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Creating A More Vibrant Menlo Park

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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Expect Years of Unprecedented Traffic Congestion and More Empty Storefronts

Uploaded: Nov 11, 2019
This title is not clickbait. It is a reasonable projection of what will occur in Menlo Park over the next decade. Often the solution to a problem actually makes things worse in the short run, as the recent redesign of the Willow Road and 101 interchange clearly demonstrated. This is typical with large traffic improvement projects. However, the Willow traffic congestion pales in comparison to what lies ahead for Menlo Park due to current Caltrain and city plans. Unfortunately, our community is totally unaware and unprepared for the magnitude of this approaching traffic nightmare. It will be triggered by increases in Caltrain service levels starting in 2022 and made possible by the electrification of the Peninsula rail system, a process already well underway. This will be good news for Caltrain commuters but bad news for motorists who must drive to work, as the number of gate closings per hour and motorist delays at existing crossings will grow sharply. Like many other Peninsula cities Menlo Park is planning for the installation of grade separations at railroad crossings because these eliminate gate closings. However, the Menlo Park community needs to understand that train-related traffic congestion will get much worse before grade separations can be built, and construction itself can subject our city to many years of horrible congestion. This means Menlo Park must carefully consider the potential impact of construction when it evaluates alternative grade separation solutions, something it has not yet done.

The grade separation design the Menlo Park City Council has chosen raises tracks and lowers sections of Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood, and construction is expected to last four to five years. This will cause unprecedented traffic delays in Menlo Park and these will have spill-over onto El Camino, Encinal, Middlefield, Marsh, Willow and Valparaiso and smaller impacts on Santa Cruz and Middle. An installation of temporary “bypass” tracks called a shoofly will occupy both Garwood Way and Merrill. Lowering three streets will also add significant risk to the construction schedule. The City of San Mateo is building grade separations now and recently announced a one-year extension to its construction schedule after two years of rain and encountering problems relocating underground utilities. Menlo Park must deal with similar risks plus an existing Hetch Hetchy pipeline that runs under Oak Grove (and possibly Glenwood and Ravenswood). If you do not plan to live in Menlo Park after construction starts you will escape this disaster; otherwise, you will be trapped in your car like everyone else.



Congestion Impact Locations (My Assumptions)



The red crosses indicate streets where major traffic congestion will likely occur once Caltrain increases the number of rush hour trains AND before grade separations can be built. The worst congestion will occur during construction. (Orange crosses mark streets with moderate congestion impacts.)

Finally, even IF grade separation construction were to star by 2027, traffic congestion relief would not be felt before 2032, at the earliest, and the risk of a much later date will remain for years, as there are many project uncertainties, e.g., construction costs, the city’s share of total costs and the source of Menlo Park local funding. Also, no state or county funds have been earmarked for new grade separations, and Caltrain has not yet established its priorities for building new ones on the Peninsula rail system. Menlo Park will need to aggressively compete for state and county funding and be ready to start when funding becomes available. Otherwise, it will jeopardize its position.

Motorists will not be the only ones that suffer from traffic congestion between 2022 and the completion of grade separations. Today, at a time when the Bay Area economy is booming, downtown Santa Cruz has many empty storefronts. Any significant increase in local traffic congestion, especially during construction, will be a nightmare for stores and restaurants because residents who live on the east side of the tracks will have countless more convenient alternatives in Palo Alto and Redwood City. In addition, traffic congestion could have a major negative impact on the response times of the fire district, police department and emergency medical services.

Conclusion

It’s impossible to predict the number and timing of additional trains that will run through Menlo Park during the next decade, when grade separations CAN be built, what designs Caltrain will approve and how Menlo Park will fund construction that costs hundreds of millions of current dollars. However, it is essential that the City Council build community support for its grade separation plans well in advance, as the city will need to allocate tens of millions of dollars to this project. Also, any substantial delays caused by resident opposition could jeopardize the city’s position in a future funding queue.

