Cars under tracks at Churchill, Meadow, Alma, Charleston? | January 25, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 25, 2013

Cars under tracks at Churchill, Meadow, Alma, Charleston?

Council members say Palo Alto soon will have to face up to 'very contentious' issue

by Chris Kenrick

The "very contentious issue" of how the train tracks will cross at Alma, Churchill, Meadow and Charleston streets is something Palo Alto is going to have to confront in the coming years, City Council members said Tuesday night, Jan. 22.

"This is something that's been very much on our minds, and it's a very, very contentious issue," councilman Larry Klein said.

The discussion came in the context of the council's approval of a "vision statement" for the rail corridor, which runs the length of Palo Alto. The statement takes no position on grade separations other than that the city "supports a non-elevated alignment" of the tracks, leaving open the question of whether cars would go under the tracks, cross them at road level or go over them if the tracks were placed underground. However, the statement says there's a need to assess the rail crossings for safety and engineering soundness before deciding which way to go, Planning Director Curtis Williams said.

The vision statement calls for a "vibrant, safe, attractive transit-rich area with city and neighborhood mixed-use centers that provide walkable, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly places that serve the community and beyond, and to connect the east and west portions of the city through an improved circulation network that binds the city together in all directions."

The cost of placing the tracks underground is unknown, Klein said.

"We've seen $500 million, and (architect) Tony Carrasco says $1.5 billion. These are huge numbers, but the detailed study, which some of us think is a good idea for HSR (the California High-Speed Rail Authority) to undertake remains to be done," he said.

In separate, later testimony before the council, Adina Levin of Friends of Caltrain cited a "very interesting proposal" in San Francisco to fund realignment and undergrounding of tracks through the sale of land that then would be freed up.

But short of undergrounding the tracks, the community will need to decide what to do about the rail crossings, council members said.

If the trains are at grade, running along four tracks instead of the current two, "roughly 100 homes would have to be taken to put in a grade separation, and we've been cognizant of that as a very contentious impact," councilman Pat Burt said.

"When we get to it, these chambers will be packed," Klein said.

"People will say, 'Oh, I thought it was a great idea, but now that you're taking houses in my neighborhood — or my house — people will get very excited about it. It's something we'll get to, but it's not an easy one for the community."

Councilwoman Liz Kniss said other cities to the north of Palo Alto have been able to secure funding to build grade separations and asked city staff members whether that has been explored.

But Klein said, "What you suggest assumes you think grade separation is desirable, and the council has not made that decision.

"It's a major decision for us to take as to whether we want to have a grade separation at a particular place. It's not a slam dunk, so it's premature to discuss funding."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


Posted by do we need all 3?, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2013 at 10:15 am

Do we really need all 3 streets? How about replacing 2 of them with pedestrian bridges over the train tracks and keeping only 1 through street? Probably keep Charleston, since that's a direct connection between San Antonio and Arastradero. The other 2 streets get much less traffic as it is.

Posted by Neighbor, a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Jan 23, 2013 at 10:33 am

Uh, yes we need all the streets. And you are wrong. They all get a lot of traffic. Being able to get from one part of town to another safely and efficiently is very important to having a cohesive city. However, the current situation where the train tracks are at the same level with everything else is not sustainable. Something has to change. It will cost money. People might have to relocate. Sacrifices will have to be made in order to improve upon the existing situation. It will not help if people make snap judgements based only on the inconvenience to themselves alone.

Posted by Newbie, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2013 at 10:54 am

Sorry to be a newbie but what exactly is grade separation?

Posted by FrankF, a resident of Ventura
on Jan 23, 2013 at 10:56 am

FrankF is a registered user.

I agree we need all 3 and perhaps other bicycle / ped bridges - but let's fix the existing streets before we obsess over new ones.

I can't believe that anyone would think grade separation was not a good idea - I could believe that certain particular implementations might be seen as a bad idea - a freeway style clover leaf for example would be huge and claim many homes.

I'd like to know where the 100 homes comes from. It seems high, that's 25 homes per crossing, but Alma doesn't have many homes near it - so really 33 homes at the other 3. Maybe that's correct maybe it's a scare tactic.

I'd like to see a plan with a few different options - then we can intelligently discuss it.

