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By Diana Diamond

Palo Alto’s biggest problem?

Uploaded: Nov 30, 2018

When retiring City Manager Jim Keene gave to a talk to the Rotary Club of Palo Alto recently, he ended it by saying he thought Palo Alto’s biggest upcoming problem was grade separations – keeping cars away from trains by elevating or lowering the roads or tracks.

Grade separations are really expensive to build, and Palo Alto has four crossings to contend with – Charleston, Meadow, Churchill and Alma – a possible $438 million just for Meadow Drive alone. The city could decide to close one or two of these crossings, but then where would cars and bikes go to get across? The separations will each take a couple of years to construct, including turning some four-lane roads into two laners for a couple of years, and since Caltrain service has to continue throughout the construction process, the tracks may have to be moved. For example, Caltrain could install temporary tracks directly onto Alma Street, meaning cars couldn’t use that roadway. That would cause a bit of angered concern, for sure. To complete this project, some houses may have to be torn down, trees bordering tracks will be removed, utility equipment will have to be relocated, and the construction is so complex there are sure to be additional unpredicted problems. Once a track system is decided, catenaries will have to be constructed for the electrification – big high poles on both sides of the track with electrical wires running down the line – ultimately, ugly.

Just as Oregon Expresssway has created a north-south divide, the new track configurations, whatever they will be, could also result in an east-west divide in this town.

So why even do it? Well, Caltrain now carries some 4,500 people per hour, each direction, while weekday Palo Alto boardings at University and Cal Ave stations average 9,052 people, and the need for more trains is rapidly growing. While there are 10 trains hourly that go through Palo Alto, after electrification in 2022 or so, there will be 12 per hour that could easily expand to 20 trains an hour, making driving across tracks a constant waiting game. And if high-speed rail is ever completed, those bullet trains will also run down these tracks.

Nadia Naik provided me with these numbers. She’s a Palo Alto resident and co-founder of CAARD (Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design), an objective fact-finding volunteer group. Naik herself has spent years following this subject and is one of the brightest people I know working on this problem.

The city is faced with four possibilities for grade crossings and each approach has its own set of difficulties and complexities: tunneling, trenching, raising or lowering the tracks or road, or a very high viaduct. Most Palo Altans immediately say tunneling, but that means going down 80 feet (yes, eighty), deep enough to go under the creeks and capable of carrying the two-deck trains. Stations would require long escalators to get to the trains, there are air and safety issues but the biggest obstacle is cost – one estimate is a minimum of $4 billion dollars (plus anticipated overruns) and years of construction to enable the train to descend into a tunnel stretching from San Antonio Road north and ascend in Menlo Park.

And by the way, there’s no money for all this. Maybe a little from the state but lots of cities along the Caltrain corridor want that money, and maybe several million from sales tax and bond issues, but the feds probably won’t contribute much, so Palo Alto would have to find billions of dollars to make tunneling work. Simple, right?

Yet I wonder why Caltrain doesn't pay for some of this. Caltrain wants the electrification, and that will cause grade separation issues, so shouldn't Caltrain mitigate for the problems it's causing?

The city has held several community meetings asking residents for their input, and the council is scheduled to talk about some of these proposals at the end of this month, but a final decision will take awhile and none of those deciding (including council members, most residents and me) are certainly not experts in this area.

But we need to track (pardon the pun) this as best as we can. It’s the biggest undertaking this city has had in years and what we do will affect us for years to come (financially and practically).

And new ideas are pouring in every day, e.g., a proposal from CAARD to tunnel the area from Charleston to Meadow for only electric train use and let the three rail freight trains travel at the current ground level; move the tracks temporarily to the vacant area between the road on Alma and the current tracks, removing all the green buffer bushes; getting Stanford to chip in millions of dollars to help finance this project, etc.

My current leaning is having train tracks run on an above-ground berm and lowering the roadways to go underneath the new tracks, as San Carlos and San Mateo have done. But other, more clever ideas may surface.

What are your suggestions – and preferences?