Menlo Park’s current plan to use hybrid grade separations on Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood will subject residents and local businesses to four to five years of construction and traffic congestion. This is an unacceptable and possibly avoidable. Menlo Park should not only carefully study the traffic impacts of its currently preferred hybrid grade separation design but also fully elevated grade separations, as the latter would reduce construction by two years and cause minimal traffic disruptions because streets would rarely be either closed or constrained to a single lane.
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Comments

 +   5 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Nov 11, 2019 at 6:57 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Dana - Excellent article - Thanks.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Shoot from the hip?, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 11:04 am

The City Council has not decided yet whether to proceed with a fully elevated design, a berm design, or a hybrid of both. The City Council asked staff to return with a report on all three options. That report has not been delivered to the City Council yet for consideration.

This blog is entirely premature.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 11:51 am

"On March 5, 2019, City Council approved the final project study report with the hybrid option (Alternative C) as the preferred alternative" (Web Link)

This solution includes berms that support grades and the sections of tracks between grade separations.


January 2018: the prior city council requested a study PROPOSAL for fully elevated grade separations (FEGS) from staff.

December 2018: staff published an initial statement that included new restriction on possible FEGS designs and objections were raised.

July 2019: the Rail Subcommittee (Ray Mueller and Drew Combs) instructed staff to study all design options for the FEGS alternative.

November 2019: EIGHTEEN months after the initial request, a revised SOW has not been published by city staff and a Rail Subcommittee review is not currently scheduled.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 1:55 pm

My wife and I have lived in Menlo Park for 20 years. During that time we constantly voted for Council Members who ran on the basis of their ostensible commitment to the needs and concerns of Menlo Park's residents. They promised sustaining, if not improving, the "quality of life" for all of us.

Tragically, during our 20 years we have watched the "quality of life" of Menlo Park deteriorate in the hands of our self-serving Administration, City Council and the developers who received their support.

What you describe -- accurately I believe -- Mr. Hendrickson, are the anticipated consequences of our town's government continuously failing to represent us and, to the contrary, building their own resumes and careers at our expense.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Wondering, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 3:36 pm

Just wondering, how will the FEGS be built with only a few weekend closures? Where will the columns and foundations for the FEGS bridge will be located? You'll still need the same shoofly as the other hybrid options?


 +   4 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson , a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 5:17 pm

Wondering: Good question!

I believe the bridge components and columns are made elsewhere and dropped into place. In August 2019 Caltrain built a hybrid grade separations at 25th street in San Mateo that is almost as high as an FEGS and there was little disruption if traffic. You an see a video at Web Link
The construction occurred primarily on weekends and at night.

It seems very similar to what Menlo Park could do. Yes, grade separation alternatives appear to require a shoofly but spanning streets with tracks is not a time-consuming task.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Menlo Park Resident Near Tracks, a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 7:39 pm

I worry that fully elevated grade separations will increase already high train noise in our neighborhoods and block sunlight and views, lowering property values, and putting nearby, old growth trees at risk. I also understand a healthy train system is vital to a region with such limited housing, and I appreciate the consideration given to berm and hybrid solutions, even if they will take longer.

We are in it for the long haul. We hope our children stay in this beautiful community for generations, and honestly, I don't mind if traffic is congested for a few more years if it means a more harmonious and integrated design for train tracks going through our neighborhoods.

Have you seen the entirely elevated tracks in the northern peninsula? They are unsightly, noisy, and the surrounding neighborhoods look depressing.

Thank you to everyone who is carefully considering all options and the long-term impact on our beautiful Menlo Park.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 8:19 pm

Menlo Park Resident Near Tracks

I DO appreciate your CONCERNS, and IF I lived in a nearby neighborhood I would have them, as well.

But I would also want to understand the potential impacts of each solution before I judged them.

All your concerns, e.g.,noise, visual impact, shadows can be addressed in a formal study of fully elevated grade separation (FEGS). Then our entire community and City Council would share the same facts and sound assumptions, rather than rely on opinions and misperceptions.

That said, I do not believe our city would approve an FEGS solution unless all major neighborhood concerns were addressed.

Note: Fully elevated grade separations means tracks would be fully elevated only between Ravenswood and Oak Grove, and possibly Glenwood. To the north and south track grades would return to ground level in the shortest distance possible. I expect the maximum track elevation along Felton Gables would be VERY low. A study would show actual possible profiles.

