Palo Alto reached a key milestone in its long and divisive journey to redesign the Churchill Avenue rail crossing on Monday, when the City Council endorsed the idea of building an underpass for cars at the railroad tracks.
The council's decision follows years of analysis, months of delays and a heated community debate over the best design alternative for "grade separation," the city's ambitious effort to redesign its rail crossings so that railroad tracks and streets no longer intersect. In addition to advancing the Churchill project, the council is now narrowing down design options for the city's two southernmost crossings at Charleston Road and Meadow Drive.
While two southern crossings are in some ways a higher priority for the city because of their larger traffic volumes, the debate over Churchill has been particularly contentious, pitting area neighborhoods against one another. The city's Expanded Community Advisory Panel (XCAP), a citizens group that is helping the city choose a preferred alternative for grade separation, recommended closing the Churchill rail crossing altogether — a design alternative that also includes an underpass for bicyclists and pedestrians and a host of road improvements on the intersections of Alma Street with Embarcadero Road and Oregon Expressway, the two crossings that would absorb most of Churchill's traffic. That alternative, while winning some support from Churchill residents in Old Palo Alto, ran into heated opposition in Southgate — where residents complain about losing a major access point across Alma — and in Professorville, where neighborhoods fear further deterioration of traffic conditions on and around Embarcadero.
Another alternative that remained on the table prior to Monday was a train viaduct, a concrete structure that would elevate the railroad tracks by about 15 feet, allowing cars to go beneath the tracks. The design was the least popular option on the table according to the city's survey, with residents along Churchill expressing particular reservations about having elevated trains whizzing by outside their yards.
The Monday vote effectively shuts the door on the viaduct, while leaving it ajar on Churchill's closure. After voting unanimously to eliminate the viaduct, the council voted 6-1, with council member Eric Filseth dissenting, to choose what's known as the "partial underpass" as its top preference but to leave Churchill's closure as its backup option.
In designating the closure as its backup plan, the council acknowledged the uncertainties associated with the partial underpass alternative. While the other two options had undergone years of analysis — including studies of traffic, aesthetic and noise impacts — the underpass option is relatively new. Developed by Southgate resident Michael Price, the design calls for depression of Churchill west of the tracks and allows eastbound drivers to dip under the rail corridor and then turn either left or right on Alma Street (through traffic on Churchill would be prohibited). It would cost between $160 million and $200 million, according to city estimates, compared to the viaduct, which would cost between $300 million and $400 million. With traffic mitigations, the Churchill closure would cost between $50 million and $66 million.
All three alternatives would be deeply disruptive, requiring years of construction, council members acknowledged. The partial underpass, according to the XCAP report, would take between two-and-a-half and three years to construct and would likely require the construction of a temporary "shoofly" track to keep trains running while the structure is under construction. The work would also reduce northbound Alma Street to one lane for more than six months, according to the report.
"This is going to be expensive and disruptive and it's going to change how we all get around town," council member Alison Cormack said during Monday's discussion.
The council also sees the project as critically important, given Caltrain's planned expansion of train service. More trains mean more gate-down times, which in turn means longer delays for cars looking to cross the tracks. A 2019 traffic study concluded that once Caltrain completes the electrification of its rail corridor and increases train service, it will take cars going north on Alma between 10 and 12 minutes to complete a left turn onto Churchill during the morning rush hour, with the queue of cars stretching for five blocks.
In voting to support the underpass option, the council chose a design that failed to impress the Expanded Community Advisory Panel. The majority of the group felt that spending more money to refine this option "is not justified" because the option is "unlikely to be improved with additional design iterations," according to the panel's final report. The report notes that even though the underpass is below ground, it would create a large concrete structure with retaining walls.
Some group members, however, argued in the report that the design merits further study.
"If, with full participation from key stakeholders, an agreeable design could be achieved, the partial underpass could be a viable compromise addressing the issues of geographic equity," the report states. "Alternatively, if after full exploration the partial underpass proved infeasible, it could bolster community support for the closure."
The council largely endorsed this position. All seven council members agreed that the viaduct is the least desirable option, with Filseth calling it "the most expensive (and) the ugliest" option. While he was reluctant to choose between the two remaining alternatives — closure and underpass — his colleagues leaned toward the underpass and alluded to the crowd of speakers who railed against closure at a public hearing earlier this month.
Former Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who lives near Embarcadero, was one of dozens of residents who argued at the Nov. 1 public hearing that closing Churchill would shift traffic to other areas. The closure, she suggested, would "cause a cascade of changes that will change Palo Alto into a more expressway-oriented city." Michael Price also urged the council to further vet the underpass alternative before picking its preferred option.
"Palo Alto residents will have to live with the choices made on Churchill and other crossings for the next 100 years," Price said at the Nov. 1 hearing. "Let's make sure we look at the alternatives thoroughly and not rush to a decision."
Given the popular sentiment and the significant drawbacks associated with all three designs, the council agreed on Monday that the underpass is the most promising alternative. They also generally agreed that the two southernmost crossings — Charleston and East Meadow — should get higher priority.
"Churchill is the most complicated and the least important (and) least urgent of these," Filseth said. "It's got less traffic, the safety problems are lower and the complexity is much higher. … We need to get Charleston and Meadow leading on this."