Tunnel still on the table, viaduct added to grade separation options for Palo Alto

On April 18, the Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee added several more options to the list for the City Council to winnow in May – including keeping alive consideration of a ~$3 billion tunnel, and adding back a viaduct option that had been off the table since the vociferous debates about high speed rail in 2010.

Palo Alto is seeking to winnow down to 4-8 options for further consideration by June,  and for council to decide on preferred alternatives by the end of the year.

Using the options in the table below as a starting point, the Rail Committee voted to add back the tunnel option at the strong urging of Council Member Lydia Kou, despite forceful advice from City Manager Keene that a $3+ billion project is financially out of reach, and agreement from Council Members Scharff and Fine that the cost is unrealistic for the city (Fine noted that bond payments for a project of that size would be on the same scale as the city’s entire annual budget).

With some public comments in support, Council Member Wolbach recommended adding back a viaduct option for the Charleston/Meadow crossings, with the potential to allow more cross-town bike and pedestrian connectivity, and to minimize need for property takings.  Elevated options received vocal protests during the city’s fight against high speed rail, but it’s possible that the mix of community opinion has changed since that debate.

Also, a idea for a rail trench with rail going under Churchill Street was added for consideration (although the feasibility of that option might be practically constrained by the need to go over fencing needed to protect the electric poles and wires that will soon serve electric Caltrain, and possibly by the grades needed to descend and rise from a trench between California Avenue and the downtown University station).

The “do nothing” options are being removed from the menu. The city is required to consider “no build” options in its required environmental studies, but city council members acknowledged that leaving at-grade crossings in place isn’t what the city wants longterm.

Other options on the table include various combinations of street closures, added bicycle and pedestrian crossings, hybrid designs where rail is slightly elevated and roadway is slightly depressed as in Belmont/San Carlos, and a trench at Meadow and/or Charleston.

As noted above, the Council will have an important discussion to winnow down the list next month, before the city spends $200,000 to $300,000 for in-depth studies of each of the remaining options, and  robust community discussion about those options, considering crosstown connections, safety, appearance, avoiding property takings, and traffic.

If you are interested in grade separations for the Caltrain tracks and cross-town connections in Palo Alto, the May meeting will be important (tentatively May 14). Stay tuned for date and details.