Who will you blame for this coming Menlo Park disaster? | Creating a Vibrant Downtown | Dana Hendrickson | Almanac Online |

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By Dana Hendrickson

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About this blog: My wife and I moved to central Menlo Park in 1985 where we have raised two sons. A retired high-tech executive, I now actively participate in local and national community service programs. I am the founder and director of Rebuil...  (More)

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Who will you blame for this coming Menlo Park disaster?

Uploaded: Dec 20, 2018
Traffic congestion remains the number one complaint of Menlo Park residents. And our city government, like us, feels helpless, as it cannot stem the growth of vehicles on our streets. While new regional public transportation programs are frequently cited as promising solutions, these are expensive and take "forever" to build. And, ironically, some projects actually make traffic congestion much worse. The Caltrain electrification program is a prime example. Caltrain plans to introduce electric-powered trains in early 2022 and subsequently double the number of daily trains. The good news: these will be quieter, environmentally less harmful, and can run more frequently. The bad news: crossing gates will be down more often and produce nightmare traffic congestion, especially at commute times.

Imagine how angry and frustrated we will feel in about five years when we are stuck in traffic on Ravenswood, Oak Grove, Glenwood, El Camino and Middlefield, and we realize meaningful relief is not possible until 2030 - at the earliest - and even then traffic congestion will remain intolerable unless our city has chosen the best possible grade separation solution in 2019. Also, note that Caltrain will have no incentive to build additional grade separations in Menlo Park once initial ones are installed. There will not be any “do-overs”.

The best approach separates streets from tracks at as many key locations as possible. But that is not the current city plan. Our prior city leaders decided in May to build only one grade separation - a Ravenswood underpass. In October 2017, some residents asked the city council to study an alternative that would install train bridges over Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood and connect them with an attractive fully elevated and open rail structure in the train station area. An attractive plaza that extends underneath would enhance the appearance of this business district and enable pedestrians and bicyclists to more conveniently travel between Santa Cruz, Merrill and Alma. This solution would also require minimal street closures, as none would be lowered. In May - seven months later - these residents again requested a fully elevated grade separations study and the city council instructed staff to come back with a proposal. This study would be performed in parallel with continued work on an application for funding the Ravenswood underpass. The city application could be modified after submission IF the city decided fully elevated grade separations were a better solution for our community. At the December 11 City Council meeting - another seven months later – staff presented a scope for the study that lacked a well-defined set of deliverables and introduced restrictive conditions on potential designs. This act and the disturbing lack of urgency should concern every resident and business owner. These also raise genuine concerns about the objectivity of city staff and the importance it has assigned to this task. Note that most of the work required to prepare a study proposal is performed by the consultant AECOM, not city staff.

Residents can only hope that the new city leadership recognizes the importance of completing this study in 2019. Then a fair comparison can be made between the Ravenswood-only and the fully elevated grade separation alternatives. If our community decides the latter is preferred it is better to know this as soon as possible to avoid unnecessary project delays. If the City Council does not ensure completing this study is high priority, we will have no one to blame but them - and ourselves.

Learn more about Menlo Park planning for grade separations.

View a discussion of Menlo Park grade separations in the Almanac Town Square.
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 +   16 people like this
Posted by Bob E, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Dec 20, 2018 at 11:18 am

I'm always a bit confused when people point to the grade crossings as a primary source of congestion downtown. I live nearby, walk near the library frequently, and have to get from Linfield Oaks to downtown. I see and navigate the congestion many times each week.

Among the things I have done is to time the train gates on Ravenswood, and compare them to the lights at El Camino. The lights at El Camino are usually red (at all intersections), and stop crosstown traffic most of the time. The Caltrain gates stop traffic a small fraction of the time. Yet somehow, when people say we need a traffic solution, demand that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars, and deal with years of construction and its associated traffic increases, that effort is focused on the grade crossings. El Camino is taken as a given.

Ravenswood traffic doesn't back up past Laurel because of the train. It backs up because of El Camino. It doesn't take multiple cycles to cross El Camino from Menlo Ave because of the train. It takes multiple cycles because of El Camino. Several years ago, Caltrain shut down on weekends for construction. It still took multiple cycles to cross El Camino in both directions. On the weekends.

So, count me as skeptical of the grade separation, but for different reasons. Until and unless we have a coordinated plan to address both bottlenecks, addressing the lesser bottleneck won't solve the problem. Marginal improvements are the best we can hope for, and if the new crossing makes it more difficult to address our other bottlenecks, it could be a long-term mistake.

And who know, maybe someday train engineers will figure out how not to activate traffic gates when trains will be stopping in the station, and will never cross the road on the far side.

 +   2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Dec 20, 2018 at 12:22 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Our prior city leaders decided in May to build only one grade separation - a Ravenswood underpass. "

This would be a disaster for emergency responders!

There is no way that the Fire District could maintain its response times without all of the existing crossings remaining.

 +   2 people like this
Posted by Thomas Paine, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Dec 20, 2018 at 1:07 pm

Adding congestion and waiting times at the grade crossings is small price to pay to make it easier for those who chose to live in trendy San Francisco and commute to work in Silicon Valley. Think of the hardship of having to live in Menlo Park without SF's bars and clubs within an easy walk.

