire community.

Crossings are inadequate now and cars aren't going away. If we follow a similar development trajectory for either housing or commerce we’re going to have more cars (even if they're electric and self driving).

Back when the rail ROW was open you could walk across the tracks in any number of places. Not exactly ADA accessible, but it allowed for movement. Now we have more frequent faster trains, valid ADA and cycling considerations, and the virtuous and compassionate effort to save lives by keeping people off the tracks in all areas.

This is a SUPER complicated issue that demands examination and "century minded" proposals based on the FULL CITYWIDE SYSTEM. That should include all of our existing crossings, potential new pedestrian/bike crossings (the "Urban Lane"/PAMF crossing has worked amazingly well). We also have to consider traffic on all 7 crossing streets, adjacent streets (Alma, Park, El Camino), and our adjacent neighborhoods. And...how about considering some additional vehicular crossing streets that connect to Alma? Lambert? Ventura? Del Medio? California? Encina? Quarry?

Just like the super close vote to expand Oregon Ave. 50 years ago, our community needs strong unified leadership selling a thoughtful plan to help our citizens truly understand the long term implications. We don't need pie in the sky "tunnel vision" (see what I did there?). We need practical and future serving ideas. There will be some who don't like it, some who lose, but a community that could win BIG!

BTW....if we could offer a million dollars over market (or some "make me move" amount) for every property that needed to be taken for the project it might cost 20 million (additional) dollars. Of course it would also accelerate the project and stimulate the conversation a lot. In the grand scheme $20M is a pittance in getting this done correctly.

All that said, we should HOLD OFF on any decisions and instead plan our butts off while there's a lull in mass transit and the trains and cars are fewer. It’s going to be a while before we’re back to the “old normal”, and we know cars will return before the trains. For a few years both CalTrain and HSR Authority will have to dial back due to both financing and demand. Perhaps HSR will die on the vine or just decide to end in SJ which is a reasonable idea once Caltrain is electrified.

Coming up with a solution to be implemented 5 or 10 or 15 years from now (or in stages) is key to keeping our city strong.

I'm a fairly young voter (40's) and have not been a fan of the "Green New Deal" as it has been initially introduced. But, we're heading a new era and I see a large national program of some sort on our horizon. And, anything’s possible if we could draw from a few trillion $ in national stimulus and a huge labor force to either berm, lift, trench, or move the tracks to improve movement in Palo Alto. If that happens, count me in!

Where are Harry Hopkins, Emily Roebling, Frank Crowe, or John Shea when you need them? Look them up if you don’t know. All of our kids should know their names as well! They took big ideas and turned them into BIG real things!


relentlesscactus
Registered user
another community
on Sep 24, 2020 at 6:06 pm
relentlesscactus, another community
Registered user
on Sep 24, 2020 at 6:06 pm
4 people like this

Confirm - Never will be a tunnel; not enough money in Silicon Valley; isn't without massive consequences and risks.


Aldin Lee
Registered user
another community
on Sep 29, 2020 at 1:48 pm
Aldin Lee, another community
Registered user
on Sep 29, 2020 at 1:48 pm
7 people like this