Posted by Palo Parent, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 23, 2013 at 10:57 am

Easy (not cheap) fix: copy the San Antonio over-crossing.

Posted by John, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 23, 2013 at 10:58 am

I don't see how Klein's remark that an investigation of how other cities got funding for overpasses requires a prior decision that overpasses are desirable. A couple of phone calls would produce enough information to help guide the decision on desirability.

Posted by FrankF, a resident of Ventura
on Jan 23, 2013 at 10:58 am

FrankF is a registered user.

Grade level crossing is what we have now where cars cross the tracks at the same lever.

Grad separation is what we have at Oregon Expressway, University Ave (those are under) and San Antonio Rd. (over) where the cars go over or under the tracks.

Posted by Caroline, a resident of Stanford
on Jan 23, 2013 at 11:05 am

Does this concern Jing Jing or Sushi-Ya?

(class of 91)

Posted by Phyllis Kayten, a resident of Southgate
on Jan 23, 2013 at 11:06 am

Phyllis Kayten is a registered user.

There are plenty of houses near Alma - on the PALY side there are all the houses on Mariposa, which back up to the railroad tracks on the Southgate side of Alma.

Posted by resident, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2013 at 11:12 am

A big problem with grade separations is that they usually make the interchange much more dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists. Do you ever see pedestrians or bicyclists using Oregon or San Antonio? Instead bicyclists and pedestrians get a tiny tunnel at California Street, which everyone hates because it is too steep and narrow and congested. Same goes for the super narrow sidewalks at Embarcadero and University.

At San Antonio, pedestrians have to run across the expressway and hope they don't get hit by the cars that frequently ignore the stop lights at the crosswalk. Seriously Mountain View? The city has been begging developers to build a pedestrian tunnel for 20 years ... good luck with that.

The most reasonable way to create a grade separation is to elevate the train tracks so the road can pass under it with a reasonable width. I think San Bruno is building this type of grade separation right now at some of their crossings. If Palo Alto proposes this, however, you can bet that the NIMBYs will howl about the elevated tracks blocking their sunlight and adding noise.

Posted by Logical, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2013 at 11:29 am

"The most reasonable way to create a grade separation is to elevate the train tracks so the road can pass under it with a reasonable width."

Pardon me, but how do you conclude this? You had raised some concerns about bicycle and pedestrian access earlier in your post, but that has nothing to do with a wide berm with 30 foot towers dividing the city. The "NIMBYs" (your term, I find it derogatory) have every right to be concerned.

Posted by resident, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2013 at 11:42 am

@Logical - simple process of elimination. All of the existing grade separations in the city are really awful because of the pedestrian/bicycle issues. The only alternative that any other city on the peninsula is trying is elevating the train tracks. If a better solution was possible, why isn't anyone doing it?

If residents really want grade separations, you have to expect elevated train tracks.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2013 at 11:46 am

The way I look at it is that of course it is desirable - goes without saying.

The question is what sort of priority is grade separation and is it a one solution suits all four intersections. Obviously it may be simpler to do all the same way, but as each intersection has different uses the ideal solution for one may not be as ideal as the others.

For example, Churchill has huge amounts of pedestrians and bikers at certain times, somuchso that there is a left turn only signal (often ignored) for the am commute. Churchill and Meadow get a lot of pedestrians and bikes but not as much at the same time as Churchill. I imagine that Alma gets the least amount of bikes and pedestrians.

It should probably be fairly simple to hook up some type of traffic flow counts for vehicles but can these counts be done for pedestrians and bikes just as simply?

Some of these questions should be asked before going any further, but I am glad at least the conversation has started.

Posted by Pete , a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2013 at 11:53 am

Housing on Park Boulevard runs almost the entire length of Palo Alto s. of California st, most homes within 50' of the caltrain track. Only north of Churchill are there no homes close to the tracks, but across Alma on its east side, there are homes almost from San Antonio down to Palo Alto's business district.

In short, massive upheaval if/when hi speed train tracking begins & no easy solution for grade separation being built any time.