 +   5 people like this
Posted by LeeofMenloPark, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Dec 20, 2018 at 3:54 pm

Well said, and a refreshingly candid assessment.

The 2018 solution would fail anywhere that planners were tasked with moving four streams of traffic under a coordinated plan.

For about half an hour, Ravenswood will be the better travel route. As soon as drivers figure it out, the one-crossing "solution" will funnel trafficTO Ravenswood. The gridlock will favorably compare to similar to Willow Road during commute hours (except that police, fire and other emergency vehicles will be unable to travel on Ravenswood in either direction during all hours that the trains are running.

Disneyland and even TSA manage traffic better than this. Hopefully the new council will impart a sense of urgency to staff.

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Macfarland, a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables,
on Dec 20, 2018 at 10:10 pm

Does more trains on and electrified track mean that the train horns will be blasted out continuously. Noise pollution will be diasterous for those living near the tracks. No sleep for anyone!!!

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Macfarland, a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables,
on Dec 20, 2018 at 10:10 pm

Does more trains on and electrified track mean that the train horns will be blasted out continuously. Noise pollution will be diasterous for those living near the tracks. No sleep for anyone!!!

 +   4 people like this
Posted by Ev, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Dec 20, 2018 at 11:06 pm

Dana, this is smart and on-point! We need to revisit grade separation, and grade separating all the intersections with some kind of viaduct/light berm seems like a great solution. I just took Caltrain through San Mateo, and that's what they're doing!

Caltrain will feel SO much less like a separator if we can lift the tracks up (or down, sure, but that would be massively expensive) and allow traffic, pedestrians, bikes and wheelchairs to easily pass east/west underneath. Plus, we wouldn't have horns anymore! No need for horns with grade separated tracks.

 +   8 people like this
Posted by Menlo Neighbor, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Dec 20, 2018 at 11:07 pm

If the track is elevated, the train will not need to sound its horn. The horn is required to be sounded at every intersection where the rails cross the road at grade. Grade separation will make the traffic flow easier and will make it quieter. Keep in mind, Menlo Park has no jurisdiction over the number of trains. The trains will come more frequently with electrification, if we don't deal with the problem the problem will deal with us.

 +   4 people like this
Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Dec 21, 2018 at 2:35 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

Of course, a viaduct appears to make the most sense across downtown Menlo Park, lifting the railroad and quiet new electric trains completely up and out of the way, creating usable space underneath and east-west connectivity without disruptive and costly lowering of streets and intersections, and therefore maintaining and improving pedestrian and bicycle connectivity.

However, in the meantime, there is nothing stopping Menlo Park " or any city " from implementing an officially-authorized train horn "quiet zone" at its crossings. These eliminate the federally-required mandatory four horn blasts per crossing, and instead limit horn use to an as-needed basis (such as it is with autos and other motor vehicles). Atherton is the first and only city on the Caltrain line to have done so for its Fair Oaks crossing adjacent to the Lloyden Park neighborhood. This required adding another set of gates along with crossing occupancy sensors to help avoid any scofflaw motorists from being trapped on the crossing. Here's a video of it in action: Web Link

There is a formal process for local jurisdictions (cities, counties, etc.) wishing to establish quiet zones to follow:

Web Link (California PUC's page)

Here's a nice quiet zone FAQ with more detailed background info: Web Link

 +   3 people like this
Posted by Ev, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Dec 21, 2018 at 10:13 am

As someone who walks to the train on a near-daily basis, I worry about safety if trains stop blaring their horn. And I live pretty close to the tracks, so I deal with the noise issues from them. But I'd rather hear horns occasionally than even one person be killed in an avoidable incident if they heard the train coming.

 +   3 people like this
Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Dec 22, 2018 at 5:21 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

@Ev: don't worry. Quiet zones are said to be safer than what we have now due to the associated mandadory safety upgrades that are part of the process. There are hundreds and hundreds of these now around the country, and they've been used so long that there's plenty of data to show they're very safe. (Don't forget that it happily turns out to be not that easy to get oneself accidentally run over by a train. Nearly all pedestrian deaths on the Caltrain line are suicides ... and the vehicles that get hit do so for reasons completely unrelated to horn blowing, or lack thereof.) Also, "quiet zones", like with our cars and trucks, don't prohibit as-needed horn use, but they do put an end to mindlessly blowing the horn in a prescribed pattern FOUR times by every train for every crossing. Imagine if we required all cars and trucks to blow their horns 4 times per intersection ... just in case. Of course, that's pure insanity ... but due to RR regulations being stuck in the days before all crossings had extensive automated warning equipment, that's exactly what trains are still required to do wherever there isn't yet a quiet zone.

Note that the entire new SMART line from Santa Rosa to San Rafael (to be extended to Larkspur soon) has had every city and jurisdiction along the route establish quiet zones. It's working well, and they weren't even used to having fast-moving frequent trains up there anymore. And there are many other examples ...

 +   2 people like this
Posted by komal, a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park,
on Dec 27, 2018 at 7:25 am

thank u so much for post. i like this post
Web Link and Web Link

 +   2 people like this
Posted by mper, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Dec 27, 2018 at 7:52 am

Well said Dana. Thank you.

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