The city's unpredictable and ever-evolving planning process for grade separation — the reconfiguration of rail crossings so that tracks do not intersect with streets — will return to the spotlight on Tuesday, when the City Council hears an update from the Expanded Community Advisory Committee. And much like the committee, council members will have to find a balance between two competing goals: their desire to meet the city's deadline and their wish to find the perfect solution for what is often referred to as the largest infrastructure project in Palo Alto's history.
Even though the council has been gradually narrowing down its grade-separation options over the past two years (the number has gone from 36 to seven), since November, XCAP has been discussing three new design alternatives for grade separation, each proposed by citizen volunteers.
On Dec. 18, the committee voted to recommend adding all three options to the council's list of seven, which includes two concepts for Churchill Avenue (the closure of the street to traffic near the tracks and a train viaduct), three for Charleston Road and Meadow Drive (a train trench, a "hybrid" design in which the train is slightly raised and the road slightly lowered; and a "reverse hybrid," in which a raised road goes over lowered train tracks); and two involving tunnels in south Palo Alto.
Expanding the list of options would come at a price. The city previously estimated that fully analyzing and providing a video simulation for each alternative would cost about $250,000 (more recently, City Manager Ed Shikada said the actual cost has been somewhat lower). Expanding the menu of options may also put the city at risk of falling even further behind Mountain View and Sunnyvale, two cities that, along with Palo Alto, are eligible for $750 million in grade-separation funding from Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.
However, XCAP members believe that the three new ideas deserve at least some additional analysis.
One idea, proposed by Southgate neighborhood resident Mike Price, focuses on the Churchill Avenue grade crossing, which has been subject to an intense debate among residents of Southgate, Professorville and north Old Palo Alto. It is, in some ways, a response to the fact that neither of the two Churchill alternatives on the table are particularly popular. The option of closing Churchill has been heavily criticized by residents around Embarcadero Road, who argue that the closure would steer more traffic toward Embarcadero, and by Southgate residents, who don't want to lose access from their streets to Alma Street. The viaduct, meanwhile, has been deeply unpopular on the Southgate blocks closest to the tracks, where homeowners aren't thrilled about the prospect of elevated trains running just above their backyard fences.
Price's proposal calls for an underpass at the Churchill rail crossing. Unlike a previously explored idea of lowering Churchill on both sides of Alma, the Price plan would lower the intersection of Alma and Churchill but keep Churchill east of Alma at grade level. Traffic on Churchill would not be able to cross Alma.
Approaching the intersection from Churchill, west of Alma, drivers heading east would go under the tracks and have right and left turn lanes onto Alma, but no through lane.
Next to those right and left turn lanes on Churchill, one lane would allow drivers turning from north and south Alma to head toward El Camino.
Along Alma, cars heading north could stay at-grade and turn right onto eastbound Churchill. Or they could go straight on Alma through the lowered intersection. Or they could turn left onto westbound Churchill using a left-turn lane.
Meanwhile, southbound cars on Alma could either go straight, through the lowered intersection, or turn right under the tracks onto westbound Churchill. They would not be able to turn left onto eastbound Churchill.
Similarly, cars on Churchill east of Alma would not be able to turn left onto Alma.
"What I wanted was to find a way to use the underpass, keep the intersection at least mostly open and avoid taking any private properties," Price told the committee during a Nov. 13 presentation. "It also keeps Caltrain at grade, so there's no viaducts or berms."
The proposal, Price said, sacrifices some traffic movement but has the benefit of preserving one lane at existing grade, thus allowing properties along those streets to have road access.
Another idea, pitched by resident Elizabeth Alexis, focuses on the two south Palo Alto crossings: Meadow and Charleston. While the most popular idea for the two crossings — which the city is exploring in tandem — calls for a train trench, Alexis proposed a design that she says is much cheaper and easier to construct: road underpasses with one lane below grade in each direction.
The Alexis proposal would allow cars crossing Alma to go under the tracks, while giving cars that want to turn right onto Alma the option of remaining at grade and doing so. Eastbound drivers wishing to turn left on Alma would be able to cross under the tracks and then make a U-turn at a designated bay on Wright Place, a cul-de-sac that runs parallel to Alma east of the tracks.
In presenting her proposal, Alexis argued that the idea would save significant money when compared with the other alternatives while preserving the ability of drivers to turn on Alma.
"We need to be able to do all turns; they should be safe. It should accommodate — but not encourage — turns, and we should minimize conflicts with bicyclists and pedestrians," Alexis said at the Nov. 13 meeting.
A third idea, proposed by XCAP member Tony Carrasco with assistance from other committee members, would redesign the often-congested interchange of Embarcadero and Alma. The two roads are grade separated today, with Embarcadero dipping under Alma and the tracks. Under the plan, Embarcadero would be brought up to the same grade with Alma and furnished with a roundabout, allowing cars to easily make turns from one street to another. Trains, meanwhile, would run on a viaduct above the roundabout.
During their discussions, committee members have shown some ambivalence about adding more options to the list. Former Mayor Larry Klein, vice chair of XCAP, has urged his colleagues to think hard before adding new options, given the high cost of analysis.
"I don't think it makes any sense at all to write a blank check and say, 'These ideas have some merit,'" Klein said at the Dec. 18 meeting. "The question is: Do they have enough merit at this stage, given what we know?"
Member Gregory Brail said at the Dec. 18 meeting, shortly before the vote, "I'd love to get to a point in XCAP where we can recommend to council that they eliminate alternatives."
But the group ultimately concluded that the new options, by virtue of their relatively low cost compared to other options, are worth advancing — especially given the dearth of truly popular options for Churchill.
"I really think we should look at this for no other reason than we don't have a lot of options on Churchill," Keith Reckdahl said at the committee's Nov. 13 meeting. "Now we have either a closure or a hideous viaduct. Either one of these has its flaws, and this at least is a third option to look at."
Some committee members have also expressed frustration that their mandate includes just three of the city's four grade crossings. At a meeting on Wednesday, several members, including Carrasco, Chamber of Commerce President Judy Kleinberg and Old Palo Alto resident David Shen, argued that the committee should also consider the northernmost grade crossing, at Palo Alto Avenue.
The City Council voted last year to explore Palo Alto Avenue as part of a separate, downtown-focused planning effort. While Klein reminded his colleagues that the northernmost crossing is not part of the committee's charge and that exploring it would likely delay its deliberations for a year if not more, Kleinberg argued that failing to study Palo Alto Avenue could hinder the entire effort.
"It's more than just unfortunate. It may actually jeopardize the validity of what our recommendations are," Kleinberg said.
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