Over the next two weeks, three cities are taking steps to advance grade separations to improve safety, cross-town connections, and set the stage for more frequent rail service over time. Thirty-nine at-grade crossings will remain between San Francisco and San Jose after completion of the San Mateo Hillsdale project, scheduled for completion in 2020.
This Tuesday, Menlo Park City Council will review the results of studies and community feedback, to make a decision about grade separation options for Ravenswood and possibly adjacent streets. Meanwhile, the Palo Alto Rail Committee will refine their format to include more citizen input, this Wednesday at 8:30am. Next week, Tuesday, October 17 at 5:30pm, Sunnyvale is discussing options for Mary and Sunnyvale Avenue including potentially closing Sunnyvale Avenue to cars, with a joint study session with Council and the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
Menlo Park decides between one-street and three-street options
Menlo Park City Council is set to decide on Tuesday between two options, one that would depress Ravenswood under the tracks, and another “split” option that would separate Ravenswood, Oak Grove, and Glenwood. Both options would provide connections for people walking and bicycling; the Ravenswood option would disconnect Alma from Ravenswood for drivers.
Expert consultants hired by the city estimate that the Ravenswood option would cost in the range of price tag of $160 million to $200 million; while the project to separate three streets would cost $310 million to $390 million; more in total but less per crossing.
The city’s Planning Commission favored the Ravenswood Avenue-only option, on a 4-2 vote with one absence, because of the relatively lower up-front cost, shorter construction time, less need to look at trains (lower visual impact) with an underpass.
The Complete Streets Commission voted 6-3 majority to support the three-street option, wanting to see more grade separations completed sooner, and concerned that if Ravenswood alone is separated first, the other projects would become even costlier and more disruptive. (For disclosure, your blogger is a member of the Complete Streets Commission and voted with the majority).
While the city council is scheduled to choose among two options, some community members are continuing to advocate for different choices. Several former Council members would prefer a viaduct that would separate all 4 streets including Encinal. But an elevated structure at Encinal would continue into Atherton above ground, and the Town of Atherton continues to be opposed to elevation of the train tracks within its borders.
City Council Member, Rich Cline, has been a long-time supporter of putting the train underground in a tunnel. Cline was quoted earlier this year in the Mercury News saying that he’d like to see a rail tunnel stretch roughly 12 miles from the area of 5th Avenue in North Fair Oaks to Sunnyvale, which would require cooperation with Atherton, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale, and billions of dollars of additional funding above the cost of non-tunnel options. The underground options would include not only the cost of tunnelling, but building underground stations.
In Palo Alto, where there has been vocal support for trench or tunnel designs, a variety of council members and community leaders have talked about funding options including local bonds, raising money from real estate development on or near the corridor, and business taxes. As part of the current process of assessing grade separation options, the city is hiring a financial consultant to assess options to pay for grade separations, particularly for choices that would be more costly.
Meanwhile, Menlo Park City Council has expressed concern about the need to raise $20 million in additional funds to take advantage of an offer by a local billionaire to rebuild the downtown library. So far, we have not heard active discussions in Menlo Park about funding mechanisms to pay for the extra cost of a tunnel, which would be an order of magnitude higher. Currently in Menlo Park, a office building is under construction, right across the street from the station, at a height of 3 stories – much lower than the density that could contribute substantial funding for a tunnel and underground station.
And meanwhile in the towns further south, Mountain View has two council-approved designs for Rengstorff and Castro, neither of which is tunneled, and Sunnyvale is considering non-tunnel options for Mary and Sunnyvale Avenue. So, outside of Palo Alto, there seems to be little practical momentum for a tunnel.
The Menlo Park Council Meeting is on Tuesday, October 10 at a meeting starting 7 p.m. Grade separations are the first item of regular business, following a study session on a topic that is likely to get a lot of comment (annexing an adjacent neighborhood). If you are in or near Menlo Park, you can watch on internet video and come over when the previous study session is winding down.
Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee plans expansion of public process
On Wednesday morning at its Rail Committee meeting at 8:30am at City Hall, the Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee will make decisions about how to expand the Committee’s work to include more public discussion. The Committee is a subset of Council members that has in-depth discussion about rail issues and makes recommendations to the city council. Grade separations are currently the main topic the Council and community are grappling with.
The Rail Committee will considering adding evening “Town Hall” style meetings before or after the morning Committee meetings. In addition to the “Town Hall meetings”, the city will also hold Community Workshops, focus groups, and other tools to gather and analyze community input. Some residents including Californians for Responsible Rail Design had wanted a more formal multi-stakeholder process, with a consistent set of stakeholders coming from different perspectives, but Council chose to broaden discussions held by the Rail Committee.
If you have thoughts on the process, come on Wednesday at 8:30 am or send thoughts to:
Council Member Tom DuBois (Chair) – firstname.lastname@example.org
Council Member Eric Filseth – email@example.com
Council Member Adrian Fine – firstname.lastname@example.org
Mayor Greg Scharff – email@example.com
This blog post is getting long, so we’ll write about Sunnyvale in a separate post.