Thanks for sharing your concerns.






 +  Like this comment
Posted by Wondering , a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Nov 12, 2019 at 10:34 pm

Dana - for the 25th Ave bridge in San Mateo a shoofly was constructed parallel to the bridge before building the bridge. See the video here: Web Link
Same thing has to happen here in Menlo Park. Construction of FEGS bridge in downtown will take similar length of time as the hybrid version. It also takes time to build foundations and columns for each set of support, even if girders are prefabricated and brought to site.
While I share your desire to expedite the construction process, the reality is these complex projects take a long time to complete, particularly since we're also dealing with a railroad agency, Caltrain. We must be careful in not presenting an oversimplified version of reality, it does not help the community make an informed decision.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Nov 13, 2019 at 9:07 am

Wondering. Thanks for continuing our discussion.

"Same thing has to happen here in Menlo Park. Construction of FEGS bridge in downtown will take similar length of time as the hybrid version."

I believe that is not true.

1. The consultant (AECOM) has indicated that the length of construction is much shorter with FEGS. Of course, a formal study would provide more support for this assumption. Remember that hybrids require deep escalation of all traffic lanes; FEGS does not.

2. The traffic issue is tied not to the length of construction but rather how streets are affected, closures, lane restrictions, detours. FEGS causes minimum traffic disruption during commute times; hybrid causes substantial disruption. I encourage you to view the consultants presentation to the city council. It's on the city website.

Again, thanks for your interest and participation!


 +   5 people like this
Posted by MPer, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Nov 13, 2019 at 10:59 am

The Denizens of MP have dithered on this issue for a VERY VERY long time. At this point I'd rather see the project done right vs. quickly. No reason to rush now, traffic will get worse, but we already knew that. If the fully raised plan is the best, then awesome, if the hybrid is the best, then let's do that. IMO.

"at a time when the Bay Area economy is booming, Santa Cruz has many empty storefronts" - NOT because of traffic or parking concerns. it is because the rent is too high for most business to afford. - that is not an opinion, that's a fact.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Liz Phillips, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton,
on Nov 13, 2019 at 12:14 pm

Thank you for the explanation and for starting a dialogue which needs to be discussed before, not after, mistakes are made. I have lived in Atherton for most of my life and am not feeling optimistic about traffic and congestion that seems to be imploding on a daily basis. Office buildings going up wherever you look with some residences, I guess. Whatever happened to city planning where responsible building and development was monitored? Woodside is doing a much better job of protecting its beauty and uniqueness.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Nearby Resident, a resident of another community,
on Nov 14, 2019 at 5:37 pm

You are...I think unintentionally...making a pretty good case for underpasses, at least at Oak Grove and Ravenswood.

* No shoefly needed. The railway grade is unchanged.

* Yes, ONE road will be closed while that road is reconfigured, but each road can be done independently of the other, mitigating traffic impacts.

* Also, during the construction of this fully-grade-separated ROW you advocate for, where will Caltrain's electrified lines go?

* Finally, who will pay for relocating the electrified lines from the current grade level to the new above-grade level?


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Nov 15, 2019 at 12:31 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

@Wondering: the San Mateo project is being built _without_ shoofly tracks. The Caltrain right of way is quite wide along most of its length, and so for that project the new elevated 2-track alignment is being built to the west (i.e. ECR side) of the existing tracks. The tracks you suggest are shoofly tracks are merely the original tracks. When the time comes, the existing tracks will be "cut-over" at the ends of the new structure so that they connect to the new, elevated tracks.

