Election season is in full swing across Palo Alto, where campaign signs are becoming more noticeable across town.
To assist local voters in their decision at the ballot box, the Weekly asked this year's seven City Council candidates to fill out questionnaires about their qualifications, vision for the city and priorities if elected. They also explained where they stand on housing, climate change, rail crossings and policing and crime, among other topics.
The candidates' answers on all these topics will be published as separate articles, one per day, through Sept. 19. Here's what they had to say to the following question: Which designs do you support for Palo Alto's rail crossings? How can we actually get this work done?
I currently support the following overall approach:
• Palo Alto Avenue and the Transit Center crossings need to be coordinated and part of the Downtown Area Plan to ensure consistency.
• Churchill will be best served by a partial underpass to reduce impacts on nearby streets and neighborhoods and should include a bike/ped crossing near Seale.
• East Meadow and Charleston need to be treated identically and at the same time due to their proximity to each other. I support an underpass for both.
• There should be additional bike/ped crossings in the vicinity of Loma Verde/Matadero Creek and near Adobe Creek.
However, before final decisions are made, we need to evaluate the results of geotechnical tests that are underway, and work with Caltrain to address the issue of modernizing their technical requirements and dealing with the issue of passing tracks.
Given the scope, cost, and complexity of the project, the three bike/ped crossings should be constructed first. This is consistent with the bicycle/pedestrian Master Plan and will provide additional crossing options during the lengthy construction period.
I support the business tax in order to have local funding available to access the 2016 Measure B money and pursue State and Federal funding opportunities. Throughout the development of these projects, we must have robust communication and resident engagement.
Palo Alto's at-grade (street level) rail crossings are a threat to public safety and cause traffic back-ups, which will worsen when Caltrain electrification increases the number of trains. To address this, we should eliminate at-grade crossings and separate trains from other modes of transportation, such as cars, bikes, and pedestrians. Whether trains go up or down, other modes go under the tracks, or roads get closed, there are different tradeoffs in different neighborhoods.
At the Churchill crossing next to Palo Alto High School, I support pursuing the community-generated partial underpass option, where turning lanes onto Churchill from Alma would go under the tracks and a separate bike/pedestrian crossing would be constructed nearby. To further evaluate this option, we need the results of the geotechnical assessment, and we should continue to engage with key stakeholders including the School District, the Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, and Stanford.
At the Meadow and Charleston crossings, I prefer exploring underground options instead of elevating trains, if the geotechnical analysis supports this. I lean toward the vehicle underpass designs under review because of the expense of trenching to put trains below grade and the dewatering required. However, we need to refine and integrate the associated bike/pedestrian designs. Like Churchill, we need continued community outreach and to work with Caltrain to review how updated technical standards could help improve the designs being considered.
The Palo Alto Avenue crossing is close enough to the University Avenue Station that it should be reviewed as part of a coordinated area plan.
To make this happen, in addition to the above, we need to access funding from the proposed business tax, earmarked Measure B dollars, and state and federal dollars dependent on local dollars and having a plan.
It's a fact that the CalTrain will be electrified throughout the corridor before Palo Alto gets its grade separations completed, bringing more trains per hour through our city which will result in outright gridlock at our four crossings, as well as harmful emissions and public safety hazards.
Alas, that horse has left the barn!
Of 113 crossings in the corridor, at least 71 are done. Clearly, other cities have made their hard choices. Why haven't we? As an outsider this strikes me as a clear example of trying to serve many masters accustomed to local control, and failing to lead.
We need to take immediate action to start the construction of the Partial Underpass Alternative at the Churchill intersection, where traffic could back up to increased lines of 10-12 minutes without grade separation. At the Charleston and Meadow intersections, City Council has narrowed down the options to Hybrid, Underpass, and Trench. I worry about what the trench will do to creeks/water flow. I believe the visual barrier created by Hybrid will further segment and separate the east of the city from the west. Therefore I prefer the Underpass. It keeps the train where it is and allows cars, bikes, and pedestrians to go under in well-designed routes with
proven roundabouts that are logical and safe. Before Charleston and Meadow construction begins, however, we need to put in bike/pedestrian crossings at Seale and Matadero/Loma Verde so that students can get to Gunn.
