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Council drops exploration of train viaduct in south Palo Alto

Original post made on Aug 24, 2021

Faced with few good options for redesigning south Palo Alto’s two rail crossings, the City Council agreed Monday to eliminate what they deemed to be the worst of the bunch: a train viaduct over Charleston Road and Meadow Drive.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, August 23, 2021, 11:52 PM

Comments (19)

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 24, 2021 at 3:28 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Removal of the Viaduct option is a disaster, in my opinion. Residents along the track have mostly been opposed to the elevated options and are cheering tonight, but I predict they will ultimately be disappointed by the outcome.

Rail neighbors have generally been advocating for trench or tunnel, which were both insanely expensive, approaching and exceeding a billion dollars, respectively. I hope I'm wrong but I think it's unlikely that another economic analysis by a different firm will substantially reduce the price tag, and even if it does, will the savings persist through construction, or be eaten up by the usual cost over runs?

The trench has multiple major flaws:
1) PRICE: enormous $800M cost noted above
2) CREEK: Matadero and Adobe creeks will both need to be pumped over or under the trench. We've already severely mistreated the creeks by sticking them in concrete channels. We should be restoring the ecological damage of our forefathers, not making it worse. Anyone who cares about the health of our waterways should be vocal in their concerns about these impacts of the Trench option.
3) TREES: the Trench walls require ground anchors to keep them in place and protecting these anchors will require removal of many trees along the trench and prohibit new ones from being planted. In addition to the environmental degradation of losing this much canopy, this will be a huge visual impact for the neighbors. The trees in view from my backyard are a blessing and the neighbors will mourn the loss of their trees.
4) VIEWS: As a lifelong rail rider, the segments in tunnels are generally not as interesting visually as the at-grade or elevated segments. Below-grading the tracks will degrade the riding experience.


Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 24, 2021 at 3:29 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

The Underpass option is a mess: unsafe for bikes, terrible flow for cars, and requires a few people to lose their homes to a big roundabout. It's only an option due to the (IMHO misguided) opposition to the Viaduct. If you care about your biking or driving experience along Meadow or Charleston you really need to look at the Underpass and let people know what you find.

The Hybrid was my 2nd choice, because it is less expensive than the other choices and less disruptive to travel. But the Hybrid is elevated on a berm or a wall, whereas the Viaduct is elevated on pillars and open underneath. The Hybrid is like the San Carlos rail crossings. Another difference is that the Viaduct alignment would have shifted the train tracks 30 feet further away from the houses along Park (this was actually my suggestion because it permitted the viaduct to be constructed while an existing track stayed in service, reducing construction time, costs, and impacts to Alma). So with the Hybrid, even if the segment between Meadow and Charleston can be put on a slightly less-tall viaduct, it will be closer to the homes than the original Viaduct would have been. If the Hybrid stays on a berm or wall (which is cheaper to construct) this continuous plane will propagate more surface vibration from the trains to adjacent buildings than the viaduct would with its discrete pillars (though the Hybrid would have less surface vibration than the at-grade trains).

The Viaduct would be less expensive than the Trench, less noisy than the current trains, the least vibration, much shorter construction time and little or no permanent impacts to Alma, no impacts on the creeks, and the best traffic flow through the intersections. In my opinion it was the best option and I'm sorry to see it go.


Posted by Keri
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 24, 2021 at 3:30 am

Keri is a registered user.

Thank you Council Members for eliminating the viaduct option, which would completely sever our city from east to west. The viaduct option has NO support from any neighborhoods near the rail line. Let's work toward a solution that will benefit the city, enhance our neighborhoods, and improve access for cars, bikes, and pedestrians.


Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 24, 2021 at 8:17 am

Bystander is a registered user.

What strikes me is that when this was first discussed a decade ago, the council at the time was very different to the council we have now. When this is finally decided, the council will probably be equally different, and they will take the credit.

The people who make this decision should not be unqualified elected officials, but ultimately should be the experts, the professionals, the qualified, and those who put their professional credentials on the line. Our council members cannot be trusted to make decisions on this that they have no qualifications and no experience to do so. They are much more likely to be in the pocket of the various developers and are quite likely to be aspiring to greater office or to end up being nobodies when their term is up.


Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 24, 2021 at 11:25 am

William Hitchens is a registered user.

Just like a viaduct, the trench option is a hugely expensive and ugly non-starter . So that leaves only properly designed non-hybrid or hybrid underpasses at Charleston and East Meadow. Personally, I prefer the underpass option because the train tracks can be left at grade, just as at the Page Mill and University Ave underpasses.

Complaints about disruption to pedestrian and bicycle traffic can be addressed by installing temporary (or permanent?) pedestrian and bicycle only grade separation crossings at convenient locations away from the construction sites before construction begins, either tunnels or bridges. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Personally, I don't like ped/bike tunnels due to security concerns because bad guys can hide in them.


Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 24, 2021 at 11:54 am

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I really fail to see why grade separation is needed at all. If there turn out to be too many trains, the rail crossings at Churchill, Meadow and Charleston can simply be closed for vehicle traffic and new bridges and/or underpasses can be built for pedestrians and bicycles. There are already underpasses for vehicles at University, Embarcadero, Oregon Expressway, and an overpass at San Antonio. They should suffice. Not only a lot of money can be saved this way, but the traffic in many residential neighborhoods can also be reduced.


Posted by valorie25
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2021 at 12:55 pm

valorie25 is a registered user.

What's wrong with what we have now? It works. And, has for decades. Why are we looking for ways to bankrupt the city or pay huge interest payments for eternity.


Posted by BGordon
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 24, 2021 at 1:38 pm

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I agree with Cedric. Worldwide there are many examples of attractive viaducts that manage sound. And having parkland over your back fence would be a big improvement over having Caltrain thundering so close.


Posted by Jeremy Erman
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 24, 2021 at 1:51 pm

Jeremy Erman is a registered user.

I don't understand why public officials insist all the train crossing need to be rebuilt. It's not because of fears of electrocution from a third rail (the connectors would be high up in the air, as I understand it) but because people worry that the train schedules would be so busy they would disrupt traffic. But we have no idea what the train schedules will be in the future, and at least one crossing, Palo Alto Avenue, does not seem physically capable of being rebuilt or even widened where it crosses the creek.

Isn't there a way to time light changes on Alma Expressway so they more or less fit into the train schedule? People worry that there will be trains every 6 minutes or something, but lights usually turn red faster than that, so can't the timings be integrated to keep traffic flowing?


Posted by Reid
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 24, 2021 at 2:28 pm

Reid is a registered user.

This is a huge mistake. From my understanding from attending these meetings in person two years back, the viaduct option was one of the easiest to construct and least disruptive, despite being slightly more expensive than the hybrid option. The viaduct option was also the most flexible. Bike lanes can be widened or rerouted as needed in the future. Once you dig an underpass, the cost to change it is immense. The viaduct also created the option to have a parallel set of tracks running at ground level.

Regarding Deborah Ju's comments, I would say that proper, safe mass transit is what is most compatible with residential, green neighborhoods. Elaborate, expensive underground earthworks that exist mainly to facilitate crosstown car traffic are not compatible with a green neighborhood.


Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2021 at 2:32 pm

Me 2 is a registered user.

"The people who make this decision should not be unqualified elected officials, but ultimately should be the experts, the professionals, the qualified, and those who put their professional credentials on the line. "

Great. Are you suggesting leaning on technocrats who don't answer to residents? And who gets to decide who's the expert?


Posted by mickie winkler
a resident of University South
on Aug 24, 2021 at 2:35 pm

mickie winkler is a registered user.

I can't believe that this City Council opted for six years--(6!)-- of construction on Alma.


Posted by JC
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 24, 2021 at 5:16 pm

JC is a registered user.

This is crazy - we already have a city bisected by railroad tracks with NOISY trains blaring their horns. We can elevate with quieter electric trains and use landscaping to soften the look AND maybe create some parkland underneath AND it is cheaper. Win Win Win!. But we have a council that is afraid to offend the people who want the rest of us to subsidize their "view" and prevent their false assumption that an elevated tract will be noisy and ugly. Well I object to paying hundreds of millions of dollars to placate their false desires.....


Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 24, 2021 at 5:33 pm

Leslie York is a registered user.

