News

Menlo Park gets started on two major rail crossing projects

 

The city of Menlo Park has taken initial steps on two major transportation projects designed to improve east-west connectivity and enhance safety at the Ravenswood Avenue railroad crossing.

One project would build a bicycle and pedestrian undercrossing of the railroad tracks at Middle Avenue. The other would build a grade separation – separating the roadway from the railway – at Ravenswood Avenue.

Middle Avenue

On Dec. 15, the City Council formalized its support for the Middle Avenue undercrossing, designed to improve connectivity on both sides of the tracks, including between the Civic Center and the downtown areas, for walkers and cyclists.

The council passed a resolution supporting the project and authorized city staff to apply for $490,000 in San Mateo County Measure A sales tax funds. That amount, together with $210,000 from the city, would pay for preliminary engineering work on the project.

Funds for design and construction of the undercrossing, which the city estimates will cost about $11 million in total, "will need to be pursued in the future," the city said in a staff report.

In November, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority called for pedestrian and bicycle projects that could be funded by Measure A money.

The undercrossing is expected to be built in conjunction with Stanford University's plan to develop its 8.4 acres along El Camino with offices, apartments and retail. Stanford has said it will make a "substantial contribution" to fund the undercrossing, but has not been more specific.

Ravenswood Avenue

City staff has begun its search for engineering consultants to lead the preliminary engineering and design work for a "grade separation" project at the Ravenswood Avenue crossing of the tracks. In a grade separation, the roadway runs either above or under the tracks.

Of the four rail crossings in Menlo Park – at Ravenswood, Oak Grove, Glenwood and Encinal avenues – the Ravenswood crossing has the highest volume of traffic, at about 24,000 vehicles per day, according to city data.

Also, Ravenswood Avenue serves as the city's main east-west connector between U.S. 101 and El Camino Real, making it the highest-priority crossing to be considered for a grade separation, city staff said.

In February 2015, it was also the site of a fatality when a train struck a car on the tracks and killed the driver, a 35-year-old woman.

Proposals from engineering consultants are due Jan. 21 and the consultant is expected to be selected in February. The projected completion date for early engineering, public outreach and design work is February 2017.

Comments

10 people like this
Posted by MPer
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 14, 2016 at 10:05 am

Amazing! Great to see both of these moving forward!


16 people like this
Posted by Train Fan
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 14, 2016 at 1:01 pm

Very interesting, thank you for the article.

While the article (and likely the town government) is noncommittal about what type of grade separation would be used at ravenswood, the only viable one that could be deployed at ravenswood...and only ravenswood...is a road underpass, just like Oregon expressway, embarcadero road and others like it in San Mateo, redwood city, San Francisco etc.

Personally I'm a supporter of this approach to grade separation. Admittedly my 1st choise is a trench, but the logistics and politics of a multi-juristictional project like that are daunting, and would take at least a decade or more, and is significantly more expensive.

I look forward to learning more.


1 person likes this
Posted by Tunbridge Wells
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 14, 2016 at 1:23 pm

Tunbridge Wells is a registered user.

Whatever type of grade separation is selected for Ravenswood will become the de facto choice when the remaining grade crossings in Menlo Park are grade separated. The height of the train tracks at Ravenswood will dictate everything else, and there is not enough distance to make a meaningful change in the grade.

A full underpass of the type proposed by Train Fan is not under consideration by the city for very good reasons. It's very expensive. In order to drop Ravenswood down deep enough like Oregon Expressway or Jefferson Avenue, the section of El Camino Real adjacent to Ravenswood would also have to be dropped. It would require significant eminent domain as the properties on the corner of Alma and Ravenswood would lose access to Ravenswood, and cars would not be able to turn from Alma onto Ravenswood going any direction. This very design was tested last summer and proved to be extremely unpopular with residents.

When we consider grade separation at Ravenswood people have to decide whether they are more determined to keep the tracks at grade, or to keep the intersection of Alma and Ravenswood connected. Because we can have one or the other, but we can't have both.


2 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 14, 2016 at 3:49 pm

Amazing is right. $11.7 million to build a pedestrian bicycle tunnel under the tracks at opposite Middle! Did the city win a portion of the Powerball?
How many folks are expected use this each week? Security concerns for lone pedestrians? Folks can't cross the tracks at Ravenswood?


10 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 14, 2016 at 4:38 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

$11 Million for an undercrossing is outrageous. And telling potential contractors that you are willing /planning to spend $11 million is an invitation for $11 million dollar bids.

Like Palo Alto's "iconic" bike bridge which was going to cost $17 million this project should be reduced to an RFP and put out for competitive bids.

Ps. I was able to get a bridge fabricator to cost out the Palo Alto bike bridge and they said that they could do it for less than $3 million.


8 people like this
Posted by Train Fan
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 14, 2016 at 6:45 pm

> A full underpass of the type proposed by Train Fan is not under consideration by the city for very good reasons.

