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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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It’s Time To Fix The Broken Menlo Park Grade Separation Planning Process

Uploaded: Mar 26, 2019
There is compelling evidence that Menlo Park’s planning for grade separations has failed our entire community, not only the directly affected residents and local businesses located near the rail corridor, but also those in our other neighborhoods, as they too will share the benefits of grade separations and feel both the potential defacement of the train station business district and the burden of years-long traffic disruptions during construction.

• It is clear that most Menlo Park residents and businesses remain in the dark about the planning for grade separations and not voiced their concerns and preferences. Why? Primarily because our city’s community outreach and engagement has been grossly inadequate. There has not been a single community meeting on grade separations since June 2017 – almost two years ago. The rail subcommittee and city council each conducted only one public review in 2018, and in these reviews residents were limited to 3-minute comments. It is noteworthy that a large majority of the speakers were from just one neighborhood. Moreover, Menlo Park has not provided effective and convenient ways for residents and businesses to remain well informed, contribute their ideas and concerns, and get answers to their most basic questions.

• It is impossible for the city council to make good decisions when it lacks credible ongoing, community-wide input and feedback. Unfortunately, city’s grade separation planning is largely a technical activity performed by a transportation-consulting firm assisted by a staff transportation engineer, and neither have deep knowledge of our community’s needs, preferences and concerns. Only residents and local businesses can provide this essential information.

• The city council and most residents who have closely observed the city planning for grade separations strongly dislike the three alternatives that were studied in 2017 because all have major drawbacks. Seventeen months ago the city council selected a “least bad” solution, and the fact it has changed its mind twice since then, is cause for great concern.

• The solution selected by our new city council in January uses hybrid grade separations at Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood. This alternative will subject our community to 4-5 years of traffic disruptions and congestion on Ravenswood, Menlo, Oak Grove, Glenwood, Valparaiso, Encinal and El Camino because the city’s three main east-west corridors will either be fully or partially closed for long periods while they are being lowered at the tracks.


• The selected grade separation solution will also irrevocably damage the up-and-coming train station business district. Imagine tracks elevated on a ten-foot high solid berm that physically, visually and psychologically divides this area. Ground level views, westward from Alma and eastward from Merrill will be severely impaired.






• Menlo Park has not studied a viaduct-based solution, a promising approach that could greatly reduce the amount and duration of construction-related traffic problems, enhance the appearance of the train station business district and improve bicyclist and pedestrian mobility. Unfortunately, this alternative was ruled out at the start of planning without serious consideration. Last March the city council finally expressed a willingness to study a viaduct alternative and requested a study proposal. Unfortunately, a year later, none has been developed so the city council has not approved a study. And since no funding is included in the current 2019-2020 city budget I doubt a study will be undertaken. (Learn more about a proposed viaduct-based grade separation solution at another one of my blog posts.)

• Sometime in the next three years Menlo Park will need to commit at least $25,000,000 for grade separations, its share of construction costs. By not encouraging strong community outreach and engagement now and not fairly considering a viaduct-based solution, the city is setting itself up for heated controversy and potentially long project delays. This is unfortunate as both could be avoided.

It’s time for Menlo Park to abandon its council-centric, technical-oriented approach to grade separation planning and adopt a community-centric model like Palo Alto. Residents expect our city council to represent the interests of our entire community and not be unfairly swayed by a proactive minority. Unfortunately, this has not happened and must change. Council members serve for a short time and then move on, but all of us must live with the long-term impacts of their decisions on the quality of our lives. Being a council member is a tough job and each deserves and needs our help. Grade separations represent an extraordinary opportunity for Menlo Park but also a potential disaster. We all need to rise to this occasion and this can start when the city council fixes our planning process. Now is the time to do it.


My Recommendations

I encourage the City Council to take the following steps:

• Initiate a study of viaduct grade separation alternatives (there are more than one) this spring, as one might prove far superior to the solution Council selected in January 2019. Residents who live near the rail corridor have legitimate concerns about how a viaduct might impact the quality of their lives, i.e. noise-levels, aesthetics. The right city response is to address these in a credible study, NOT to rule the study out. The Council is responsible for ensuring its decisions are based on facts, credible assumptions and sound logic, not fear-based opinions.

• Make enhancing - not harming - the train station business district a strategic priority for selecting a final grade separation solution.

• Create a community advisory panel that includes residents and local businesses. The members should collectively represent our entire community, as everyone will be deeply affected by grade separations, not just those located near the rail system. (Note: I will soon outline a model for this workgroup in a future post.)

• Make the planning process open and transparent. Conduct community meetings at least every six months and aggressively promote them to maximize participation. Designate someone who can responsively answer questions. Make access to the information about the grade separation project on the city website more user-friendly. Create an online forum and encourage participation.

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Comments

 +   4 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Mar 26, 2019 at 2:41 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Please include a tunnel in the study option.

