Palo Alto Council to discuss grade separation options

On Monday night, Palo Alto City Council will discuss a report from engineering consultancy Hatch Mott McDonald analyzing options for grade-separating three intersections in Palo Alto at Churchill, Meadow, and Charleston.

The study quotes costs for several different options:
* $1 Billion for a trench through all three intersections at 1% grade, which is preferred by Caltrain
* ~$500 Million for a trench through all three intersections at a 2% grade
* ~$500 Million for depressing all of the streets individually, and lowering Alma to maintain turning movements
* ~$300 Million for depressing all of the streets individually, and cutting off turn movements to/from Alma

Palo Alto At-Grade Crossing - Charleston and Alma

Separating the tracks from the road, one way or the other, would reduce the number of collisions and fatalities, many of which are suicides. And separating the trains from the road would prevent cross-traffic (cars, bikes, pedestrians) from needing to wait for trains to pass. Caltrain electrification, planned for 2019, would increase the number of trains per hour at peak from 10 to 12, and High Speed Rail eventually (2029 or later) could increase the number of trains to 20 per hour.

The Churchill grade separation could be done separately; the Meadow and Charleston projects would greatly benefit from being done together to help maintain turning movements.

The design with individual grade separations also would require taking substantial property – 65 full and 10 partial properties would need to be acquired.

Though Palo Alto has a policy opposing designs where the tracks are elevated, the consultants studied an option that would raise the tracks three feet. This option would require taking 8 fewer properties, and retain some of the turning movements. Because of the policy, the consultant isn’t studying options that would elevate the tracks further, which would likely cost less and require less property and street impacts. This sort of design built in Belmont/San Carlos is considered too ugly and intrusive by many in Palo Alto.

Another challenge for Palo Alto in getting grade separations implemented is the city’s policy that it should use no local money to build them. By contrast, decades ago, Berkeley raised money to underground BART – the more expensive option – through a ballot measure. Over the last decade, the City of San Mateo has assembled local matching funds of $12 million for grade separations that it wants, and these funds will help it qualify for money that the county has raised in a ballot measure.

San Mateo and San Francisco are raising money from developers to contribute to the transportation infrastructure that the developments will benefit from. However, Palo Alto has recently seen substantial opposition to large developments that offered to contribute to the city’s infrastructure needs. And the South Palo Alto area in particular is a lower density area where development is especially unwelcome.

As a next step, the city council could decide on a preferred alternative to pursue. A reason to do this in the near term is that Santa Clara County is going to be making decisions about what to include in a 2016 transportation ballot measure, and having a preferred alternative helps to get a local project onto the list.

In discussions about potentially holding a transportation ballot measure in 2014 (thankfully deferred til 2016) – the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which has led previous ballot measures, was unwilling to take an approach like San Mateo County, to allocate a pot of funds for grade separations, and then allow communities to figure out their designs and funding approaches over the decades of the measure. SVLG leader Carl Guardino made an argument that Santa Clara County expects to have specific projects picked out 3 decades in advance (even though in reality, funded projects change scope on a regular basis).

One option would be to advocate for a pot of money that could be allocated with a grant process over 30 years, and lighten the pressure of current politics on the design decision.

For more analysis of Palo Alto considerations, see this 2008 post from Clem Tiller’s blog. Tillier predicts that Palo Alto grade separations won’t happen until the late 2030s allowing for the most time to work through all of the issues.

What do you think?

The agenda item is schedule to start at 7:55pm on Monday night at Palo Alto City Hall.