Well, that narrows it down :)

[for an underpass] > the section of El Camino Real adjacent to Ravenswood would also have to be dropped.

That intersection may have the opposite problem with an overpass. An overpass will not only need to be high enough to clear the train, it'll need to clear electrified-caltrain wires. That requires an overpass that is higher than an underpass would need to be dug. I would be surprised if an overpass could be constructed that cleared Caltrain and the electrified wires, while returning to El Camino's grade within the short distance between the train tracks and El Camino. I assume that overpasses have building code requirements for how steep the grade can be.

We'll see. If that's what Menlo Park wants to do, I wish you good luck.


7 people like this
Posted by Gerturde
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 14, 2016 at 7:36 pm

I hope the Middle underpass won't affect the wonderful footpath, used by many, that runs along the railroad tracks on the Alma side.


2 people like this
Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 14, 2016 at 10:40 pm

Re the bike / pedestrian underpass - this is a huge connectivity gap (particularly for pedestrians), and really ought to be doable for about a tenth of the cost shown. You're basically putting a reinforced tunnel in a berm, wide enough for bike/ped use only. should not be rocket science.

As for the Ravenswood crossing - I suspect the least impractical option, given current constraints, is something like University Ave in Palo Alto where the train goes up some and the road goes down some. You split the difference, it's non-ideal but workable all around.


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Posted by Debbie Hall
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 15, 2016 at 6:56 pm

It would be interesting to learn what it cost for the pedestrian/ bike underpass in Palo Alto near PAMF. Anyone have that data?


4 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 15, 2016 at 6:59 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

It is quite obvious from a cost and practicality and ease-of-implementation, a "split the difference" type of underpass is the way to go at Ravenswood.

The tracks go up maybe 10 feet and the road dips down maybe 8 feet to achieve the necessary clearance for trucks and buses.

This is the least disruptive for the rail and the road network, costs the least and doesn't "break" the Alma and El Camino connections with Ravenswood.

This has been discussed in exquisite detail numerous times on Clem Tillier's excellent and well-reasoned/researched Caltrain-HSR Compatibility Blog: Web Link


2 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 16, 2016 at 12:09 am

It would be great if there were estimated costs for all the possible Ravenswood grade separation options (i.e. road overpass, road underpass, track overpass, track underpass, and split the difference). All of Clem's links to grade separation studies are broken, probably because the studies are old. It's not clear what the estimated cost of each option is or which rail crossings were studied.

I can see how the split the difference option would be cheapest *if* multiple grade separations were done concurrently. That is a big if because one grade separation is expensive; multiple ones significantly increase the cost.

Caltrain probably would agree that Ravenswood is one of the most pressing crossings to grade separate. They just wouldn't agree to a plan that raised the tracks, forcing them to grade separate more adjacent road crossings.

If only Ravenswood is planned for grade separation in the near future, then I would expect a road underpass (without changing the rail elevation) would be the cheapest option.

Clem has a great post about the expected order of grade separation work along the Caltrain tracks. He expects Menlo Park's (and Atherton's and Palo Alto's) grade separations to be done last:
Web Link


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Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 16, 2016 at 7:01 am

It's great that the City is investigating the train crossing options. Since residents need to know which options are the most promising It should start with making rough cost estimates and identifying potential funding sources BEFORE much time and city money is spent on comprehensive evaluations. It would also be valuable to understand the primary problems and potential solutions associated with each design so trade-offs can be intelligently discussed.


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Posted by Clem
a resident of another community
on Jan 16, 2016 at 11:53 am

@Apple: thanks for pointing out the link rot. I have updated the links in my blog article on Menlo Park. The city's official web page on the topic of railroad grade separations can be found here:

Web Link

It contains all the materials that came out of the previous round of studies in 2003 - 2004. None of the fundamentals have changed, and I imagine any new study will draw largely similar conclusions where technical feasibility is concerned.


1 person likes this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 16, 2016 at 12:18 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

@Apple, good point. A "split-the-difference" (tracks up a bit, road down a bit) grade separation could be problematic without also separating Oak Grove.

That said, Menlo really _ought_ to at least do Oak Grove and Ravenswood as a pair in one larger project. No sense in doing those station "bookending" crossings separately. Mobilize the construction crews once and get it over with and done all at the same time.

I say "at least" because Menlo needs to think about what to do with Glenwood and Encinal too. It might be possible to close one and dip the other under the tracks ... but no so sure there.


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Posted by big picture
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 16, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Some have proposed impractical solutions to stifle the grade separation project. The cost of "doing nothing" can be measured in human lives lost.

Excavating a giant underpass with 15 foot concrete walls will make our downtown look like a freeway interchange, and will require a pump station to keep it from becoming a lake.