To All: First off, I was glad to see a preponderance of comments citing the absurdity of closing Churchill, the proposal of which (as some noted) is a red flag that calls into question the Commission's competency in the area of transit. Reducing congestion is done by creating more flow alternatives, not fewer. Being in the heart of silicon valley, one should think this would be more easily grasped, seeing how the internet 'works' due to the multitude of pathways which data can move across it.
Though not a resident in Palo Alto, I stumbled on the City Manager's trench/tunnel report while searching for information on a prospective trench project elsewhere. I observed some major flaws in the report's 'givens' and conclusions. There was also a clear absence of high level thinking, being stuck with 'rules' that need not apply.
I saw, and then confirmed through detailed graphical work, a means to achieve a trenched rail solution with very minor short term impact to Alma, minuscule eminent domain taking, and grades below or not much above 1%. I conceived as well, an alternative version to it, with a north and south trench, with the California St. Station and Oregon Exp. underpass left as are, which avoids the sometimes referenced ground water environmental issues in that area.
I am not a professional looking for a paycheck, only offering this as the 'visionary' hope which many of you wisely seek, but my attempts to convey it were either roundly ignored, ridiculed without examination, or I was expected to produce professionally styled graphical renderings assembled into an 'easily' understood presentation. I'd already created several graphical images, and offered my Google Earth work, but these apparently were not enough.
A problem at the outset, is shaking off the mindset that Caltrain is a private sector entity like Union-Pacific. There is the constant chant of them 'owning' the land, but understand that them is YOU. They are a public (you) entity. You are not dealing with the private railroads, like was the case in San Gabriel; yes, there is a contractually use and consent provision in Caltrain's purchase agreement with UP, but that is wholly different.
Governments have a long history of purchasing tracks and rail right-of-ways from legacy railroad companies, then crafting solutions for their BEST use in the communities they run through. One must look at ALL of the publicly owned property in the Alma/Rail corridor as a single asset. Then given the current infrastructure situation, along with environmental considerations, craft the most cost effective cost/benefit ratio for configuring and allocating that asset.


Aldin Lee
Registered user
another community
on Sep 30, 2020 at 11:31 am
Aldin Lee, another community
Registered user
on Sep 30, 2020 at 11:31 am
3 people like this

My above comments should have included a few other details. It wasn't just graphical work done in concluding the viability of an alternative means for implementing a trench option. There were considerable examinations of engineering specifications, including those for the use of shoo-fly trackage near excavation sites, property maps, comparable projects (both technically and costs), and the handling of waterways.
Also, I mistakenly left out the biggest difference in this alternative trench option and that of the city's official report's method of implementation, that of cost. The differences in implementation drastically drop the cost, putting it well below the $1 billion mark. I believe the City's Manager's report had its version at near or over $2 billion. A two trench version would drop the estimate significantly further, but eliminates the ease of adding additional crossings, such as reconnecting California St., extending Loma Verde, El Dorado and Seale to Park Blvd., and Encina Ave. to Alma, just for examples.
On the other hand, if satisfied with the existing crossing capacity, and merely wanting to eliminate delays (due to train traffic) at the four crossings, not already grade separated, as well as eliminating the very unpleasant horn noise, then (in truth) the most cost effective cost/benefit ratio is achieved by either road overpasses or underpasses at those four crossings, with the needed property parcels purchased. Homes are bought and purchased all the time, people move, no single property owner has complete sovereignty over their parcel, sovereignty belongs to the state. A state's (its people's) needs are into perpetuity, individuals not so. We would have no means of transiting, via roads and railways, if we held to a concept of an individual's sovereignty over property.


Staying Young Through Kids
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Old Palo Alto
on Sep 30, 2020 at 9:07 pm
Staying Young Through Kids, Old Palo Alto
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on Sep 30, 2020 at 9:07 pm
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@TimR Please, more about the stories of daredevil cyclists on Alma! Any archived news articles? Great story. I can remember the "Bikes Allowed on Sidewalk" signs. Not really sure when or why they came down?

@Aldin Lee Could you please share your ideas with a greater number of Palo Altans? There are no bad ideas when looking at potential solutions. Others would like to know how you would crack this nut! The XCAP suggestions are just that. We're not even close to a policy or budgetary commitment. Still plenty of time to share.