One of the most urgent things Palo Alto needs to do is create plans for grade separations at Palo Alto's four Caltrain crossings at Meadow, Charleston, Churchill, and Palo Alto Ave. I favor the designs that increase bicycle and pedestrian safety and convenience - ideally with completely separate paths - while still offering vehicle access.
City Council needs to approve a specific design ASAP and allocate funding.
I support the proposed business tax which will provide funds for these grade separations. Palo Alto can then tap into its $350M allocation from Santa Clara County's 2016 Measure B. With a shovel-ready project the City can apply for additional state and federal funds as well.
With a design and funding, we have what we need to begin construction.
I support continuing the refinement of the Partial Underpass for Churchill because it addresses the vehicular needs without moving cars into another neighborhood. The bicycle/pedestrian portion specifically needs further refinement, and I support a robust outreach process working closely with stakeholders including PAUSD, PABAC and Stanford.
Caltrain is upgrading its technical standards, and the geotechnical work underway will help continue to inform the alternatives for Meadow/Charleston. In the meantime, we must prepare for years of construction. That's why I support additional bike/pedestrian rail crossings in the area of Loma Verde/Matadero Creek, near Adobe Creek/Alma and at Seale/Alma, before the grade separations are built, to provide safe passage during the expected years of construction. This has been a priority for years in the Comprehensive Plan, the Bicycle Transportation Plan and the Rail Corridor Study as well as XCAP.
How can we actually get this work done?
+ We need to ensure that Caltrain updates itsr technical and operating standards ASAP. Modernizing the standards can help LOWER costs and improve the design of all grade separations along the line. For certain city decisions and process, including construction cost estimates, we remain dependent on what they eventually decide.
+ For the Palo Alto Ave./Alma crossing we need to fund the work needed for a Downtown Coordinated Area Plan to consider transportation and land use in a cohesive and cost-efficient manner.
Palo Alto will receive $350 Million from Measure B. That money requires a local match.
An approved business tax by voters would provide an estimated $3.3M per year for 35 years =$115M.
Together, these funding sources would allow us to pursue significant State and Federal funding opportunities to complete these critical projects.
This is a very simple issue to me. We need to underground the train tracks. I realize that Council has already ruled out this option, but I feel that was a mistake. All other options either divide the city in two or create an unreasonable traffic burden. Undergrounding the train is without a doubt an expensive proposition, but I feel it is well worth the expense.
Palo Alto Ave crossing has not been studied at all, and it should be part of the downtown plan which means looking at the land use and transportation issues together.
Churchill crossing: the closure of Churchill may not be practical since the Embarcadero one needs to be studied too, and not sure if Embarcadero can handle the additional traffic that would be routed from Churchill. We need to know a bit more about the status of Embarcadero: historical status, the lifetime of that underpass, etc. The partial underpass for Churchill may be a good compromise for now and it looks like the current City Council approved this concept.
East Meadow and Charleston: More work needs to be done on the bike and pedestrian portion of the underpass. This one interests me as a father, in that it completely separates the bikes and pedestrians from the cars and trains, so it is safe for kids. I believe we need more details on cost and further refinement on the design/flow. The hybrid solution could be an option and it is the cheapest, although I am a bit skeptical since the cost is shown as $190M to $230M versus the underpass at $340M to $420M.
Particularly, we should work with Caltrain and neighboring cities to re-evaluate the technical standards to improve the design and reduce costs. Business tax dollars will help us get access to county and State/Fed funds: $3.3M per year, over 35 years, plus $350M from Measure B, then we apply to State funding. Overall, we need about $300M/crossing, so a total of $1.2B.
Although the tunnel option would be my first preference (less intrusive for residential neighborhoods), due to the high cost and also environmental limitations too, I'm going with the above options/designs.