A split grade will be the least expensive/destructive option, and will allow for the Middle Ave bike crossing to function without dipping too far below grade. Putting the bike crossing at Willow will be even better because that tracks are already far above grade at Willow.


4 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 16, 2016 at 4:58 pm

From Clem's link to Menlo Park's rail grade separation page, there are two alternatives under consideration:

1) Undercrossing Alternative: Maintain the existing Caltrain tracks, and tunnel Ravenswood Avenue under the tracks.
2) Hybrid or Split Alternative: Partially raise the Caltrain tracks and partially lower the roadways under the tracks. This alternative would need to consider all four Menlo Park crossings for potential impacts.

It's clear most locals prefer option 2. My guess is the folks paying for most of the grade separation project, the county and state, prefer option 1.

They would agree with everyone's logic here that it's more efficient to grade separate all four crossings at once. However, it probably will cost another $100M or so for each additional grade separation. It will be tough to convince them on option 2 with so many other competing demands for the same money.

For example, the city of San Mateo is preparing to break ground on its 25th Ave grade separation in early 2017. That is going to cost $165M with the county and state picking up the vast majority of the cost.
Web Link

Another possible source of funding is for Menlo Park to provide most of the funding for the three additional grade separations. Otherwise, they're at the mercy of whatever the county and state decide to do.


2 people like this
Posted by Stan
a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2016 at 10:15 am

Grade separation at Ravenswood has been investigated before. A detailed study came out in the late 80's (I believe) in which much of the gym and library on the two close corners disappear as a result of the large trench to accommodate a road going under the tracks. Property on the El Camino side of the tracks, likely all the way to El Camino, is also consumed as a result of an underpass. In addition, if Menlo Park is myopic and only considers the Ravenswood crossing as an isolated issue, rather than thinking of all the crossings in Menlo Park, and possibly into Atherton and Alma in Palo Alto, it will either be the keystone for future grade separations close by, or will have to be replaced if regional, and possibly different, grade separations ever happen. The reason is that if you raise or lower the tracks anywhere, the rail grade can not exceed 1%, 2% if UP agrees. It's simply the maximum grade for trains to operate. I prefer trenching the tracks all along the Peninsula, which is costly, but causes the least disruption to existing surface streets and property near the tracks everywhere.


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2016 at 12:22 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

@Stan, sounds like you're quoting a "scare" study if it claimed a hybrid grade sep would cause the disappearance of "much of the gym and library on the two close corners". Either that ...or it was for a full road-only underpass without raising the tracks. Your preferred trenching of the railroad is far from problem free as well ... consider San Francisquito Creek, for just one ...


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Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 17, 2016 at 1:09 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

How did San Carlos manage to do it?


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Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 17, 2016 at 1:55 pm

San Carlos took the sensible route of elevating the tracks.


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Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 17, 2016 at 1:58 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

San Carlos actually went with the "half and half" solution. They raised the tracks and lowered the road. That said, I was more interested in how they paid for it.


2 people like this
Posted by JU
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 17, 2016 at 2:11 pm

Recent San Mateo County grade separation projects have been funded by a combination of county (SMCTA measure A sales tax), state, and federal funds. To qualify for funding, a proposal needs to be submitted to the SMCTA and other various state and federal agencies. It appears that a large chunk of peninsula grade separation projects have been funded by measure A money. However, to get approved for funds, SMCTA will likely require the project be compatible with HSR blended system. Not sure if they are still insisting on the 4 track design compatibility. For instance, San Mateo 25th ave (elevated rail design) is seeking SMCTA funds and also HSR funds (total 165 million). I believe their design is consistent with what HSR had in mind.

If Menlo Park (or any other city) wants to apply for that money, submitting designs (e.g. trenching) will likely be deemed impossible to fund by the various agencies. The most recent project completed was San Bruno at $160 million. Approximately $200 million is projected to be left for the remainder of Measure A. Here’s a link to the SMCTA grade separation program.
Web Link

Just for reference, the open trench design of Alameda Corridor in So Cal (20 miles, completed 2002) cost 2.4 billion. Palo Alto’s estimate for grade separation for trenching in south PA comes in at 500 million-1 billion. I would love to have the tracks buried, but the costs alone means that it has virtually zero chance of ever being built.


6 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 17, 2016 at 6:13 pm

The situation is pretty straightforward once you have some background on local politics. The San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA) is pushing for the Ravenswood underpass option. Menlo Park is pushing for the split option for all four grade crossings.

SMCTA wants the Ravenswood option because they know that crossing is dangerous, but don't want to spend money near term on the three other not as dangerous, lower traffic crossings. There are other high danger, high traffic grade crossings in the county they would rather address first. Politically, other county cities are not going to be happy if all their tax money got spent in Menlo Park. The tax dollars need to be spread out more evenly. San Mateo and Burlingame have their own requested grade separations.