The study should not be simply focussed on one person's vision of the best solution.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Mar 26, 2019 at 3:06 pm

Peter, you are effectively recommending the study of a tunnel as well as a viaduct.

If a realistic funding strategy can be developed for a tunnel, I would support it, as well. But it is not necessary nor wise to tie both studies together. No on in either Menlo Park or Palo Alto has yet proposed a tunnel funding strategy that "has legs"despite significant efforts. How long should Menlo Park wait?

While I advocate the study of a solution that uses a viaduct but ONLY in the train station district, it is more important to me that our entire community decides what it wants ONCE it is well informed. Then I will support whatever is decided.

Seem reasonable?


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Mar 26, 2019 at 5:52 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Palo Alto still has a tunnel option on the table:

"The options include a tunnel in south Palo Alto; closure of Churchilll; a citywide tunnel; and three alternatives for the Meadow Drive and Charleston Road options: a trench, a viaduct and a "hybrid" that involves the lowering of the roads and the raising of the tracks."


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by John Kadvany , a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Mar 26, 2019 at 5:53 pm

The impact on the station area design is significant and
not one that's been called out to my knowledge. Might be a surprise to the new residents at 1100 Alma.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 7:47 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

Palo Alto is holding a community meeting on the ever-popular (but seemingly unaffordable and infeasible) citywide tunnel tonight.

"Green Caltrain" (the Friends of Caltrain blog) has posted all the details and background here: Web Link


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 8:04 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

San Bruno created a Grade Separation Citizen's Advisory Committee for their new downtown fully elevated station and 2-street grade separation. Instead of being fully open underneath such as envisioned for downtown Menlo Park, theirs was built atop a solid berm with vertical walls.

Palo Alto is hardly proving to be a model of decisiveness. The council recently conceded they utterly failed to get any closer to making a decision on a preferred alternative by their self-imposed deadline of by the end of 2018. And so now they've added 10 months to the schedule and another half million dollars to their budget:

Palo Alto punts decisions on rail redesign, adds $500K to budget
Council moves timeline as city faces uncertainty over designs, funding
Web Link


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 8:04 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

San Bruno created a Grade Separation Citizen's Advisory Committee for their new downtown fully elevated station and 2-street grade separation. Instead of being fully open underneath such as envisioned for downtown Menlo Park, theirs was built atop a solid berm with vertical walls.

Palo Alto is hardly proving to be a model of decisiveness. The council recently conceded they utterly failed to get any closer to making a decision on a preferred alternative by their self-imposed deadline of by the end of 2018. And so now they've added 10 months to the schedule and another half million dollars to their budget:

Palo Alto punts decisions on rail redesign, adds $500K to budget
Council moves timeline as city faces uncertainty over designs, funding
Web Link


 +  Like this comment
Posted by kbehroozi, a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 11:46 am

kbehroozi is a registered user.

I think San Carlos is actually a decent illustration of what could be done with hybrid grade separation. If you look at their station area on Google Street View, it's pretty open. There's a large pedestrian area underneath, not too far below street level, easier to cross than it would be if tracks were at grade level. We could do something similar in Menlo Park, at least between Ravenswood and Oak Grove. I hear you on the potential surface road disruptions of construction and agree that FEGS is well worth exploring to see if those pain points could be alleviated.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 7:04 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

@kbehroozi: the area under the not-fully elevated tracks and station in San Carlos is awfully cramped, and dark (if not for lighting) as compared to what they could've done. OK for passing through maybe, but certainly *not* a pleasant space. And apart from that short breeezeway, the rest of it is essentially a tall, community-severing wall ... both a physcical and visual barrier. Perhaps the only “advantage" of such a hybrid “wall" design slicing across their (or our) downtown is cost ... and that's what a proper study should reveal and quantify (roughly, perhaps) in Menlo Park's case: the cost vs benefits trade-offs.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Dana Hendrickon, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 9:30 pm

The pedestrian underpass below the tracks at the San Carlos train station is very unappealing. I have spent time there and find the ceiling oppressively low and the views between Old Country Road and El Camino severely limited. Since the hybrid solution proposed for Menlo Park has lower tracks that San Carlos, both the ceiling and floor of a passageway in our train station area would need to be even lower.

Compare this to a viaduct which would provide a series of wide, 15-foot wide ground-level openings between Ravenswood and Oak Grove. Which one would you prefer?


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Mar 27, 2019 at 9:36 pm

CORRECTION: "Compare this to a viaduct which would provide a series of wide, 15-foot HIGH ground-level openings between Ravenswood and Oak Grove. Which one would you prefer?"


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Apr 4, 2019 at 2:53 pm

Dana Hendrickson is a registered user.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by 192.168.1.1, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Apr 12, 2019 at 5:32 am

Great post! I am actually getting ready to across this information, is very helpful my friend. Also great blog here with all of the valuable information you have. Keep up the good work you are doing here!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by peter, a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park,
on May 24, 2019 at 5:21 am

Web Link
Web Link


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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