Tunnel idea is still alive as city narrows down list of rail crossing options

Crews work on the Central Subway Project in San Francisco, which will connect the South of Market neighborhood with Chinatown. The 1.7-mile, $1.6 billion project is scheduled to open in December 2019. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco MTA.

Daily Post Staff Writer

The city of Palo Alto may still consider burying the Caltrain tracks in a citywide tunnel, even though it would cost as much as $4 billion, City Council decided early yesterday (May 29) morning.

Council voted unanimously around 12:20 a.m. to keep 10 options on the table as the city inches closer to deciding how to separate the tracks from the four city streets they intersect.

Councilman Greg Tanaka said the tunnel option would reduce suicides and air pollution, though city Chief Transportation Official Josh Mello expressed doubts about the city’s ability to pay for it.

Councilman Greg Scharff dismissed the idea as financially infeasible.

“Everybody wants a pony, but it’s never going to happen,” Scharff said.

Palo Alto has lagged behind neighboring cities in planning how to adapt its rail crossings before the tracks are electrified in 2022 and high-speed rail launches in 2029, sending more trains up and down the Peninsula.

If the city does nothing, traffic will back up at the rail crossings every time the more frequent trains zoom through town.

At one point, Councilwoman Lydia Kou suggested the city contact Tesla CEO Elon Musk to see if his new Boring Company would take on the project.

Scharff said he and Councilman Adrian Fine had already talked to Boring, and that the company had said they weren’t interested.

Kou expressed displeasure at Scharff’s contacting Boring on his own without informing council of what he had been told before the meeting.

“Yeah, and you know what? That would have been nice if that was kind of something that was kind of communicated to the rest of us,” Kou said. “This is another communication problem that I find, that there are certain members that go out and speak to people that’s never communicated widely to everybody.”

City might need to take homes

A number of residents addressed the council about one of the most contentious issues about the massive project, the possibility that the city will invoke eminent domain to buy up homes near the tracks.

Some of the options to adapt the Charleston Road and Meadow Drive crossings could involve the city taking 30 or more homes.

Tanaka suggested the city commit to not invoke eminent domain but, Fine shot it down, saying it was “like saying ‘Let’s do these projects, but let’s not use concrete.’ It doesn’t actually work.”

Shikada said eliminating the option of eminent domain may keep the city from moving forward from any of the options. In some cases, the city could need to acquire a driveway whether or not the owner was willing.

“A single property owner could argue that the taking of their access to Alma Street, as an example, is unacceptable,” Shikada said. “We would put the project in the hands of a single property owner.”

Council won’t swear off eminent domain

Mello noted that some property owners willingly sell their homes, and that the city of Sunnyvale was strategically buying property from willing sellers to pursue their grade separations.

Council members Karen Holman and Cory Wolbach said they thought it was premature to nix eminent domain.

The motion to keep eminent domain off the table failed 4-2, with Tanaka and Kou supporting the motion, leaving the option available to the city.

Mayor Liz Kniss, Vice Mayor Eric Filseth and Councilman Tom DuBois recused themselves because they own or rent property near the tracks.

These are the options that the city is considering:

Churchill Avenue

At Churchill Avenue, the city may:

• raise the railroad and lower the roadway so the railroad goes over the street

• lower the railroad and raise the roadway so the street goes over the railroad

• block off traffic at Churchill Avenue and do one or more of the following: widen the Embarcadero Road under-crossing, add new traffic signals at the Embarcadero Road ramps, build a bike/pedestrian crossing at Churchill Avenue and/or build a Seale Avenue bike/pedestrian crossing to connect to Peers Park and the Stanford Avenue bike boulevard.

Meadow and Charleston

At Meadow Drive and Charleston Road, the city may:

• raise the roadway and lower the railroad so the street goes over the railroad and build a Loma Verde Avenue bike/pedestrian crossing to connect to the Margarita Avenue bike boulevard

• raise the railroad and lower the roadway so the railroad goes over the street and build a Loma Verde Avenue bike/pedestrian crossing to connect to the Margarita Avenue bike boulevard

• dig a trench or bore a tunnel for the railroad

• build a viaduct for the railroad to travel over the street

Alternatively, the city could dig a citywide, deep-bore railroad under the roadway tunnel with two new underground rail stations.