SMCTA has all the power here because they have the money. San Bruno's grade separation was primarily funded by them. I'm pretty sure Belmont and San Carlos had their grade separations funded by them. San Mateo's application for a grade separation is proposed to be primarily funded by SMCTA.

I wouldn't be surprised if SMCTA gave Menlo Park the choice of Ravenswood or nothing. Menlo Park would acquiesce. They couldn't let an unsafe crossing remain as is, even if it's not the best long term choice.

If Menlo Park really wants the split option or a trench for all four grade crossings, the solution is simple, but politically difficult. The city needs to pass a bond to fund what SMCTA won't.


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2016 at 9:28 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

San Bruno's project grade-separated (eliminated) two crossings: San Bruno Ave and San Mateo Ave. It also included an all-new elevated station with dual platforms, elevators, artsy features, landscaping and a new parking lot in place of a lumber yard. It also created a new bike/ped underpass at Walnut Street.

Yes, the San Mateo Co. Transportation Authority (SMCTA), which oversees the disbursement of Measure A sales tax funds, has had a major role in funding all SMCo. grade-separation projects.

San Mateo's 25th Ave. project includes a new relocated Hillsdale Caltrain station, as well as new bike/ped/auto underpasses to better connect the huge ongoing transit-oriented development (TOD) on the former Bay Meadows racetrack site with the El Camino side.


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Posted by big picture
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 18, 2016 at 5:30 am

Caltrain was able to elevate the tracks in San Bruno and San Carlos but incrementally adding ballast rock over time, in certain situations retaining walls were added. Building a trench in the existing right-of-way, would be like jacking up your house to build a basement. People don't generally do this because the cost is astronomical, and it's not safe to occupy the house while it's jacked up. With 80 thousand people commuting on Caltrain every weekday, Caltrain cannot simply rip up the existing railroad. In Menlo Park and Atherton, there is simply no place to build and operate a temporary railroad while a trench is excavated in the existing right-of-way.


4 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 18, 2016 at 9:12 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

It would be more expensive but a bored tunnel permits the existing train tracks to reman in use while the tunnel is being built. This is a proven technology that has been used all over the world including here in the South Bay to bore a tunnel beneath the Bay from East Palo Alto to Fremont for the Hetch Hetchy water line.


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Posted by why impossible?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 18, 2016 at 9:38 am

anyone who goes to Europe sees tunnels through mountains, undergrounded transit in neighborhoods and downtowns. Surely in one of the wealthiest communities in the world, we can find a way to fund the right placement of the trains! When I refer to "right" I mean in the context of the reality that this is a decision that should last at least 100 years, and serve us and many gernerations well for that time. Yes, this it would be very expensive to underground or trench the train but it is THE ONLY long-term (think 100 years) design that makes any sense.

The air rights over the tracks have immense value. Agencies advocating transit-oriented development should be delighted with the incredible possibilities - and help fund - more transit-oriented density in the heart of town.

Wouldn't there be value placed by our residents and businesses, too? And some creativity and funding?


This is a bright and creative community. How about trying to figure it out rather than claim it's impossible. Clearly as other countries have shown it is not impossible. Difficult but not impossible.


5 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 18, 2016 at 9:42 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Feb 25, 2015 at 2:36 pm
"One thought is the put the trains underground, use the surface rights above it for housing in the stretches between stations and use the surface above the stations for transit connections and parking. The surface area of the current right of way is very valuable land - particularly in Atherton - and could generate a lot of the needed capital.

Why not take this as an opportunity to design a multi-dimensional, multi-purpose system that uses the existing right-of-way that includes CalTrain, HSR, utility conduits for telephone and internet cables, surface housing with high density housing around each station. And add a pedestrian path and a separate bicycle path on the surface along the entire right of way. And include 3 or 4 12" conduits for the technology of the future.

We should think of this right of way as an integrated multi-modal communications spine for the peninsula."

Do it once and do it right.


2 people like this
Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 18, 2016 at 10:01 am

Given the level of dysfunctional government we see, plus all of the NIMBYs and BANANAs that will try to stop any project (OMG! There might be some equipment driving through!), it'll take 100 years to get that underground system built. Better to go for achievable incremental improvements, and divide and conquer the NIMBYs.


1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 18, 2016 at 10:14 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" Better to go for achievable incremental improvements"

This is called sub optimization.

And history shows that there have been very few achieved incremental improvements in Menlo Park..


Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jan 18, 2016 at 11:21 am

The tunnel will not happen because nobody has the $10,000+ per inch required, and if they did, there would be far better uses for the money.


6 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 18, 2016 at 11:23 am

@Peter

Sub optimization is what Caltrain planning is all about. I can't think of a single thing they've done that was intelligent from a long term view. Caltrain only focuses on solving short term problems. A bureaucrat's #1 job is to ensure he has something to do in the future so that he can keep his job. If he actually solved the problem long term, there would be no more need to employ him to put a band aid on the next problem.

