No train tunnel in south Palo Alto; decision on Churchill crossing put off

A citizens committee studying rail crossings in Palo Alto included in their report to City Council an illustration of a viaduct at Churchill Avenue.

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.

Stanford meeting

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.”

5 Comments

  1. Why are we still considering these drastic, expensive changes for a high-speed rail that will only run eventually between Fresno and Bakersfield?

  2. @InvisibleInk, Caltrain and Peninsula cities agree: the need and/or desire for grade separations to increase safety, reduce noise, congestion in conjunction with accommodating Caltrain’s service vision (see caltrain2040.org) has little to do with planned or potential Amtrak or HSR intercity, ACE (Altamont Commuter Express), or Dumbarton Rail coming onto and sharing Caltrain’s Peninsula tracks.

  3. Lets be honest — Caltrain ridership flatlined in 2019. This is all about high speed rail, they just don’t want the NIMBYs to figure that out.

  4. To Rocco and Adrian: I understand just how you feel about HSR. It seems like a complete boondoggle, way over budget and way over schedule, even though they’re currently building out the *easy* part of the planned route. But along with other peninsula cities, Palo Alto tried to oppose bringing the train through Palo Alto. The design originally involved separated Caltrain and HSR tracks the whole length of the Caltrain corridor. The negotiated deal, which involved US and State legislators, was to install a blended system in which Caltrain and HSR would share a single set of tracks, with the proviso that a certain number of passing tracks would be required. At least some of those passing tracks were always slated for somewhere in the Palo Alto/Mountain View area, with details TBD. So I don’t think we can lay the issue at the feet of PA or MV City Councils, in case that was your thought. It is incredibly frustrating though. To: Invisible Ink: HSR is planned for the whole distance from LA to San Francisco, not just from Fresno to Bakersville. They just started in the open, flat, more rural part of the route. Hope this helps.

  5. To Rocco: You’re right about very low Caltrain rates during the pandemic. But Caltrain is planning for the recovery we all hope is coming. They have a dedicated funding source now for ongoing operations (Measure RR), they are continuing and will complete electrification, and they are planning increased commuter rail to support a booming future in which people will still travel for work. It looks like that will take a while at this point, but the Bay Area has always rebounded in the past. I think Caltrain, and all the rest of us, hope that HSR will eventually bite the dust, just because having so many and such fast trains zipping through our densely packed communities is a daunting prospect. So it’s really not all about HSR. We will need grade separations even if HSR never happens. Good news is that the electric trains will be cleaner. And quieter, once the engineers don’t have to sound their horns and we don’t have to listen to the bells when the crossing gates go down.

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