Caltrain grade separations: Palo Alto tunnel/trench options still on the table

At last night’s meeting,  Palo Alto City Council decided to keep proposed trench and tunnel options under consideration, at least until after the community has a change to review information about technical issues and funding options at a community meeting scheduled in March. The City Council also decided to separate the Palo Alto Avenue crossing and consider it in the context of a Coordinated Area Plan for the downtown area, including the University Avenue station.

In addition to the citywide tunnel and South Palo Alto trench/tunnel options, the Council decided to continue studying as recommended in the staff report:

  • Churchill Closure (full or partial)
  • Meadow+Charleston Hybrid and Viaduct

The Council separated the proposal for a Loma Verde bike/pedestrian crossing and moved it into the ongoing planning for a North Ventura Area Plan covering the area around the Fry’s site near Cal Ave Caltrain that is slated to be redeveloped.

Council also gave direction to explore opportunities to alleviate traffic impacts at the existing separated crossings at Embarcadero, Oregon and San Antonio.  This is especially salient for the Embarcadero area, which would logically see more car traffic if Churchill is closed.

And before additional decisions are made, the Council will take a fresh look at its decision criteria and process.

Tunnel/trench options remain for now, despite challenging info

Council members wrestled with the analysis illustrated in a new video that showed that space needed to create tunnel entrances for the trains would require the full taking of 22 properties, including homes (see image).  This information about property takings was shared briefly at Community Advisory Panel and Technical Advisory Committee, but without the illustration and detail showing the extent of the impacts.

Earlier grade separation options for the Churchill crossing that would have required property takings were taken off the table after very strong community objections to any option that would require the taking of homes.


Also, the latest analysis of the South Palo Alto trench option showed significant challenges for a trench that would cut through Matadero and Adobe Creeks. Pumping stations would need to be installed that would need to continuously pump all the water whenever the creeks are running. And Caltrain has indicated that because a trench design is not needed for transportation and safety purposes, they would not pay for the operating costs of continuous pumping, leaving the cost of continuous pumping for the city’s budget.

The need for continuous pumping of shallow groundwater at a location near the Bay was one of the reasons that the City of Burlingame had earlier decided not to move forward with a trench design for their Broadway grade separation, although that had earlier been a preference of the Council and community.

Council members had many questions about the designs and technical issues, and community members gave public comment still hoping that the underground options would be viable.

Downtown Coordinated Area Plan

As noted above, the Council decided to pull out the Palo Alto Ave Crossing into a separate process in the context of a Downtown Coordinated Area Plan that would also include the University Ave Station.  Detailed examination of the Palo Alto Avenue crossing showed big challenges in separating that crossing, given the location of the creek and El Palo Alto, the thousand-year-old Coast Redwood tree that the city is named after.

The concept of a Coordinated Area Plan was included in the recently passed Comprehensive Plan which includes consideration of mixed use development in the area around the station. The area currently has sparse buildings, surface parking, and underutilized open space, across from parking lots and empty lots owned by Stanford on the other side of El Camino, The area has been on the books for decades in previous Comprehensive Plans as well as a potential extension of the downtown.

In addition, there is already funding earmarked for improvements to the University Avenue Station in Santa Clara County Measure A passed in 2000 and Measure B passed in 2014 for bike/pedestrian connections in the station area.

While Council members supported considering Palo Alto and University Aves in the context of an area plan, they expressed concern about the amount of potential delay, since the City is already currently working on an area plan for North Ventura (Fry’s site/Cal Ave), and the city is currently understaffed following the departure of senior planning and transportation staff.  Given the concern about delay, Council Member Dubois expressed an interest in considering the transportation aspects of the University Ave station and street connections separately, in advance of discussing the land use topics. However, separating the transportation and land use discussions may make less sense, since major circulation changes for driving, walking and bicycling, and considerations of placemaking and public space, should logically be closely connected to land use changes, where buildings might be placed with what sorts of uses (housing, retail, etc.)


Next Steps

The details of the trench and tunnel design choices, including funding and financing options, will be covered at a Community meeting scheduled for March 27, and may get additional discussion at two Community Advisory Panel meetings on February 13 and March 13.

Palo Alto residents interested in Caltrain and crosstown connections should continue to pay attention. Palo Alto’s review of the tunnel options will also be of interest to residents and leaders of Menlo Park, where the city council decided to continue to explore the possibility of working with neighboring cities for a multi-city tunnel.  And, of course, the prospects for grade separation will be of interest to everyone interested in the prospects for much more rail service on the corridor.

In summing up the discussion, the city manager made a good point that the options on the table are not beloved by Council and community members. The council needs some way to keep moving forward and make choices even though those choices all have drawbacks.