Putting aside the bureaucracy, your idea of burying the train line is politically difficult due to the expense. The train line would need to be dug fairly deep to go under Atherton Channel and San Francisquito Creek. A favorable cost estimate would be $1 billion for the Menlo Park portion, but it will likely be more. Where is this money going to come from? No way Menlo Park will agree to a $1 billion bond with 2/3 voter approval when more than 2/3 of the voters live far enough not to notice considerable noise problems. A split the difference option would cost half or less with SMCTA kicking in a quarter of the money. That's more palatable, but it's still a ton of money to get a bond passed.

With that said, your idea is the best long term choice. It's just not financially, politically, nor bureaucratically feasible. That's why we're left with three imperfect short term choices: 1) split the difference, 2) underground Ravenswood, and 3) do nothing. And with SMCTA holding the money, Menlo Park will be forced to decide between #2 and #3 unless it wants to kick in a few hundred million for #1.


1 person likes this
Posted by why impossible?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 18, 2016 at 11:39 am

@ MP Res - "incremental improvements".

This is an enormous capital project. An "incremental" improvement is only valuable if it leads to the long term goal. There is no goal.

If grade separations occur, be prepared to throw them away when the long term plan for the train is implemented. Although a "sunk cost", those costs for creating and then demolishing them must be added to the cost of whatever that long term plan is.

Use of air rights above an undergrounded train would bring ongoing revenue that would help offset costs related to construction. Such offsets would not exist for other options. Comparing alternatives needs to consider "net" cost over a long period of time.

I think there would be tremendous support in Atherton, MP, PA for undergrounding the train. How about some leadership from those who are in office?


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 18, 2016 at 11:57 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

@why_impossible? wrote "if grade separations occur, be prepared to throw them away when the long term plan for the train is implemented"

I cannot imagine any actual (or even reasonably plausible) "long term plan" for the Caltrain corridor which would cause a grade separation to be "thrown away". Possibly modified or widened ... but "thrown away"?

Further explanation or examples of this please?


1 person likes this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 18, 2016 at 1:05 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"I cannot imagine any actual (or even reasonably plausible) "long term plan" for the Caltrain corridor which would cause a grade separation to be "thrown away"

If Menlo Park build an undercrossing and then a decision is made to trench or tunnel an entire segment of the CalTrain right of way the new MP undercrossing would have to be "thrown away".

Short term solutions to long term problems are usually very expensive in the long run.


12 people like this
Posted by Train Fan
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 18, 2016 at 1:10 pm

Apple wrote:
"(SMCTA) is pushing for the Ravenswood underpass option. Menlo Park is pushing for the split option for all four grade crossings...[SMCTA doesn't] want to spend money near term on the three other not as dangerous, lower traffic crossings. There are other high danger, high traffic grade crossings in the county they would rather address first."

Exactly. Apple summarized things better than I could have. (and I take a bit of satisfaction in seeing that my 1st post on this matter was more on-point than I was given credit for :) )

It also should be pointed out that Menlo Park appears to be in line with other municipalities for funding, with San Mateo and Burlingame in front. Based on other articles I read, it's roughly 1st come/1st serve for dollars, with some priority to high-issue intersections. While Ravenswood has issues, it may not be the highest-issue intersection within San Mateo. So it's unlikely Menlo Park would get SMCTA funding for grade separation at low-priority intersections like Oak Grove, Glenwood, Encinal any time soon.

So anything requiring any Caltrain ROW grade changes is effectively a non-starter using the current sources of funding. So discussions on berms, trenches, tunnels and hybrid grade solutions with THIS source of funding are pointless. Again, I'm supportive of trenches (and tunnels), but this source of funding can't address those options.

Come up with another funding plan 1st, then trenches, hybrids, etc start to become viable solutions. Until then, it's only Ravenswood and it's either an underpass or an overpass (and it sounds like SMCTA and I are in agreement on the best strategy, FWIW); or neither if the funding gets acquired by other projects first.

Case closed.


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 18, 2016 at 2:14 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

@Peter, indeed, by definition, if one decrees that a grade sep be fundamentally redesigned, that's sort of begging the question. I don't see that scenario as the slightest bit likely -- nor has it ever happened ... and we can see it hasn't held back any of the other recent SMCo. grade seps: 5th Ave (unincorporated), Jefferson (RWC), Howard, Brittan & Holly (all San Carlos), Harbor & Ralston (Belmont), 42 Ave. (San Mateo), 25th et al (San Mateo: moving ahead), San Mateo bridges replacement/elevation project, Millbrae Ave & Hillcrest Blvd. (Millbrae), San Mateo & San Bruno Avenues (San Bruno), Oyster Point (SSF) -- not to mention several new bike/ped undercrossings ...


