People disagree on whether railroad tracks should be elevated above the street or buried underground in Menlo Park, and whether it's crossing design or inattention that causes the most problems, but based on comments at recent meetings, everyone agrees: Even after the Feb. 23 fatal collision at the Ravenswood crossing, drivers still get stuck on the railroad tracks on a daily basis, and something needs to be done.
The council rail subcommittee, made up of Vice Mayor Rich Cline and Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, met on Wednesday, March 18, to start answering the question of what can be done, both near-term and long-term.
Caltrain representative Marian Lee said the rail agency had conducted a hazards assessment of the Ravenswood intersection a couple months ago, and plans to meet with city officials in early April to further analyze the issues, but changes are at least 18 months away.
Ms. Keith said she thought that partnering with Caltrain would shorten the timeframe, given the agency's engineering expertise.
But Ms. Lee said the problem isn't technical, it's the amount of community outreach needed to even get a working problem statement. "It's the level of dialogue that's necessary," Ms. Lee explained, adding that San Bruno, which now has elevated tracks, took 10 years to implement above-grade crossings, she added, and whatever solution Menlo Park chooses, "the expense is great" and will require a lot of fundraising.
"You can say this is already a 10-year process," Ms. Keith noted. Menlo Park first started looking at grade separations in 2002. Now, the city has a $750,000 grant from the San Mateo County Transportation Authority to study the Ravenswood crossing, and the rail subcommittee's support for changing council policy to allow consideration of elevated tracks.
The expense will indeed be great: Transportation Manager Nikki Nagaya said that a 2009 study estimated the cost at $100 million to $400 million to elevate a two-track system at Ravenswood Avenue. Now, with Caltrain's plans for electrification, the number of tracks could be increased to three or four, which along with inflation would raise the cost.
Mr. Cline noted that no one really discusses building a tunnel instead. "We wouldn't be having these conversations if we tunnel ... It's safer," but the cost estimates scare everyone away, he said.
Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman said the district would love to partner with the city on installing signal pre-emption technology so that the coordination of green lights on Ravenswood at El Camino Real with train traffic would help keep vehicles moving.
Other near-term options the city will evaluate:
• Adjusting the Ravenswood pedestrian crosswalk, which is about 105 feet away from the tracks. One possibility is moving the crosswalk farther from the intersection.
• Posting electronic countdown signs that indicate when the next train will pass through the crossing.
• Prohibiting left turns from Alma Street onto Ravenswood Avenue entirely, rather than just during commute hours. Mr. Cline asked that a parking evaluation be included, as many of those now using Alma Street are patrons of the city's gym; he suggested looking at whether they could be encouraged to park in a location that would reduce traffic on Alma Street.
Ms. Nagaya told the Almanac that many of the suggested near-term changes "would result in changes to local circulation patterns, so it's important that we assess what those would be and understand how they may impact the community as we move forward in considering the modifications."
For grade separations, she said, the amount of work that's already been done may help expedite the city's review. Updates on the process will be posted on the city's website.