Palo Alto continues to pursue a rail trench WITHOUT ANY GUIDANCE from Caltrain.

How does Caltrain feel about having its tracks, trains and two stations submerged, and only in Palo Alto? How will a trench be kept dry? Electric pumps do fail — CPA is proof of this. Burlingame studied a trench/tunnel and abandoned the idea; keeping a trench dry was a major concern. There is no natural drainage along the ROW. Palo Alto is the only peninsula city even considering a submerged solution. If Caltrain (PCJPB) as owners of the ROW say "no" then it's game over for the trench. It wouldn't matter what this or that councilperson or committee member prefers if PCJPB nixes the idea. First reach out to Caltrain (PCJPB) and feel them out about a rail trench in Palo Alto before studying it any further.

A viaduct would have been very controversial and would likely have failed at the ballot box.

"What's wrong with what we have now? It works. And has for decades. Why are we looking for ways to bankrupt the city or pay huge interest payments for eternity?"

"I don't understand why public officials insist all the train crossing need to be rebuilt ... because people worry that the train schedules would be so busy they would disrupt traffic. But we have no idea what the train schedules will be in the future"

The City has been suckered into believing the P.R. put out by Caltrain and CAHSRA. A train every six minutes with ridership down 90%? That doesn't pass the sniff test.

Grade separation in Palo Alto has been studied to death for about 10 years by three different engineering firms and several private citizens, and no one has come up with a solution that's satisfactory in every way. What does this tell us?

The big secret is that after a decade of study, there is no satisfactory solution for grade separation in Palo Alto. What we have now is time tested and works without spending millions of dollars and without disruptive construction.


Posted by Ray
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 25, 2021 at 9:36 am

Ray is a registered user.

This is why other countries can build extensive rail networks and high speed rail and it takes decades and major cost overruns to do anything here, too many nimbys and too many cooks in the kitchen.

The cheapest and best options eliminated because people want to micromanage specialty designs for their neighborhood even though the current crossings are ugly , dangerous, and disruptive to traffic. literally any replacement would be better. But no, let’s spend another decade bickering and driving more delays and cost overruns.

For the same reason, we’re having a housing crisis in CA, because no one wants any new construction near their homes or any changes to traffic, or the view, or anything.

I mean, good lord, the crossing at the rear of Paly is a disasterous jam in mornings and afternoons, a wall of bikes and cars trying to squeeze through, grade separation is obviously needed as the traffic in Palo Alto is much higher than when the Railroad crossings were originally built.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.


Posted by BGordon
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 25, 2021 at 9:59 am

BGordon is a registered user.

A viaduct would have fewer vehicle accidents and suicides.


Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Aug 25, 2021 at 10:27 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

Beginning in just a few days (August 30), Caltrain will begin running 4 trains per hour per direction during 3-hour a.m. and p.m. weekday peak periods. So that’s 8 trains per every 60 minutes, or every 7.5 minutes on average.

More complete details and the actual schedules are linked here: Web Link


Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 25, 2021 at 3:58 pm

Leslie York is a registered user.

"Beginning in just a few days (August 30), Caltrain will begin running 4 trains per hour per direction during 3-hour a.m. and p.m. weekday peak periods. So that’s 8 trains per every 60 minutes, or every 7.5 minutes on average."

Will those trains be occupied anywhere near capacity or will they be more empty than full (less than 50%)? It's a valid question.

If the trains are sparsely occupied, it would make sense to run fewer trains.


Posted by Old Steve
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Aug 25, 2021 at 4:26 pm

Old Steve is a registered user.

We've travelled on Caltrain a couple of times recently. Other than masking up the whole ride, not much different than earlier baseball seasons. Also less drinking now. It would be correct, in January or so to evaluate ridership again. Since the operation of electric trains has been delayed by supply chain and other issues, demand forecasts may indeed get adjusted. Just remember, the original reason for beginning grade separation discussions was related to pedestrian safety around the tracks. Since 2008, Caltrain has moved forward on Electrification, CAHSR has moved forward on new tracks in the Central Valley, and Palo Alto is still struggling to move forward with old ideas. So much for being really smart, as in: How many highly educated residents does it take to jam up simple civil engineering concepts?


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