@Nearby Resident: building underpasses involves risks significant delays and cost-overruns due to utility relocation problems (3 major Caltrain projects " including electrification itself) are currently collectively running years and tens of millions over-budget largely due to unforseen utilty relocation hassles). Secondly, an underpass must slope down gradually and so adjoining private properties (homes, businesses) get their access either temporarily or permanently cut off, requiring partial or complete parcel acquistions (if not by a mutually agreed price, then via an eminent domain proceeding). Third, underpasses require city owned and maintained pumping systems with backup power to keep them from flooding with ground water (in case of a high water table) or from rain storms or other incidents (car hits nearby fire hydrant, etc.). Fourth, underpasses are a permanently crappy user experience for bicyclists and pedestrians, and contribute to the community-severing "barrier" effect of the rail line ... whereas to the extent that roads, bike lanes and sidewalks can remain level (aka "at-grade") by elevating the trains more or less completely up and out of the way, actual, and visual and psychological cross-town connectivity is can actually be improved beyond what it ever was in the 155 years or so since the Caltrain line opened for continuous service and caused the Peninsula's "Caltrain" cities to grow up around the line.

Regarding pole & wire relocation: for electrified railroads (the norm in most other 1st-world/competitor countries), relocating those (or 3rd rails, as with BART and other subways) is just a normal part of any project budget involving track realignment (such as a grade separation), and its cost amounts to an insignificant percentage of total project costs.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Nov 18, 2019 at 10:51 am

@nearby resident: In addition to the issues described by @ Reality Check, a grade separation underpass on Oak Grove would also have major impacts on traffic flows.

* The new Garwood Way will connect Oak Grove and Glenwood; it could not connect to an underpass.

* The entrance to the Station 1300 underground garage will be accessible only to Garwood Way; an underpass would isolate the garage.

* Both Merrill and Alma now connect to Oak Grove; an underpass would eliminate these popular connections.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by TBM, a resident of another community,
on Nov 20, 2019 at 6:33 am

The standard practice for building a hybrid GS is to spend four years building the elevated berm, leaving the roads unchanged, then in the final year dig down the roads one at a time. So there would not be 5 years for traffic delays except for high delivery trucks that cannot pass under the low bridges.

Here in a video of a typical build-out sequence: Web Link

San Mateo 25th Ave grade separation did not need a temporary shoofly track because there was enough unused land next to the existing tracks to construct the new berm Web Link .

A rail bridge has been built over Avenue 25, Web Link but for about a year there will be a temporary height restriction of 13 feet 10 inches under this bridge until the road is lowered as one of the final steps of the grade separation project.

Any elevated solution through Menlo Park, will considerably lower Glenwood Ave because the shoofly track will need to return to the mainline before the Atherton border.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Nov 21, 2019 at 2:45 pm

@TBM Thanks for taking the time to comment on my post.

Here some additional thoughts:

1. The city should require the transportation consultant (AECOM) to evaluate how local traffic patterns will be affected during grade separation construction. The study should include the track crossings and all affected streets and not just Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood. That way, no one needs to speculate as to what will happen.

2. The traffic impact of construction at a crossing depends on how much a street is lowered. For example, the hybrid grade separation at 25th Avenue in San Mateo lowered the street only a few feet and the shallow excavation had little impact on traffic. Fully elevating tracks means a street is NOT lowered at all.

3. Caltrain will determine the sequence of construction phases. For example,

Phase 1: Build a shoofly and reroute trains.
Phase 2: Build rail grades and install temporary train bridges
Phase 3: Lower streets and install permanent train bridges. (One crossing at a time)
Phase 4: Reroute trains and remove shoofly.

4. AECOM has presented illustrations on how traffic would be handled during the construction of an UNDERPASS grade separation at Ravenswood. The December 2018 staff report can be viewed view at Web Link . It shows that only two of the existing four lanes would remain open while the other two were excavated so traffic would be constrained. This configuration is shown to last for several years. Since the Ravenswood Hybrid requires a maximum excavation of 22 feet, road and traffic impacts might be similar.

5. The AECOM presentation does not show Oak Grove and Glenwood but I suspect that either (a) these streets will be closed during excavation or(b) perhaps one lane would remain open. These streets are narrower than Ravenswood.

6. Whenever deep excavations require the relocation of lots of utilities as is the case in Menlo Park, schedule risk is high. Note: one of the utilities is a 36-inch Hetch Hetchy pipeline. The utilities are shown in the same staff report.

Lastly, I do not understand why a shoofly would require that Glenwood be lowered. Please share your reasoning.



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