Caltrain declares an emergency regarding bridge over San Francisquito Creek

The rail bridge over San Francisquito Creek between Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Post photo by Braden Cartwright.

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Daily Post Staff Writer

Dirt that holds up a Caltrain bridge between Palo Alto and Menlo Park has eroded away during a series of winter storms, prompting Caltrain to declare an emergency yesterday (March 29) in order to begin repairs.

“It’s not in imminent danger, but we must act,” said Rob Barnard, Caltrain’s deputy chief of rail development.

The emergency declaration allows Caltrain to fast-track the project, with construction scheduled from June to October.

Fast-moving water in the San Francisquito Creek washed away soil on the Menlo Park side, leaving the bridge on a bank that goes nearly straight down into the water.

A pedestrian and bike bridge just downstream sits on the same badly eroded bank. The method of repair will depend on what state and federal permitting agencies will allow.

The project will involve some kind of backfill to create a gentle slope, and protections to avoid further erosion, he said.

A more robust option — but potentially damaging to endangered steelhead trout — would be building a concrete wall, like there is on the Palo Alto side, Barnard said.

A more environmentally sensitive solution would be putting in large boulders, also known as “riprap,” he said.

Caltrain should know what the method of repair is in about a month, which will determine the cost, Barnard told Caltrain’s Finance Committee on Monday. He gave no cost estimate for either of the possible fixes.
Eight different agencies will review the design starting in April, and Walsh Construction will handle the repairs, Barnard said.

The emergency declaration allows Caltrain to skip the normal bidding process and immediately hire Walsh Construction, a company that is already working for Caltrain on a bridge in San Jose.

San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller said he was concerned about speeding up the creek flow and causing further damage downstream. Homes in Menlo Park are dealing with erosion too, he said on Monday.

What about El Palo Alto?

Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt wanted to make sure that Caltrain protected El Palo Alto, the thousand-year-old tree that’s the symbol of the city.

Similar to Mueller, Burt didn’t want the repair on the north side to accelerate erosion on the south side.

“It could get overlooked and have dire consequences,” Burt said yesterday.

El Palo Alto’s trunk sits right next to the bridge, and its roots are protected by a concrete wall that forms the south bank of the creek.

The wall saw some scouring at its base from fast-moving water this winter, but Caltrain isn’t planning any repairs on Palo Alto’s side.

Engineers will also look at whether repairs are necessary underneath the pedestrian bridge that connects Alma Street between the two cities.

Any repairs would be split equally between Menlo Park and Palo Alto according to a 1996 maintenance agreement, said Philip Kamhi, Palo Alto’s chief transportation official.

Bridge to be replaced in a decade

The bank stabilization is separate from a project to replace the bridge altogether in 2033. The steel bridge is 120 years old and at risk of cracking, Barnard told the city in September.

Caltrain is working on a design for replacing the bridge, and the city can weigh in until 2025.

“In a perfect world, we would integrate the bridge work with the grade separation of Palo Alto Avenue, and do them as one project,” Barnard told the city’s Rail Committee.

Grade separations is the name for projects that put train tracks at a different level than the road, either with a bridge, underpass or a hybrid approach.

Discussions about separating the Palo Alto Avenue crossing have been put off because of how complicated the area is.

Instead, the city has been focusing on separating crossings at Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road.

Burt said the city probably won’t come up with a plan for Palo Alto Avenue in the next few years. Instead, Caltrain should try to maintain the bridge by removing the rust and repainting the steel, he said.