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Posted by Stats
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jan 18, 2016 at 2:26 pm

A underground boring tunnel approach is the most natural long term solution, but it also has, by far, the greatest cost. The 1.7mi Central Subway in SF is mid-construction and will likely come in at about 1.5B$, about 1B$ / mile. Maybe the cost per mile would be half that for a longer, more suburban run with fewer obstacles and lower station density. Anybody know where we could find the 1.2B$ or so we would need to do a 2 mile underground run, including a San Francisquito creek underpass plus the entry ramps from Atherton and Palo Alto ?


1 person likes this
Posted by why impossible?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 18, 2016 at 3:15 pm

The undergrounding option avoids upfront costs of acquiring properties for above, or split, placement of tracks. Those costs must be added to those alternatives...and they are upfront.
The undergrounding option allows for revenue-producing uses at current grade. That revenue helps offset the higher costs. Unlike property acquisition costs that are upfront, these costs can be spread out over time. That's how bonds work.

This is only impossible because elected officials refuse to make it possible because they are oriented to the short term, not the long term best interests.
An undergrounded train would be by far the least disruptive to our communities. Construction disruption would take years, adding to already horrific traffic. The value of avoiding that disruption could be monetized in some way


2 people like this
Posted by Stan
a resident of another community
on Jan 18, 2016 at 8:23 pm

@ Reality Check

I didn't say anything about a hybrid grade separation, and I don't recall that the report from the 80's I mentioned being a hybrid crossing either. That report did, again as I recall, show that both the gym and the MP library close to that rail crossing, being partly consumed by the underpass. It was not a scare tactic. Underpasses require a large foot-print. Page Mill, Embarcadero, Jefferson in RWC, all good examples.

Tunneling is terribly expensive, but Peter Carpenter makes a good point, it could be done with no disruption of existing rail service, and likely permit 24-7 work with little to no impact on communities as the bore machines pass through.


6 people like this
Posted by Clem
a resident of another community
on Jan 18, 2016 at 9:52 pm

> Anybody know where we could find the 1.2B$ or so we would need to do a 2 mile underground run

@Stats: Great question! A bake sale, or maybe a car wash?

Seriously, the talk of an underground railroad through suburbia is as ridiculous today as it was in 2009. There is no financial case for it, and any supposed (and severely impaired) "air rights" wouldn't begin to close that case. Not even by an order of magnitude. Nobody has come up with a serious financial proposal, one that doesn't rely on unicorns and rainbows.

@Stan: the property impacts of the options studied by the city in 2003-2004 are detailed in the presentation included in the link I provided above. The situation has not materially changed.


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Posted by reason
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 19, 2016 at 11:04 am

Consider the cost of building and maintaining underground Caltrain stations in Menlo Park and Atherton. Imagine waiting for the train in this crypt while a freight train passes by.


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Posted by Train Fan
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 19, 2016 at 12:33 pm

> @Stats: Great question! A bake sale, or maybe a car wash?

The money can come from the FTA, the State of California, the MTC, San Mateo County, with contributions from each of the towns/cities that would be trenched or tunneled.

This is EXACTLY what was done for San Francisco for the subway project that is being worked on RIGHT NOW:

"The budget to complete the Central Subway is $1.578 billion. The project is funded primarily through the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program. In October 2012, the FTA approved a Full Funding Grant Agreement, the federal commitment of funding through New Starts, for the Central Subway for a total amount of $942.2 million.[6] The Central Subway is also funded by the State of California, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and the City and County of San Francisco."

(Source: Web Link)

San Francisco contributes relatively little to this project in comparison to the total cost. Silicon Valley should get a similar deal.


> the talk of an underground railroad through suburbia is as ridiculous today as it was in 2009.

Statements like this get my blood boiling. San Francisco has/had even more logistical and financial issues to overcome with tunneling than Silicon Valley and the Caltrain ROW, yet the SF project is currently underway. That is indisputable.

The problem is that we get TERRIBLE representation in congress and in Sacramento. Frankly, Silicon Valley towns and cities are more worthy of funding than San Francisco; THIS is where the bulk jobs are. THIS is where the bulk of people commute too. THIS is where the bulk of the Bay Area economy is. Calling Silicon Valley "suburbia" does it a huge disservice; this isn't Littleton CO, Berwyn IL, or Eden Prarie MN. This is a part of the heart of the technology world.

If you want to call Silicon Valley a suburb, then you have to call San Francisco a suburb, too. Yet it gets funding for projects, not because it's worthy but because it's better politically connected.

If Silicon Valley towns want a stronger voice and better treatment, we should be demanding more from our representatives, or replace them.


