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Palo Alto backs plan for underpass at Churchill rail crossing

Original post made on Nov 30, 2021

Palo Alto reached a key milestone in its divisive and convoluted journey to redesign the Churchill Avenue rail crossing Monday, when the City Council endorsed the idea of building an underpass for cars at the railroad tracks.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, November 30, 2021, 12:45 AM

Comments (41)

Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2021 at 4:16 am

Leslie York is a registered user.

This is the best idea yet.

I have studied drawings and renderings of the proposed underpass and there are a few design flaws in the drawings I have examined:

1. As drawn, the bridge that crosses Churchill is too narrow. In the drawing, only two tracks are depicted as traversing this bridge. PCJPB (Caltrain) has made it clear to CPA that four tracks through the entire length of Palo Alto is a design requirement necessitated by the "blended approach" whereby the Caltrain right-of-way is shared with CA high-speed rail. Without this, PCJPB, as owner of the right-of-way, is unlikely to approve the project.

2. As drawn, portions of roadway encroach on the PCJPB right-of-way. PCJPB is unlikely to approve this if it interferes with the addition of a third and fourth track.

3. I have studied a map of the Caltrain right-of-way for this area. It appears that the Embarcadero Bike Path is located on the PCJPB right-of-way. PCJPB may at some point claim this property in order to add a third or fourth track, resulting in the elimination of the bike path.

Web Link

Web Link

If these design flaws can be resolved then this plan is preferable to the alternatives: a viaduct, a trench or complete closure of the intersection which would completely block all east-west connectivity along Churchill. Done right, it could be an attractive landscaped structure rather than a drab gray poured-concrete edifice.

It is remarkable that the committee of citizen rail planners rejected this idea. It is a good proposal and the city council made a wise decision in approving it.


Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2021 at 7:56 am

Bystander is a registered user.

This is definitely a step in the right direction and much better than closing Churchill. The fact that there is no space for through traffic lane on Churchill does mean that more traffic will be pushed on to Alma, but that could be a plus eventually.

Traffic evolves and when it reroutes to deal with the construction, the inevitable reopening may make those using other routes find them a better alternative to Churchill east of the tracks.


Posted by Tom
a resident of Triple El
on Nov 30, 2021 at 8:27 am

Tom is a registered user.

I'm not clear from this design how pedestrians and cyclists would cross at this intersection as they can now. Seems to me a step backwards to make a car-only intersection right next to a high school.


Posted by LongtimeResident
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 30, 2021 at 8:59 am

LongtimeResident is a registered user.

@Leslie York

Correction for you: The "blended approach" only requires 2 tracks through the length of Palo Alto, not 4. That is the point, to "share" the tracks between Caltrain and HSR, and not duplicate them.

Martin


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 30, 2021 at 10:27 am

Online Name is a registered user.

""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."

Filseth was very strong last night AND his motion to deprioritize Churchill and focus on the other crossings was approved so I'm very surprised you didn't mention that. He and the motion were very clear that he and the council didn't want staff proceeding to with detailed planning and costing out of anything to do with Churchill because that typically work creates its own momentum where other better alternatives get ignored.

If you go back and review the video, you'll see that the DEPRIORITIZATION of Churchill is the second item.

Thank you, Eric Filseth for being a voice of reality.


Posted by Martinimaas
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2021 at 11:27 am

Martinimaas is a registered user.

I recall attending meetings with neighborhood groups and city employees on the topic of what to do with the Churchill crossing years ago. My first official comment was that in my opinion, self driving car technology would advance faster and receive aggressive early user adoption in this market to effectively nullify CalTrain's projected forecast of needing to run 20 trains an hour. These days, I have the opportunity to watch 9 or so trains go by in the morning. I can honestly say I have never seen more than 3 riders per car, and often see zero or 1. If riders are not passing through this corridor, it's unlikely they are crowding the train cars elsewhere. Hence, I suspect overall ridership is down exponentially and doubt it will ever recover. This is very important. It's too bad that CalTrain has not adjusted to this by shortening the trains with fewer train cars. It is also too bad that CalTrain cannot model itself after the much more successful train lines of Europe. When ridership increases, build longer platforms and run longer trains. You should not need to undertake major infrastructure projects just to accommodate fluctuations in demand. CalTrain platforms are absolutely puny compared to those around the world. And this whole issue of cost to build a tunnel. Not sure who really killed that idea, but if the Norwegians can tunnel their highways under fiords for 1/100th the cost of the tab floated for Palo Alto's tunnel - we certainly could have done better. Check it out for yourself - go research the Norwegian coastal highway.


Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2021 at 11:41 am

Leslie York is a registered user.

"The "blended approach" only requires 2 tracks through the length of Palo Alto, not 4. That is the point, to "share" the tracks between Caltrain and HSR, and not duplicate them."

Martin:

You need to do a little more research. In recent communication with CPA, PCJPB has made it unequivocally clear that the ROW MUST accomodate 4 tracks over the entire length of the city. I'm not going to hunt for that communication right now but if I find it I will post it.

That's why this project cannot proceed very far without input from PCJPB/Caltrain, a point I have made here many times in the past. Someone from CPA did reach out to Caltrain and this was Caltrain's response.


Posted by PaloAltoVoter
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 30, 2021 at 11:59 am

PaloAltoVoter is a registered user.

Why is Greg Tanaka no longer attending council meetings?

He seems to be completely unfocused on Palo Alto at this point. I've seen every other council member either attending in person or at a minimum keeping their camera on during the meeting. I can never tell when Tanaka is in the meeting. You never see him. Last night he was incomprehensible - couldn't understand anything he said the few times he decided he should participate.

What are the requirements for council members to attend the meetings they are elected to attend?


Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 30, 2021 at 12:19 pm

Resident is a registered user.

This is Pat Burt.
The 2 track vs 4 track issue with Caltrain needs to be clarified.
Currently, Caltrain’s position is that they need to preserve the option to locate 3-4 miles of passing tracks somewhere between the southern edge of Mountain View and the northern border of Palo Alto. They plan to narrow the location options over the next couple of years.
Because the Caltrain corridor is exceptionally narrow throughout most of north Palo Alto, Churchill is unlikely to be included in the 4 track zone. Now that we have selected a preferred alternative, the city can present the case to Caltrain that north Palo Alto, at a minimum should be dropped from consideration. The motion last night asked for the city council Rail Committee to work with staff on petitioning Caltrain.


Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2021 at 1:01 pm

Leslie York is a registered user.

"This is Pat Burt.
The 2 track vs 4 track issue with Caltrain needs to be clarified.
Currently, Caltrain’s position is that they need to preserve the option to locate 3-4 miles of passing tracks somewhere between the southern edge of Mountain View and the northern border of Palo Alto. They plan to narrow the location options over the next couple of years."

Clearly Caltrain/HSR hasn't made up its mind regarding 2 vs 4 tracks through Palo Alto. The portions of the ROW that pass over Embarcadero and Oregon expwy are too narrow and could not accomodate 4 tracks without major modification/construction. Given this, 4 tracks through all of Palo Alto doesn't seem feasible. I've seen discussion of possibly locating these HSR passing tracks south of Oregon expwy or preferably in Mountain View.

As drawn, the design for Churchill under consideration has roadway that encroaches on Caltrain right-of-way. That would need to be worked out with Caltrain or the design modified so that the roadway does not encroach on Caltrain ROW.

It seems to me the rail committee needs to be more proactive in dealing with Caltrain.


Posted by Interested Reader
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2021 at 1:21 pm

Interested Reader is a registered user.

According to slide 29 here: Web Link

Caltrain only needs the two additional tracks IF high-speed rail comes to the Peninsula. And even if they did, 4 tracks likely don't fit north of the California Ave station.

Caltrain and HSR are in their own battle over these passing tracks - see the letter Caltrain wrote to HSR here: Web Link

City Council is smartly hedging their bets to negotiate with last night's decision.

With regard to South Palo Alto - if passing tracks are needed - then there will likely be an effort to make HSR pay for the passing tracks and at least half of the Meadow and Charleston grade separations. That is also a strategy worth contemplating.