Posted by Brian, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 23, 2013 at 12:09 pm

I agree with FrankF - 100 lost homes seems high assuming the Alma intersection (near SF Creek/Menlo Park) is one of the four.
If all grade separations are done by elevating the tracks, like San Carlos did a few years ago, virtually no houses would be lost, and the bike/pedestrian safety issues go away. Of course, we have the admittedly bad problem of a huge elevated structure separating the east/west parts of the city.
And finally, there's the question of what happens if/when the HSR comes through. They will definitely be doing the grade separation for us (no $ cost to us), and most likely it will be elevated tracks.

Posted by wondering, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 23, 2013 at 12:11 pm

has anyone given ANY thought to trenching the train? that would solve most problems of pedestrians/bicyclists as well as grade separation. it may be expensive but palo alto should not become "penny wise and pound foolish"

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside
on Jan 23, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Trenching costs about $10,000 per inch. Where's that going to come from?

Posted by Slow Down, a resident of Meadow Park
on Jan 23, 2013 at 12:44 pm

The original plans call for grade separation at Alma and Charleston. There isn't enough traffic at East Meadow, in any event they can cross at Charleston.

Posted by resident, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2013 at 12:47 pm

There was a proposal at one point to put the train tracks in an underground tunnel, then build condos on top of the tunnel. Money from the condos could pay for the project, instead of using tax money. Don't know if the city is still considering this idea.

The usual anti-traffic people are opposed to this idea, of course, but if we're going to add homes to the city anyway, there is no better place to put them than right next to mass transit stations.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2013 at 1:48 pm

I don't understand the claim that elevating the tracks would "divide the city". The tracks already divide the city. Why would elevating them make things any different in that regard? It makes the train more expensive, and it might be unsightly, but it makes the crossings much cheaper, safer and and more convenient for bikes and peds.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 23, 2013 at 1:51 pm

I will only accept that "sacrifices need to met" if those making the sacrifices are willing to make them. It's always easy to accuse those concerned about losing their homes as "NIMBYers", but the reality is that many could not afford to relocated at today's prices and the substantial increase in property taxes they would see.

Posted by resident, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2013 at 2:11 pm

For people worried about losing their homes, elevating the tracks should need less space. Look at how much space the cloverleaves the existing overpasses and underpasses require.

Posted by Marcie, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 23, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Elevated trains are very noisy. Try visiting cities that use this system. I think trenching is the only way to go. It will cost more but we will have to live with these trains for years so it will be worth the money.

Posted by resident, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2013 at 2:41 pm

If they electrify the trains and remove the grade crossings, the trains could be much quieter than now.

Posted by RT, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 23, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Trench - best long-term solution

Of course, I still think we should dump Cal-Train and run BART around the stupid that we voted that down in the 60's

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 23, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Reno trenched 2 miles of downtown mainline track. -- Web Link

Completed in 2005 for $265 million, after 7 years of study and 3 years of construction. -- Web Link

Impossible here in Palo Alto, unless we forgo a parallel line during construction, which would send trains down the middle of Alma or take all the houses on Park Blvd. Plus Reno only trenched for two tracks, and we want four? Not even considering the environmental impact on the creeks. But with all the development it looks like we're in the process of writing off our environment anyway. For the children.

Posted by Do Not Do It, a resident of Nixon School
on Jan 23, 2013 at 4:57 pm

The "EL" elevated train in Chicago is noisy and vibrates everything in its vicinity for a half- mile radius. It is an example of what NOT to do!

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 23, 2013 at 5:20 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] If PA is going to walk the walk, viz a viz global warming, then it should give it up, and fully embrace HSR through the middle of our town, accoring to the greenie reasonings. This means grade separations, no matter the bother or private takings or the costs.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] There is a real price to be paid, including HSR, grade separations and anaerobic digestion(s) plant(s) in our parklands. Let us not forget separating out our kitchen slops for the zero-waste fanatics.

I oppose HSR, voted agaisnt it. It just does not pencil, on so many levels. However, Palo Alto has voted itself into an ideological corner.

It just continues to become more absurd by the month.

Posted by Skin in the game, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2013 at 5:33 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Skin in the game , a resident of Midtown
on Jan 23, 2013 at 5:57 pm

Craig, you should know better than to criticize Larry Klein. The weekly will not stand for it. Larry is a valued and protected asset

Posted by Adina, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 23, 2013 at 6:02 pm

There are no active plans to build 4 tracks through Palo Alto now that the blended system has been approved, and the major takings result from 4 track designs. Doesn't it make sense to review the designs and costs based on what's actually going to happen?