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Posted by steve schmidt
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 19, 2016 at 1:20 pm

@reason: To expand on the tunnel vision: A tunnel needs to be at least 90’ deep to be structurally sound; to accommodate just two tracks, 40 feet in diameter and maybe 70 feet wide at the stations. As reason wonders, how inviting to riders will the descent and the waiting platforms be? How and where does it transition back to the surface? Will there be limits on how many homeless take shelter down there? And where will the money come from? As others have opined, it will be billions to go from 5th Avenue in Redwood City to Mtn. View. Menlo Park can barely come up with 1/3 of the $600K required for engineering a pedestrian undercrossing for Stanford’s Plaza!

I don’t hear complaints from residents of San Carlos about the aesthetics of their elevated Caltrain alignment, where east-west mobility, quiet and safety has been vastly improved by their vision.


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 19, 2016 at 3:19 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

My preferred alternative, because it creates new opportunities at the surface level, is a bored tunnel. Certainly expensive but it would create the best possible solution at the surface level - no grade separation needed, new land for high density housing and a perfect North-South Class I bikeway and pedestrian pathway

If that is not feasible then I prefer raising the tracks between Palo Alto, where they are already partially elevated at University Ave, and Redwood City.

Unfortunately this soution will have to be forced on Atherton where such a solution would be politically unacceptable.

And raising the tracks or putting them in an open trench would require huge dislocations during construction to permit the trains to continue to operate during construction.


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Posted by Clem
a resident of another community
on Jan 19, 2016 at 8:36 pm

The funding agencies cited above will fund transportation infrastructure that improves mobility, by carrying more people more efficiently and quickly from where they are to where they need to go. That's how they prioritize their scarce dollars.

A multi billion dollar tunnel through flat suburbia does not improve mobility. It offers no additional capacity or speed compared to vastly cheaper alternatives. That's why it won't ever be funded by any of those agencies.

I just don't know how many decades it will take for that reality to properly set in.


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Posted by reason
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 19, 2016 at 10:21 pm

Exactly @steve_schmidt, underground suburban Caltrain stations will never pan out. Some commenters talk about Caltrain like a sewer pipe that can be buried so people won't need to look at it. This rail line does not carry sewage, Caltrain carries about 80 thousand people per day. Those people would otherwise be on the roads which are far beyond capacity during rush hour.


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Posted by Apples and Oranges
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jan 19, 2016 at 10:38 pm

@ Steve Schmidt : I don't hear complaints from residents of San Carlos about the aesthetics of their elevated Caltrain alignment, where east-west mobility, quiet and safety has been vastly improved by their vision.

Perhaps you don't hear complaints because the situation is quite different in San Carlos. The tracks run directly adjacent to El Camino. No businesses, and certainly no homes, abut the tracks, and my understanding is that minimal, if any, private land was taken by eminent domain to create the crossings. You may drive down ECR in San Carlos with your windows closed for a couple minutes and not mind a train high above you on the berm, but I doubt you'd feel the same way if those same tracks were in your backyard. Here in MP, businesses and homes run pretty much the entire length of track, with residences running from Oak Grove to Holbrook Palmer. Equating San Carlos to Menlo Park makes no sense at all.

By the way, weren't you once a city council member, or perhaps our mayor? If so, I'm surprised you are not more attuned to the differences between the two cities .


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Posted by reason
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 20, 2016 at 12:22 am

@Apples and Oranges: No businesses, and certainly no homes, abut the tracks (in san Carlos)

Actually, there are about six blocks of houses across from the tracks just North of Holly Street in San Carlos. We expect these residents are pleased that full grade separation means no more bells or horns every time a train passes by. Quiet trains, just another reason they call San Carlos the city of good living.


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Posted by Apples and Oranges
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jan 20, 2016 at 8:01 am

@ reason:

You are still taking apples and oranges. The San Carlos neighborhood you point to is close to the tracks, but physically separated by Old Country Rd. The tracks are close, but not in back yards. This neighborhood is comparable to MP's Linfield Oaks. However, further north, from Oak Grove tot HP park, you have a dozen apartment buildings and two dozen single family homes that direct abut the tracks. Tracks on a berm have no place in this environment.


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Posted by reason
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 20, 2016 at 10:05 am

@Apples and Oranges: The tracks are close, but not in back yards.

If the tracks are in back yards, then there is no place to build a temporary railroad while trenching the right-of-way... unless those houses are demolished. Fortunately, the cost of purchasing all those lots along on right-of-way in Menlo Park and Atherton is less that 1% of the cost of digging a billion dollar tunnel.


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Posted by Train Fan
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 20, 2016 at 11:00 am

Clem wrote:
> That's how they prioritize their scarce dollars.

I chuckled at this. Your implication is that these finance-allocation decisions are purely (or mostly) impartial and that politics have little to do with how taxpayer money is doled out on public works projects.

In a state that has the HSR boondoggle and the Bay Bridge fiasco, your naïveté is amusing.


reason wrote:
> If the tracks are in back yards, then there is no place to build a temporary railroad while trenching

whatever issues there are with creating shoefly tracks apply equally to both trenching and berms. So...you do not support adding a berm to the Caltrain ROW, correct?