Posted by Since_1978
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 30, 2021 at 2:05 pm

Since_1978 is a registered user.

Do vehicles turning left from eastbound Churchill onto northbound Alma enter a reverse merge lane that joins with Alma beyond the top right corner of the rendering? Where is the real estate for this fifth Alma lane?

Will there be a pedestrian crossing at this intersection?


Posted by Terry Connelly
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 30, 2021 at 3:04 pm

Terry Connelly is a registered user.

Please explain based on the rendering published here how exactly a car heading east on Churchill and under the underpass can take a left turn onto northbound Alma, given the barrier d shown in place between the northbound and southbound Alma lanes> thanks.


Posted by Eric Filseth
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 30, 2021 at 3:35 pm

Eric Filseth is a registered user.

@Terry,

The picture is a little confusing - for a second, I did a double take when I first saw it here too.

The Northbound lane marked "Alma Street" is actually 10-15 feet higher than the Southbound lane, at the top of a concrete wall (notice the elevations of the signal lights). There's another Northbound lane at the bottom of the wall; you just can't see it from the angle in this picture.

Still, if you look at the Churchill Eastbound exit under the underpass, you can see a left-turn lane there. That left-turn merges onto the (unseen) Northbound lane at the base of the wall.

2D projections of sophisticated 3D structures ...


Posted by Garry Wyndham
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 30, 2021 at 4:16 pm

Garry Wyndham is a registered user.

How do Paly students bike to school with this car-centric half solution? Back to the drawing boards.


Posted by Screeedek
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 30, 2021 at 4:47 pm

Screeedek is a registered user.

This one is it. So make it happen, Palo Alto. No more wasting time.


Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2021 at 5:09 pm

Leslie York is a registered user.

"How do Paly students bike to school with this car-centric half solution?"

Either build a separate pedestrian/bike underpass or modify this design.

This design may have to be modified anyway to stay off the Caltrain right-of-way.


Posted by Anne
a resident of Los Altos
on Nov 30, 2021 at 5:17 pm

Anne is a registered user.

Closing the intersection to cars, but allowing people to cross freely on bikes or on foot, is the right solution. For some reason the article calls this sensible, cost-effective solution "closing the Churchill rail crossing altogether," when the street would remain open to the large number of users who don't bring cars along, including Paly students riding their bikes or walking to school.


Posted by James
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 30, 2021 at 5:42 pm

James is a registered user.

"How do Paly students bike to school with this car-centric half solution?"

They will need to walk across Alma on Coleridge to the pedestrian lane on the other side. It's about 200 ft from the underpass.



Posted by Carl Jones
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 30, 2021 at 8:07 pm

Carl Jones is a registered user.

I say again, "Closing Churchill is stupid!" There is NO REASON to spend 20+ MILLION dollars to close Churchill. If the undercrossing is not built, then LEAVE IT ALONE AS IS! Why in god's name do we need to spend money to close something? If there are longer wait times to get across the tracks, then drivers will adjust their driving. AND, if it is later decided that closing Churchill is an absolute necessity, then concrete barriers under the crossing gates on each side is an EXTREMELY COST EFFECTIVE way to close the intersection safely (probably less than $100,000). This money DOES NOT GROW ON TREES!


Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 30, 2021 at 8:17 pm

Resident is a registered user.

Pat Burt here.
The partial underpass alternative includes a separate bike and pedestrian underpass or overpass crossing Alma and Caltrain. This crossing was endorsed by the XCAP group and supported last night by the council. The more likely location is in the vicinity of Seale or alternately around Kellog.
In addition, the council direction last night included reviewing moving forward with the long planned improvements to the bike route between Emerson and the Emabrcadero underpass.


Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2021 at 9:43 pm

Leslie York is a registered user.

"This crossing was endorsed by the XCAP group and supported last night by the council. The more likely location is in the vicinity of Seale or alternately around Kellog."

Did anyone think this through?

If it crosses under Alma and the tracks at Seale it will come to the surface in Peers park. That doesn't seem very practical.

