BY KYLE MARTIN
Daily Post Staff Writer
Palo Alto City Council last night (April 26) narrowed the list of rail crossing options by eliminating proposals to put the train in a tunnel in south Palo Alto, but kept alive alternatives for the Churchill Avenue crossing.
Previously, it looked like the city was going to eliminate the Churchill crossing, eliminating access to the Southgate neighborhood from Alma Street. But council changed course last night and decided to put off a decision on Churchill. Council members said they wanted to talk with Palo Alto Unified School District leaders about any changes there, since Churchill serves the district’s administration offices and Palo Alto High School’s athletic fields.
Council also said it intends to lobby the state and federal governments for the hundreds of millions it will take to build new rail crossings, known by transportation planners as grade separations. One possible source of funding is President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill now before Congress.
The purpose of building the grade separations is to eliminate the time cars are backed up at crossings when trains pass by. Once Caltrain switches from diesel to electric locomotives, the commuter railroad is planning to increase the frequency of trains.
Council discussed multiple options for three grade separations at the Alma Street, Charleston/Meadow roads and Churchill Avenue crossings and voted 6-1 to eliminate options for underground tunnels at the Charleston Road and Meadow Drive crossings.
Options for Charleston and Meadow
This leaves three options for the Charleston and Meadow crossings, which could cost anywhere between $190 to $950 million and could take between two and six years to build.
One option is a viaduct, which would raise the tracks above ground and keep the road at the same level. Another is a hybrid option that would raise the train and lower the road. The third option would be to put the train into a trench and keep the road at the same level it is today.
Of the three, the trench would be the most expensive, at a cost between $800 to $950 million over six years. The viaduct would cost between $400 to $500 million over three and a half to four years. The hybrid would be the cheapest, expected to cost between $190 to $230 million per intersection over four years.
These figures and rail crossing options were presented to council by the city’s Expanded Community Advisory Committee, or XCAP, a citizens committee that spent about two years studying the city’s crossings to come up with plans for new ones.
Mayor Tom DuBois said one of the first questions that needs to be answered is where does Caltrain want to put passing tracks, which would widen the railroad to four tracks so that faster trains could zoom by slower trains.
DuBois said he wants to push Caltrain for an answer about where the passing tracks would go. He suggested the railroad’s right-of-way is widest in between Rengstorff Avenue in Mountain View and San Antonio Road in Palo Alto. That would be ideal for Palo Alto, which wouldn’t have to worry about locating passing tracks in most of the city.
The mayor also said that he met with Stanford last week to get the university more involved in the plans for the future of the rail crossings.
When Stanford applied to expand its campus in 2018, Santa Clara County officials were concerned the development would put more cars on the street, and they wanted to push the university to increase its use of Caltrain for bringing employees to and from campus. Stanford withdrew its application to expand in 2019, but if it submits a new proposal, Caltrain will likely play a large role in limiting the university’s car trips.
It wasn’t immediately known if the private meeting between Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Mayor DuBois and Vice Mayor Pat Burt involved a new growth proposal from the school. During the meeting all DuBois said was that they spoke about items of mutual interest.
At the end of last night’s meeting, Burt proposed a detailed motion for council members about what should happen next when it comes to the crossings.
Councilwoman Alison Cormack provided a substitute motion that simplified Burt’s original motion. Her motion passed with Burt’s support.
Cormack said the council should be letting the city’s planners develop their plans without extensive and specific directions from council.
Kou, in voting against the motion, said she has heard “resistance” among residents to the grade separation effort.
Before the vote, council heard from residents who offered their opinions about the crossings.
Resident Carlin Otto, who lives near the Charleston/Meadow crossings, asked that council eliminate the viaduct and hybrid options because she expects those alternatives would make noise worse in her neighborhood.
Resident Kerry Yarkin asked for city to do a “deep dive on those traffic studies” around downtown Palo Alto so the city knows exactly how the new crossings will change traffic flows.
A couple of years ago, council excluded the Alma Street crossing near San Francisquito Creek from XCAP’s study. Council said it wanted to study the Alma crossing as part of a larger study of downtown traffic. There’s no word, however, on when the downtown study will begin.
And resident Lisa Nissim told council she wants the possible closure of Churchill eliminated because she wants council to “focus on connecting the west side of Palo Alto with the east side of Palo Alto.”