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 23, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Bait and switch never happens.

Posted by ryan, a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 23, 2013 at 6:58 pm

One area that I've not yet seen seriously considered in transportation-related issues is the impact of automated 'driverless' cars. P.S. I am not a crack-pot - I believe this technology is real and inevitable. Grade separations and HSR are 10 to 20 years away in any scenario, a time span where autonomous vehicles could likely begin to be viable. With autonomous vehicles traffic patterns will change and a lot of our current concerns will seem antiquated. With more orderly traffic and less parking pressure it seems possible we will need fewer arterial points. I personally would love to see a pedestrian/bike overpass at Alma North (on the SM border), instead of a grade separation. I wouldn't mind spending the extra time reading the news while my automated car takes me to my destination via a larger arterial. In return I get less local traffic, no train horn noise and we all save 10's of millions of dollars on a grade separation.

Posted by James Baloun, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 23, 2013 at 11:46 pm

'Roughly 100 homes would have to be taken'

Sounds like a statement designed to stir up fear and activism. For an alternative 'opinion' please check out the postings and comments on the Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog. There is a detailed description of the right of way, the width of 4 tracks, the handful of properties that would be affected (not nearly taking a hundred homes), methods to minimize the impact of noise, efficient station configurations and much more.

The author of the blog even provides a comprehensive method to measure the operational efficiency and how Caltrain can get the most people where they need to go using existing trains and stations and the lowest cost improvements to greatly improve service.

Some of the greatest improvements to Caltrain service for the cost would be a mid-line overtake track in Redwood city with cross-platform transfer to provide a super-efficient and quick access to more stations in less time.

As for the future, the sooner we have grade separation the better for safety and traffic flow to get people where they need to go.

Web Link

And just one of many informative posts

Web Link

When considering raising or tunneling a comprehensive analysis should consider clearance requirements for cars, trucks and trains, the cost to tunnel, and how to minimize the impact to creeks and trees. It is all in the blog noted above.

Posted by James Baloun, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 23, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Imagine a downtown Palo Alto station the removes the barrier and opens up a wide mall for pedestrians and buses to easily move between downtown and Stanford and the Hospital all while allowing efficient Caltrain and High Speed operation.

It can be done. And with thousands less tons of concrete.

Don't fall for the scaremongering. Please. This does not have to be so difficult.

Web Link

Posted by TryToKeepIt EASY, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2013 at 12:05 am

Keep it simple please. We don't have gobs of money! We do have transportation by rail now; and it might just keep it that way. The rails were there a LONG time ago, so folks that live near it, they knew it would be noisy.

Posted by Robert Chin, a resident of another community
on Jan 24, 2013 at 8:57 am

For the individual who commented above that people could not afford relocation due to increased property taxes, I should note that California law allows for property tax relief on replacement property if your original property was taken by eminent domain.

Posted by Bob, a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Jan 24, 2013 at 11:03 am


Yes, those of us who purchased homes near the tracks knew the tracks were there. But that doesn't mean that we must mutely accept any and all changes that some want to make to them.

When we bought our home 29 years ago, there were 47 daily commuter trains, ridership was declining, and there was serious talk of ending commuter service entirely. Now there are 100 commuter trains per day, and ground-shaking freights run throughout the night. We've borne those unfavorable and unexpected changes without complaint.

But overpasses, elevated tracks, and HSR speeds are beyond such simple traffic increases -- they're game-changers. Don't expect that those of us who will be most negatively impacted will remain silent.

Posted by Janet L, a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 24, 2013 at 11:23 am

Keep in mind that people on foot and on bikes use all these at-grade crossings in great numbers and are not so easily able to switch over to another crossing. A one mile diversion in a car may only be 2-3 minutes, but on foot that's 15-20 and on a bike it's 5-6.

As someone pointed out above, the existing bike/ped facilities at our separated crossings (San Antonio, Cal Ave, Embarcadero, University) are awkward, ugly and far less convenient than simply crossing the tracks at Meadow, Charleston, and Alma. They force bikes and walkers on the same narrow passages, which isn't fair to either group.