Aldin Lee
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another community
on Oct 1, 2020 at 12:25 am
Aldin Lee, another community
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on Oct 1, 2020 at 12:25 am
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@StayingYoungThroughKids
Thank you for reaching out. I had hoped to find some means of contact for those who are interested. I have from time to time attempted to engage individuals I've come across in news reports of the topic, whom I thought would be interested, but seems most are too insecure to act as a point person or just can't imagine that a stranger could possibly offer anything that is original, viable and cost effective. I understand the hesitancy to take on the responsibility individually, and so would like to find a means to do this as a group endeavor. There are certainly means for that, but don't know a preferred choice.
I had begun a Google Slides presentation, which if I can get to some degree of completion will share, but it is quite a tedious chore, as there are many facets to this issue, both technical and political. Moreover, it is difficult to address several points, made complicated by widely held false assumptions, in a simple slide or two.
I had early on made a Google Tour of my first vision (modifications of which I've since made) to simply show an idea that had not been presented, hoping it would excite the commission enough to examine its viability, tweaking it as needed. Instead, a key member, to whom I sent it, completely misinterpreted it, launched into an insulting diatribe, criticized the video for not being 'professional' enough, and then launched into a series of accusatory questions posed in obnoxious terms. I answered each question, correcting him on his bizarre misinterpretations, and as the last question was yet another barb, I finally answered with a barb of my own. Thus, ended the friendly portion of the program.
The short video was done last summer, after weeks of work. Here is a link to it . . . Web Link.
I set it at a speed to not bore people, but it is too fast to read some of the text boxes, so keep your cursor on the pause button. Again, note that I have since made modifications, however the gist of it is still the same.
I saw an option to having to use Alma for the temporary trackage, which was cause for a large portion of the cost and a very large portion of the imposition during construction. The City Manager's proposal made the assumption that the new tracks had to be placed in the exact location as the current tracks. This is often not done when upgrades are being made to existing infrastructure. New infrastructure is quite often, when feasible, laid parallel to the existing, then the old is removed upon completion and startup of the new. Indeed, this was done on tracks in Palo Alto. Notice the tracks as they swerve on each side of the Palo Alto Station. That is because the station used to sit just east of where it is today. When they decided to create an underpass for University, they simply built a station adjacent to the existing station, keeping the old station operating until completed, then removed it. They swerved the tracks on each side to align with the new station.
In my conception, a new trenched station will be going back to the original track alignment, while the current station stays operating, thus no temporary station will be needed, saving costs which the city manager had included his high tally.
The same concept is in play with the rest of the project, to create more savings over the city manager's proposal. Not only is it more logical (and as we said if feasible) to use the existing tracks while creating the new tracks, in this case it presents Palo Alto with a rather excellent opportunity to make Alma (or a portion of it) into a boulevard (or divided roadway), which as well likely affords space for cycling lanes. The split roadway idea came about due to the very narrow section of the public right-of-way just south of Churchill. Now this shifting of rail and road, will raise eyebrows due to the general mistaken view that Caltrain is a private company, or at least a bureaucracy whose decisions they feel they have no say in. It is not a private company, it is not a federal agency, it is not even a state agency. It is a regional public entity who is working FOR YOU, essentially its shareholders. Now this is made all the more complicated because of HSR, which is the most misunderstood element in this whole thing.
I could write a couple of pages on the illogical concept of HSR as it applies to this instance, and why it badly needs to be dropped as a consideration. So, let me skip that for the moment.
The other major flaw of the city manager's proposal was like 3 stooges funny. You solve a crossing problem by lowering a roadway below the grade level railroad tracks. Then you come along and decide to lower the railroad tracks below the lowered roadway. There must be a specific word for that, but all I could think of were idiotic and insane. The cost of putting the lowered roadways BACK to grade level where they were (but now over a trenched railroad) would be a small fraction of all the costs associated with trenching (or tunneling) deep enough to go below already lowered roadways.
I'll write more about HSR later, to explain the flaws in the existing implementation plan for the SJ-SF segment, and why it needs to be completely rethought/redesigned.


