Menlo Park Council defers grade separation decision, Palo Alto to start discussion about funding costly options

With an absent council member and remaining members short of a majority vote, Menlo Park City Council deferred decision about separating the Caltrain tracks from one or more streets, with council members interested in looking north and/or south to refine the choices. Meanwhile to the south, Palo Alto updated their schedule to make a decision about that city’s grade crossings, with a goal to choose an alternative by the middle of 2018.

In Menlo Park, members of the 5-member Council (Keith and Cline) supported the option that would separate 3 streets with a “split” alternative similar to Belmont/San Carlos, where the rail is somewhat elevated and the roads are somewhat depressed.

Another council member (Ohtaki) provisionally supported the option for an underpass at Ravenswood, but did so under the likely incorrect impression that there would be enough local funding to advance a project that separated one street (with a price tag of $160 million to $200 million), but not the project to separate three streets ($310 million to $390 million).

The fourth Council Member present (Mueller) wanted to wait and consider the outcome of Palo Alto’s consideration of the technical feasibility, cost, and funding choices for trench and tunnel options.   So the council will reschedule deliberation when the fifth council member (Carlton), is present.

Considering extending to Encinal or even Watkins – working with Atherton

The Council members who supported the 3-street option were also interested exploring the opportunity to address a 4th street, Encinal.  The 4th street could be separated for pedestrians and cyclists only with a project within the borders of Menlo Park.  For Encinal to be separated for vehicles also, while avoiding major impacts to homes, the tracks would need to descend to grade level in Atherton.

While folk knowledge holds that Atherton residents don’t want tracks elevated at all in their community – a legacy of bitter arguments about High Speed Rail – Council Member Keith looked and did not find any written policies to that effect. So staff was directed to reach out to Atherton to explore whether there was any open-ness to allow the tracks to descend a few feet in Atherton to allow an Encinal vehicle separation, or even to extend the project to grade-separate Watkins, the next crossing in Atherton.   Staff and consultants said the Encinal options could be explored with modest changes to the current planning process. Readers who live in or pay attention to Atherton may be interested in keeping up on the Atherton discussions.

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Beauty in the eye of the beholder

Several former mayors gave public comment in favor of an option that hadn’t been on the table – a fully elevated viaduct, instead of a berm with openings for the three streets.  The speakers praised the beauty of viaduct designs they had seen in Europe.   But staff also presented the results of community decisions and workshops, where a majority of residents placed a priority on elevating of the train tracks as little as possible while achieving goals of safety and connections for people driving, walking, and bicycling.

The esthetics of grade separations are in the eye of the beholders, and at least on Tuesday, City Council members didn’t seem inclined to re-open the discussion to include the viaducts that some find more beautiful and others find uglier.


Funding considerations – San Mateo County

Council Member Ohtaki was under the impression that it would be easier to fund the one-street project.  However, according to updates a couple of years ago, the amount remaining in San Mateo County’s grade separation fund, after paying for the San Mateo Hillsdale project, is not going to be enough to fund *any* projects until additional sales tax revenue trickles in, and Burlingame is currently ahead of Menlo Park in readiness. San Mateo County is considering a 2018 ballot measure to, among other things, refill the grade separation fund.

Palo Alto’s next steps – getting real about trench/tunnel funding

Meanwhile, Palo Alto is moving forward in its process considering grade separation options.  At Palo Alto’s community meeting this fall, many community members were eager for trench or tunnel options.  That discussion is about to get more real, as Palo Alto is about to release updated studies of trench and tunnel options, both full and partial through the city, as well as a report on financial options.

These reports are planned to be released at an upcoming rail committee meeting on October 25 or November 8, as part of a process heading toward a decision in the middle of 2018.

There are a variety of logical options, ranging from bonds along the lines of Berkeley’s strategy decades ago to underground BART, to value capture that would raise money based on the increased value of development on or near the corridor, to business taxes and likely more.

With examples from other locations in the region, it is possible to use value capture to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure that supports new development. However, in San Francisco and San Jose, we see that the amount of development to generate that level of funding is on the scale of millions of square feet of office development and/or thousands of units of housing.

There are big questions about constituents’ tolerance for the different levels of costs and different types of costs. It will be welcome to have a public discussion based on information about the costs and funding options to pay for tunnel or trench options.  

Palo Alto’s options are bolstered by the decision of the VTA board last week to allow funds from Measure B, which raised $700Million for Caltrain grade separations, to be spent with “cost-effective use of VTA funds”. This policy implies that VTA would pay for a basic project, and localities would be free to raise additional funding for more costly options such as a tunnel or trench.

Given the interests of a few Menlo Park council members, that city may be looking to the discussion to the south to get a sense of community appetite to take on the additional costs of trench or tunnel projects.

Palo Alto Schedule

(Less money is better vs. more crossings is better)


Palo Alto to start discussion about funding costly trench or tunnel options


Meanwhile, Palo Alto reports on trenching/tunneling and funding are planned to be released at an upcoming rail committee meeting on October 25 or November 8.