If it crosses at Kellogg it will be in line with Hod Ray field. If it crosses at Melville there would be buildings in the way but at least it would come up on the Paly campus.

All you have to do is look at Google maps.

An overpass will have to clear the Caltrain catenary and would likely involve steep slopes that would put it out of ADA compliance.


Posted by relentlesscactus
a resident of another community
on Nov 30, 2021 at 10:00 pm

relentlesscactus is a registered user.

"Let's make sure we look at the alternatives thoroughly and not rush to a decision." -- That ship sailed


Posted by Chris
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 1, 2021 at 7:11 am

Chris is a registered user.

What a waste of money
This would be so bad for the environment
The current arrangement is the most environmentally friendly and reasonable
Caltrain is already quite fast there is no need for this


Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 1, 2021 at 7:46 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

When all the time, efforts and money spent designing and building dozens of peninsula city rail crossings is eventually added up it could easily exceed the cost of a bored tunnel that eliminated the need for any rail crossings and which would provide a superb surface space for other uses.


Posted by James
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 1, 2021 at 9:56 am

James is a registered user.

Palo Alto process on public works has been very costly and is broken. Just look at the recently completed bike bridge across 101. The project started years ago with very high ambitions. But in the end it's as ugly and flimsy as you can get.

Compare that bridge with the permanante creek trail bridge across 101, or stevens creek trail bridge across 85, in Mountain View, let alone the modern Mary Ave bike bridge in Cupertino across 280. It's a shame that Palo Alto public works just cannot get things done right.

The only thing it keeps doing consistently is spending big bucks on consulting fees.


Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 1, 2021 at 10:10 am

Leslie York is a registered user.

"This would be so bad for the environment"

Any construction project comes with an environmental cost during the construction phase.

How would the finished structure be bad for the environment?


Posted by RobertNeff
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 1, 2021 at 9:53 pm

RobertNeff is a registered user.

A bike/ped crossing from Seale to Peers park has a number of advantages. It would be built to modern standards, and take some of the traffic from California Avenue. Bike/ped traffic North of Churchill can already cross at Embarcadero, so adding a crossing South of Churchill would tend to spread out the bike/ped rail crossings. Landing in Peers park means that the city already owns the land there. The crossing proposal at Kellogg was done by the consultants already. It can fit. I don't like it because it is so close to Embarcadero.

I am glad to hear that part of the motion is to move forward more quickly in South Palo Alto, and, although I do not personally agree with this choice (I think there must be a more productive way to spend the money at Embarcadero, or at Embarcadero / El Camino, and close Churchill), I am glad to see the council make a choice!


Posted by Pops9
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 1, 2021 at 10:19 pm

Pops9 is a registered user.

Study, study, study. Palo Alto would be a bankrupt company eaten by competitors if it were a company. Just make a decision for once. This seems like a decent option, though the two to three year construction timeline seems absurd.


Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 1, 2021 at 10:30 pm

Leslie York is a registered user.

" bike/ped crossing from Seale to Peers park has a number of advantages."

You'd have a lot of bike/ped traffic trudging through Southgate and crossing Churchill to get to the Paly campus. The residents would love that. And it's too far from Calif. Ave to be a viable alternative to the underpass there.

At Kellogg you'd probably have to tunnel all the way under Hod Ray field.


Posted by BG
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Dec 1, 2021 at 11:11 pm

BG is a registered user.

btw, when are they fixing the horn noise issue at all crossings, and in particular the PA Avenue Crossing?


Posted by Me
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 2, 2021 at 1:54 am

Me is a registered user.

We have 2200 students at Paly. We will need a bus for students if this intersection is blocked off for 3 years because Embarcadero Road will be a disaster, worse than Charleston Rd. to Gunn. And riding bikes on Embarcadero Road is so dangerous. How will the students every get to school without buses?


Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2021 at 11:35 am

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Again, the plan includes a bike/pedestrian crossing at Seale which would probably come first. Please look more carefully at the plans. This crossing will serve families from the Southgate and Ventura neighborhoods who go to Hays Elementary and students from the east side of the tracks who go to Paly. The new Seale crossing would connect to Park Blvd., a wonderful existing walking and biking route to Paly, already used by hundreds of students. I use it often to bike across town. Lovely ride.


Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Dec 2, 2021 at 12:09 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

A “Caltrans brutalist-aesthetic” spawn of the Oregon Expressway abomination. And just as with the Oregon Expressway underpass, it’ll require fail-safe pumping in perpetuity to keep from occasionally flooding.

A retrograde 1950s-1960s design for a vehicles-only concrete-walled underpass instead of a less disruptive elegant viaduct such as are being built in Melbourne as part of their huge multi-year "Level Crossing Removal Project" to eliminate dozens of grade crossings.

Viaducts may cost more, but are the only alternative (other than costly tunnels) that create new, usable, activation-ready, community-benefitting functional real estate: Web Link

Another video of excellent viaduct designs from Melbourne’s huge grade sep project on its Caltrain-comparable suburban commuter and transit rail lines: Web Link


Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 2, 2021 at 3:26 pm

Me 2 is a registered user.

I'm ok with this decision, pending further refinements of this design. Still a waste of money because HSR is dead and Caltrain projections are pure fantasy.


Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2021 at 1:33 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

To understand Caltrain projections, read the Stanford General use Permit Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). That is just one specific proposed growth plan that RELIES on the projected increase in Caltrain service. That's just Stanford--whose DEIR says they will use all of the projected additional capacity. And what about all of the other growing Peninsula businesses whose growth will rely on Caltrain?

That is not fantasy. We should be paying close attention to this, and considering aggregate impacts of all of this growth with greater care.


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 3, 2021 at 1:53 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Another car-train crash on the tracks at Charleston last night. Eric Filseth is right that PA should be considering the crossings with the most accidents, not Churchill which has fewer than the others.


Posted by RealityCheck
a resident of another community
on Dec 4, 2021 at 1:26 am

RealityCheck is a registered user.

@Online Name: it is essentially impossible for a motor vehicle to get hit by a train on a crossing without its driver willfully and/or obliviously negligently violating one or more easily obeyed common-sensical California vehicle code sections (e.g. CVC 22526(d)) … so such incidents should be called CRASHES — and not sympathetically soft-pedaled as blameless- or unavoidable-sounding “accidents.”

As the clever admonishment goes: “safety is no accident!”


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 4, 2021 at 10:25 am

Online Name is a registered user.

I called it a crash in my post above, didn't I?

Actually, it's not totally impossible. The rr crossing at Ravenswood in Menlo Park is particularly dangerous. You could be coming from El Camino and everything looks safe to cross the tracks until a pedestrian unexpectedly triggers the WALK button on the other side of the tracks. All car traffic immediately stops, leaving cars on both sides of the tracks with one of two ON the tracks.


Posted by Palo Alto native
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 4, 2021 at 11:26 pm

Palo Alto native is a registered user.

Leslie York—Do you live in Palo Alto? I don’t remember meeting you at the 1 1/2 years of XCAP Meetings or earlier Train meetings. Do you live in Southgate? It seems strange to see so many posts from you, however you were not involved with community members to vet the various Churchill options through XCAP.


Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 6, 2021 at 11:45 am

Me 2 is a registered user.

"To understand Caltrain projections, read the Stanford General use Permit Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). That is just one specific proposed growth plan that RELIES on the projected increase in Caltrain service. That's just Stanford--whose DEIR says they will use all of the projected additional capacity. And what about all of the other growing Peninsula businesses whose growth will rely on Caltrain?"

Caltrain doesn't control the last mile. Just because there's a Caltrain station near Stanford doesn't mean the people working there can take it. If you need a car to get to a Caltrain from home, chances are you'll just drive it all the way to Stanford. We are not dense enough on the peninsula and South Bay for VTA and Samtrans to have sufficient transit service to get to and from a Caltrain station.

Very few people are lucky enough as I am to be able to walk to a Caltrain station.

Without a dramatic change in land-use around the peninsula (and the demise of Prop 13), Caltrain's projections are bunk. When you force support staff to Manteca, how is Caltrain service going to help her or him?


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