Aldin Lee
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another community
on Oct 1, 2020 at 12:04 pm
Aldin Lee, another community
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on Oct 1, 2020 at 12:04 pm
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I might note for clarity, regarding the above mention of the University Ave underpass construction and new Palo Alto Station, that the station (or rather rail) was repositioned further away from Alma in order to provide enough distance for the roadway to descend to a sufficient depth, and the rail bed was raised (roughly 4 feet, I estimate) as well. The original station sat completely on the north side of University, it being extended across once the underpass was created.
As already noted above, my proposal would set the tracks and station back on their original alignment, but trenched, and would reposition the station's north-end directly under University, which would be raised to roughly the level where the tracks run today. The station shift provides an additional 470' of distance for descending the tracks into the trench, reducing the rate of grade change. This is done because though the tracks are lowered to clear the above roadway, since the station needs to be level from end to end, any extension of the station north of the roadway would push the road bridge clearance depth further north, reducing the space available for the trench entrance ramp.
While the bus drop area is on the north end, this is of minimal concern. Sufficient space adjacent to the new station on the south side of University will be freed up, for use as a drop off, with the eventual removal of the current station. This action, as well, further justifies not including a Stanford Football station stop in the new plan, as it pushes it in that direction. Fans can exit on the south end of the station to Urban Lane and make their way over to Galvez Street.
The trenched station version will have a center platform with escalator and elevator service as well as stairs to a plaza over the station, which has the added benefit of providing protection from rain storms for waiting passengers.


Leslie York
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Old Palo Alto
on Oct 1, 2020 at 4:13 pm
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
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on Oct 1, 2020 at 4:13 pm
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Aldin -

Kudos for your efforts in tackling this problem.

I'm having trouble grasping the crux of your idea and am curious to know how it differs from the Hatch Mott MacDonald trench study of 2014:

Web Link

It would help greatly if the description of your idea were more terse and less verbose.

One of the first considerations for a trench, and a paramount question as far as Caltrain is concerned is: what kind of grade will the trains travel over? Caltrain prefers a 1% grade for freight and passenger trains. Anything over 1% requires special permission.

Is your plan confined to the Palo Alto city limits or does it spill over into Mountain View or Menlo Park? How do trains go from being at grade to below grade? Where will they make the transition and what kind of slope will they encounter? How do you deal with San Francisquito creek?

How does your plan treat the two stations? Will they need to be submerged?

How about storm flooding? How will you keep the trench dry and passable during a storm and what would happen if pumps fail?

I'm having trouble visualizing your plan for a shoofly track. Will it go down Alma street? How and where will your plan make the transition from the main line to the shoofly and back?

As they say, "the devil is in the details". I have not even addressed the matter of creek crossings. Caltrain will want to know these details before you start digging a trench on their property and re-laying their train tracks.

Will your trench accomodate four parallel tracks? This is another requirement Caltrain seems to have thrown in. This requirement would require the HMM plan of 2014 to be redrawn to handle four tracks.

How does complete reconstruction of the Oregon, Embarcadero and University crossings affect the cost of your plan?

A trench would be a much easier "sell" than a viaduct (which is very unpopular). A trench could conceivably be done without taking any residential properties through eminent domain.

A rail trench is not infeasible, at least a partial trench in south Palo Alto for Meadow and Charleston, provided the grade presented to the trains is not much over 1%. I have an idea for how to handle drainage. Consider that there is no natural drainage along the Palo Alto segment of the rail corridor.

I have suggested breaking the grade separation project into phases, with phase 1 covering Meadow and Charleston. A trench could begin at the Mountain View city limit and extend to just south of Oregon expwy. This would capitalize on the fact that Oregon, Embarcadero and University are already grade separated, and would avoid the need to submerge the stations. It also assumes the proper slopes could be worked out.


Leslie York
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Old Palo Alto
on Oct 1, 2020 at 5:38 pm
Leslie York, Old Palo Alto
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on Oct 1, 2020 at 5:38 pm
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My back-of-the-envelope calculations show that a trench having a 1% slope might just fit between San Antonio and Charleston (distance apx. 3815 feet). At 1% this would take you down 38 feet below grade, more than enough clearance to go under Charleston.


Aldin Lee
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another community
on Oct 1, 2020 at 9:05 pm
Aldin Lee, another community
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on Oct 1, 2020 at 9:05 pm
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My addy is aldinlee at zoho c o m for those who would like to know more, with graphics. There is a lot more, including some eye opening education/perspective on the HSR topic. I don't want to be too 'verbose' here.


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