Palo Alto refines grade separation options; South Palo Alto choices won’t remove houses

On Thursday August 23, the City of Palo Alto held a community meeting at Mitchell Park Library to review the most recently refined set of options to separate the Caltrain tracks from roadways. The diagrams for the meeting were not yet online, but are expected to be posted at the city’s project website.


South Palo Alto options not expected to remove houses

For people who have been following the process, a major cause for concern among people who live near the tracks is the prospect that grade separation might require that houses be demolished. In the South Palo Alto area where this concern was the greatest because houses are near the tracks and cross streets, the most recent design updates suggest that no houses would need to be removed in the options being considered. There are a few locations where driveways would need to be modified, but the driveways would continue to provide full access to the houses.

There are two options that are being considered for Meadow and Charleston streets: a hybrid option where the rail is partway elevated and the roadway is partially depressed, as seen in San Carlos; and a shallow trench option where the train is partway depressed and the roadway is partway elevated.

Still to be considered in additional analysis; how the designs would work with the shallow water table in the area, and whether those considerations would affect houses and driveways. In Burlingame, where residents and city leaders initially preferred a trench for the train, studies showed that it would be difficult and costly to keep the trench dry during rainy season. Palo Alto’s roadway underpass at Oregon Expressway often floods in heavy rains.

Studying traffic consequences of closing Churchill to cars

After reviewing several options for grade separation at Churchill, which would have required removal of dozens of houses, Palo Alto City Council decided earlier to take those options off the table and consider closing Churchill to cars while adding a new crossing for people walking and bicycling. The car traffic consequences of closing Churchill, and designs for a replacement bike/ped crossing are still being studied.

Palo Alto Avenue hybrid crossing could be feasible – but would a major bike commute route be preserved?

Preliminary designs from the city’s new consultants indicate that at Palo Alto Avenue at the border between Palo Alto and Menlo Park, a hybrid design partly elevating the rail tracks and depressing the roadway could be feasible. The other option would be closing Palo Alto Avenue, sending drivers into downtown Palo Alto via the University Avenue intersection.

However, the consultants had not yet considered the impact of a hybrid design on the intersection’s role in a major bicycle commute routes to and from Stanford, downtown Palo Alto, and the downtown Caltrain station with popular baby bullet service. There is a bike/ped bridge across San Francisquito creek that connects people bicycling and walking between Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Also many people cross El Camino Real on foot and by bicycle at the intersection of Sand Hill, ECR and Palo Alto avenue.

If your blogger heard correctly at the display station, the roadway grade in the preliminary design would be 7%, a grade that is too steep to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. At the meeting, community members brainstormed about designs that would accommodate a less steep grade that would be accessible to many more people.

Enthusiasm for a citywide tunnel, and hopeful thoughts about how to pay for it

A citywide tunnel has remained among the set of options being considered, despite the fact that staff and a number of city council members have expressed information and opinions that the cost of such an option would be out of reach. However, community members at the meeting expressed optimism that creative thinking and billionaires in the community could help overcome the cost challenges.

A citywide tunnel would start in South Palo Alto after San Antonio Caltrain station at the border with Mountain View and end before the University Caltrain station. It would require the California avenue station to be rebuilt underground, and would eliminate the Embarcadero station which is used only for Stanford games, unless there was funding to build an underground station for that limited purpose.

An earlier cost and financing draft study indicated that the cost would be between $3.3billion and $4 billion. If other public funding sources provided $150Million per intersection, and three new intersections are separated, then Palo Alto might have a local obligation in the range of $3 billion. New homeowners would see a property tax surcharge of $6,500 per year (page 11) to raise approximately $700 million in revenue (page 5), while long-time homeowners would see an increase of $1750 per year. To raise the amount needed for a citywide tunnel.

Next steps

More detailed designs, and updated cost estimates, are expected to be available at the next community meeting in November. If you have questions, contact the city’s project team at or by phone at 650-329-2520