In the race to get grade separation plans in order and ready to fund and build, the City of San Mateo is sprinting ahead, with a request to get its funding complete before other cities have chosen a design.
The San Mateo County Transportation Authority has $200M remaining to spend from the transportation ballot measure passed in 2004, which allocated 15% of the tax to grade separations. Five cities are working on four projects. The Caltrain board and San Mateo County Transportation Authority board are planning to assess winners even before all the cities are done with their plans. According to report at the last SMCTA meeting (linked here), Caltrain and SMCTA will weigh in in early 2016, before Menlo Park and Burlingame will have chosen their preferred project alternatives, and well before South San Francisco and San Bruno will have analyzed their projects.
When the TA and Caltrain evaluate the projects in the queue, they will look at safety and traffic congestion relief as the main criteria. A key tool in evaluating safety is the assessment by the California Public Utilities Commission, which is required by state law to keep a list of the most hazardous railroad crossings to prioritize grade separation projects. The San Mateo and Burlingame crossings are on that list, while Menlo Park and San Bruno/SSF are not. The Menlo Park and Burlingame streets are similar in traffic levels, with Ravenswood showing 24,000 average daily trips, and Broadway showing 27,000 ADT.
San Mateo County’s 2004 transportation tax runs through 2033, and about $200 million remains for the life of the program. There are 4 projects competing for the funds, following a 2012 call for interest, in Menlo Park, San Mateo, Burlingame, and San Bruno/South San Francisco (one project that extends across two cities). The SMCTA board awarded funding in 2013/14 for planning to clearly define the projects. Out of the remaining funds, 80% are being reserved for construction, with 20% available for planning and design.
City of San Mateo Hillsdale project is first in line
The San Mateo project is furthest along – environmental review is expected to be complete in December, and the City is applying to the SMCTA and the High Speed Rail authority for funding. The City is seeking expedited funding for final design and right of way acquisition, including $5 Million from SMCTA, and $5 Million from City of San Mateo.
San Mateo is looking to fast-track the project, to able to complete the grade separation before Caltrain electrification for that section of the line is complete. If the project is done before the system is electrified, Caltrain wouldn’t need to move the poles and wires as part of the construction.
The design will be a Belmont/San Carlos style split, with the tracks partially elevated and roads partially depressed. In addition to separating the road from the tracks at 25th Avenue, with 28th and 31st Avenues street to extend across and below the tracks, filling in the city’s street grid. As part of the project, Hillsdale station will be moved North, along with parking and station access
As the project goes through final design, it will be important for San Mateo residents and Caltrain users to pay close attention to access for people walking and bicycling. The San Mateo County Transportation Authority does not include pedestrian and cyclist safety in their evaluation criteria, with the explanation that the purpose of program is to improve safety at railroad crossings (for cars and trains) and relieve local traffic congestion (for cars). The City of San Mateo does have complete streets policies, so residents, active transportation and transit users who are concerned about pedestrian and bicycle access will need to pay special attention when designs come forward.
How will construction funding work?
The construction budget for the whole project will be $180 million, with construction to be complete by December 2019. The remainder of budget (after the planning, design, etc, in earlier phases) is estimated to cost $165M. Update: to fund construction, the City is seeking $84 million from the High-Speed Rail Authority, $65 million from the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, and $10 million from the California Public Utilities Commission — which has funds to contribute to the most hazardous safety crossings.
Another question – while there’s $200M remaining over the life of the San Mateo County tax til 2033, the account currently holds $13.7 million, and $11 million comes in every year. So it would take time to fill the pot to pay for San Mateo, let alone to pay for the other grade separations. One logical option would be to bond against the incoming revenue, and another option would be to put the other projects on hold for another decade or more.
Menlo Park Ravenswood Crossing
A horrific collision in Menlo Park at Ravenswood in the last year galvanized community support for grade separations, and motivated City Council to liberalize the city’s policies for grade separation designs. Previously the city’s policies was to disallow options that had any elevation of the tracks, now options with some elevation can e considered. The City of Menlo Park plans to hire consultants to review two alternatives in December, evaluate the alternatives in 2016 with the goal to have a preferred alternative by late 2016.
Burlingame Broadway Crossing
For Broadway in Burlingame – the site of recent crashes, the city recently held a community meeting to review design options. There will be a City Council briefing in next few months, and a preferred alternative is expected to be selected by mid-2016.
As presented at the community meeting, Alternative A (estimated at $210-$260M) would would be a San Carlos style split, with Broadway, Carolan, and California all slightly lowered, and the railroad tracks placed on a berm built on the existing right-of-way. Due to the proximity of several creeks, continuous pumping would be needed for the roadway. This alternative is noted as having the fewest negative impacts on the community.
Alternative B ($330-$400M) and E ($500-$600M) would place the railroad in a below-grade trench. Alternative B would have with the surrounding roadways slightly elevated to compensate. Alternative E would not accommodate re-opening the Broadway station, which is one of the city’s goals. Alternative F would place the railroad on a berm without changing the elevation of the surrounding streets but would alternative would not accommodate reopening Broadway station. Illustrations for all the options are in the presentation materials .
Alternatives C ($160-$250M and D ($120-$210M) are road underpasses and overpasses, respectively, leaving the tracks where they are. Extensive street modifications would be required for both of these options. According to staff, these options would create unacceptable impact to residents and businesses during construction. Alternative F would place the railroad on a berm without changing street elevation, but would not accommodate reopening Broadway station. ($180-$240M)
Scott and Linden, San Bruno/South San Francisco
The project that is the least far along in the planning process covers at-grade crossings near the border of San Bruno and South San Francisco, at Scott and Linden. Unlike the other projects where cities are taking the lead, the Caltrain Joint Powers Board is taking the lead, collaborating with the two cities. Technical studies are planned for 2016, with public outreach meetings in 2016 and 2017, and City Council review in 2017, when a preferred alternative will be chosen.
Stay tuned for updates on funding and prioritization
We’ve asked Caltrain/TA staff for updates on how the funding might work, especially given the way funds come in over the lift of the tax measure, and will post what we hear. For all of the communities, road and transit users who will benefit from improved safety and crosstown access, this is an important issue to follow.