Posted by DC, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 24, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Mr Kline: "'s not a slam dunk so it's premature to discuss funding" in response to what seems to be a reasonable query by Liz Kniss re financial options taken on by other cities. Kline also doesn't know the cost for under grounding. A city councilman should not be telling anybody what's "premature" when he apparently knows little himself. I also found the arrogant put-down of a fellow council member in poor taste. I believe we need ALL the information. ESPECIALLY the money piece; Does every crossing require the same fix? What are the costs for each option? Only when we have actual numbers and other input - such as the study re numbers of ped/cyclists at each crossing, where schools are located etc - can we have a meaningful dialog and find a creative and realistic solution. If something has worked north of us, why reinvent the wheel. Even if not exactly like Palo Alto, surely there are things we can learn from others. Even their mistakes. Unless we are premature in thinking anything at all.

And someone said we don't need 4 rails, only 2. Is that true?

Posted by Gracie, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 24, 2013 at 3:17 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by resident, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jan 24, 2013 at 3:44 pm

One issue that has not been addressed is the change to the Caltrain schedule to increase the number of trains per hour, once the electrification has been completed. There will be so many trains per hour that no cars will get a chance to cross the tracks unless the crossing has been separated.
Trenching the train requires the least disruption to city streets and private homes. Any change in the height of the street, under or over the tracks, will leave those driveways high and dry and the properties inaccessible.
All this needs to be faced, HSR or no.

Posted by Robert, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2013 at 5:01 pm

If Caltrain were a modern, 20th century railroad, there would be no grade separations from San Jose to San Francisco. I think it's time to leave the 19th century. :)

Posted by Benn, a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 24, 2013 at 9:53 pm

I'm rather surprised at how quickly HSR issues seem to be forgotten around here. Does anyone remember the CA HSR people claiming that the elevated rails were "off the table" for Palo Alto after tremendous public outcry when the plans were first widely distributed a few years ago? I doubt that sentiment has changed much in Palo Alto, or Menlo Park for that matter.

However, having said that, someone else seems sure that the four track plan is also off the table because the two track plan was approved. The two track plan was approved, but the CA HSR has refused to remove the 4 track plan from their master plan. When asked about why it was still there, the response was along the lines of 'oh that, don't worry about that'.

Since the HSR crowd really doesn't know what a truth is, I wont' believe anything they say they will do, until it's actually done. Lying, miss-information, stalling, spin, and outright fraud are how they operate.

But back to the grade separations, regardless of whether HSR materializes or not, they could be a huge win for residents and rail alike. However, the big win for residents will be one of the more costly trenched or tunneled options. That way, all the trains; freight, Caltrain, and HSR if it ever happens, are well below grade. Hopefully out of sight, and out of mind. No more bells, no more horns, no more traffic delays, no hazardous rail crossings, and quite possibly, very few if any eminent domain property seizures.

Posted by PatrickD, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 24, 2013 at 11:58 pm

I'm not sure there is an easy solution to this, barring tunneling the entire way through the city. The article is spot on when it says CA HSR should look at a feasibility study. The numbers bandied around are so wide spread as to be ridiculous.

I can't imagine, given the real estate prices in Palo Alto, that much of the costs couldn't be recouped, particularly at the low end ($500 million).

Posted by Clem, a resident of another community
on Jan 26, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Couple of important points:

1) the 80-ish properties that CARRD estimated would be taken assumed that the rails would stay at grade, with the roads dipping 20+ feet down. This is the worst case scenario in terms of property impacts. Other grade sep configurations have fewer or no property impacts.

2) this may seem counter-intuitive, but the number of impacted properties is driven more by the road & rail vertical alignment than it is by the number of tracks. In other words, what everyone ascribes to the four-track HSR monster will be nearly as bad with only two tracks.

3) cost matters a lot. Those who would rather study the options without regard to cost might as well wish for a unicorn for their next birthday.

4) the Palo Alto grade separations can and should be thought of as three unrelated projects: Alma, Churchill, and Charleston/Meadow together. These three areas are far enough apart that the vertical elevation change can be driven by the best grade separation design for each one, independently.

5) even at Palo Alto prices, developing the land would pay for maybe 10% of the cost of tunnels. The whole notion is obviously infeasible--as the many Palo Alto residents accustomed to preparing and evaluating business plans should quickly be able to tell.

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