VTA board tweaks rules to foster Caltrain grade separations

On a Thursday evening when Caltrain was delayed when a train hit an un-occupied car stopped at the intersection with Charleston Street in Palo Alto, the VTA board tweaked their proposed guidelines for Caltrain grade separations that could improve the likelihood that grade separations will get built.

VTA wants to make sure that the $700Million in funds for Caltrain grade separations for Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto, approved in the Measure B sales tax, passed by voters in November 2016,  will be spent prudently.  The draft guidelines said that the funding would need to be spent on “the most cost-effective grade separation alternatives,” which sounds reasonable on the surface. But the City of Palo Alto is contemplating grade separation options that could include a trench, which would be more costly than other designs.   

Palo Alto community leaders who would like to see a trench or tunnel are starting to consider how to raise additional local funding, with bonds, “value capture” – allowing buildings to be built near the train and capturing taxes from those developments, and/or business taxes.  For comparison, decades ago, the City of Berkeley raised supplementary funds from local bonds to put BART underground, when the standard BART design called for viaducts.

In response to comments from city staff and community members, the VTA board changed the language at their meeting on Thursday night to require funds to “projects that cost effectively utilize Measure B funding.” This would open the door for Measure B funds to be supplemented by matching funds, if a city wants a more expensive option and can raise money to pay for it.  The VTA board also gave direction to VTA staff to work with city staff on solutions to get as many grade separations as possible done as soon as possible.  

Given plans for the corridor, including proposals for Google to bring over 20,000 workers to the area around Diridon Station in San Jose, plans to connect the Caltrain tracks to the Salesforce transbay terminal in San Francisco, and ongoing (though delayed) plans to bring High Speed Rail from San Jose to San Francisco sharing tracks with Caltrain, more grade separations will be helpful to imrpove safety and crosstown travel, and potentially support more frequent rail service.

Grade separations