Friday 4/21 – VTA proposes well-intentioned, less effective guidelines for Caltrain grade separations

On Friday morning, the VTA board is holding a board workshop covering policies for Santa Clara County Transportation Measure B.  The staff report contains a surprising and problematic change to guidelines for Caltrain grade separations that is well-intentioned but at odds with information about the relative costs and benefits of recently planned grade separation projects.
A reasonable goal of VTA’s policy is to ensure that the Measure B funds are used in a cost-effective manner.  However, the staff report recommends funding only for options that provide a full road underpass or overpass design that keeps the tracks level. While it is reasonable to have cost-effectiveness guidelines, the design specification to maintain the tracks level with full overpass or underpass is excessively restrictive.
The City of Mountain View currently has a plan to address the at-grade crossing at Castro by closing the street to vehicles, and adding a grade-separated bicycle/pedestrian connection and separate vehicle ramp to an existing grade-separated crossing.
This project would achieve the objective of eliminating an at-grade crossing in a cost-effective manner but might not fit the restrictive description for eligibility.
In San Mateo County, where there has been funding for grade separation projects in recent decades, in the most recent projects being planned, in cities including Burlingame and Menlo Park, the studies in these cities have showed that full overpass/underpass designs may require additional property takings, deliver inadequate pedestrian/bike connectivity, or both.
Broadway Burlingame Option A

Broadway Burlingame Option A

Several of the more recent projects in cities including Belmont/San Carlos and San Bruno have been implemented with a split design, where the tracks are is somewhat elevated and the roadway is somewhat depressed.
In addition, some cities may prefer options that are more expensive than lower cost feasible options, where cost and feasibility include the cost of acquiring adjacent property and multi-modal connectivity.  For example, Palo Alto is considering a trench design.   In this case, cities should have the ability to choose alternatives with higher cost by providing more robust local match funding, using value capture, local bonding or other additional resources.
Grade separation projects make a big difference for local communities, and successful projects involve substantial community outreach to craft designs that meet the goals of safety, access, and esthetic preferences.  Historically, Caltrain and San Mateo County have not mandated specific designs, because this would be counterproductive to the process of crafting designs that work best for the local community.
It seems reasonable for the Measure B funds to have limits to the amount that would be funded.  But it is not reasonable to restrict cities to specific designs that may not be the most cost-effective, or to restrict cities from choosing more expensive options where the additional cost would be covered by local funds.
Measure B, passed in November, 2016, provides up to $700Million for Caltrain grade separation projects in the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale. These projects to separate Caltrain tracks from local roads will improve safety and crosstown connectivity for drivers, transit users, cyclists, and pedestrians. Over time, more grade separations can set the stage for more frequent rail service on the corridor.
Come if you can

The VTA board workshop will be held at 9am at the County Center in San Jose at 70 West Hedding. If you live, work in, or visit in Palo Alto, Mountain View, or Sunnyvale, or are a Santa Clara County taxpayer who wants to see funding used effectively to improve Caltrain and local communities.

The language from the staff report is here:
Caltrain Grade Separation – Proposed GuidelinesThis program will fund grade separations in the cities of Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and Palo Alto. VTA, working with the cities and other partners, is proposing to develop an implementation plan for delivering the eight grade separation projects. Once the implementation plan is complete, funds will be distributed as candidate projects move forward in readiness.

This program will fund grade separations in the cities of Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and Palo Alto. VTA, working with the cities and other partners, is proposing to develop an implementation plan for delivering the eight grade separation projects. Once the implementation plan is complete, funds will be distributed as candidate projects move forward in readiness.The amount of funding in 2016 Measure B will likely not be enough to fully fund all eight projects listed in the Caltrain Grade Separation Program. To complete all eight projects, VTA would allocate 2016 Measure B funding to the most cost-effective grade separation alternatives possible – projects that would maintain the tracks at grade level with traffic and pedestrian access either over or under the tracks. Additionally, VTA anticipates that outside funding sources will need to be secured to complete the program.

VTA is also recommending that the grade separation projects apply Compete Streets best practices in order to improve transit, bicycle and pedestrian elements at the intersections.

Recommended Funding for FY 2018-19

VTA is recommending $7 million for FY 2018-19 which will be used to fund the implementation study, as well as any potential design and/or environmental work that cities may be able to advance.