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Posted by Apples and Oranges
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jan 20, 2016 at 1:03 pm

@ reason: "Fortunately, the cost of purchasing all those lots along on right-of-way in Menlo Park and Atherton is less that 1% of the cost of digging a billion dollar tunnel."

Ooh, guess you don't live near the tracks or know anyone who does.

If you think that cost is the only issue worth considering, and not the hundreds of MP residents (figure 1 - 5 per dwelling) who live along the tracks and whose lives would be severely impacted, then I'd suggest that your view is unreasonably narrow.

Creating a berm like the one in San Carlos would be disastrous for a large number of people who live and work on - and near -- the tracks. Whatever happened to Context Sensitive Solutions?


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 20, 2016 at 5:33 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

Houses and backyards are right up against elevated tracks in numerous areas between downtown San Mateo and Burlingame. In San Bruno too. Between SJ Diridon and Tamien too. And along numerous parts of BART.

In only a few years, Caltrain will be running new electric multiple unit trains which will be far quieter than today's trains (and even quieter than inexcusably noisy BART with its corrugated rails and cylindrical wheel profiles). Elevated trains near homes is common all over the world.

Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton would hardly be unique or special in having elevated tracks running past backyards and homes. Railroads do not need Atherton's -- or any other city's permission -- to elevate their tracks. Life goes on, only more quietly without all the horn-blowing and random carnage of scofflaws who get themselves and/or their vehicles hit at crossings.


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Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 20, 2016 at 5:51 pm

Train Fan is correct that it's mostly politics. Just today, BART found the money to equip real cameras on all their trains to replace the decoys people are nonplussed about. These cameras will be added to the old train cars, the same train cars that will be scrapped in a few years. Wouldn't the smart way to allocate scarce dollars be just to live with the decoys a few more years? Yeah, but the political environment couldn't live with that.

Even grade separating Ravenswood rose to a higher political priority due to the woman's death last year at the crossing. SMCTA would not be as interested in funding the grade separation if not for that event. It's not efficient to grade separate just one crossing and leave the nearby ones untouched. The political calculus changed the funding priority, but only for that single crossing.

The problem with turning to the peninsula's elected legislators in Washington and Sacramento is that they do not have the seniority nor position of their SF counterparts. That's why SF gets so much funding. The whole reason HSR goes to SF, rather than Oakland, or just end in San Jose is due to SF's political pull. From a practical standpoint, who builds a land-based transit hub at the end of a peninsula, especially when that peninsula already has rail service?

SF has Pelosi and Feinstein advocating for them at the federal level. At the state level, SF has Brown, Newsom, and Harris. Boxer is busy advocating for the north bay's SMART train funding. After that, their concern is for BART to San Jose money. Whatever is left, then gets doled out to SoCal and the Central Valley.

No peninsula politician is going to take funding away from these politicians' favorite projects if they care anything about their political survival.


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 20, 2016 at 10:48 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

@Apple, you were doing fine until you blew it.

Any student of worldwide HSR learnings and best practices -- which you are obviously not -- can tell you of the value and importance to system utility/convenience (=ridership & revenue) how important it is to directly serve dense city centers -- such as SF. -- with a one-seat (no transfer) ride. Don't take my word for it if you don't want ... feel free to do a little research / review of the literature/papers/studies on your own if you wish. You'll see.

And now ... back to our (your) regularly scheduled programming.

Yeah, Ms. Koo could have just easily been killed after getting herself stuck on the Oak Grove crossing. And in that case, my guess is that the political pressure you spoke of would still be there, but not nearly as great due to Oak Grove being a -- relatively speaking -- a far lower traffic volume crossing.


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Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 21, 2016 at 1:04 am

@Reality Check

Oakland is more centrally located than SF is. It's easier for the average Bay Area person to get to. The East Bay is the most populous Bay Area subregion. Alameda and Contra counties will see their populations rise much faster than the SF peninsula because they still have room to build. Many SF businesses, such as the headquarters of Uber and Cost Plus, are moving to the East Bay as they look for room to expand (and their employees get tired of the Bay Bridge commute).

Speaking of best practices, HSR takes a detour through the Central Valley, rather than a direct route to LA. What economic study justified that? None. That was a political decision so that Central Valley politicians would ok HSR. When the competition is airlines, HSR cannot afford to make SF to LA trips more expensive and longer.

Of course, we all know that HSR studies are 100% accurate without a political agenda. For example, when Prop 1A was on the ballot, the HSR cost estimate was $33 billion. The estimate grew to $68 billion in a later study, convenient politically after Prop 1A passed. Later on, the cost estimate grew again to $98 billion. That caused a big political backlash, which forced officials to eliminate high speed service between SF and San Jose and between LA and Anaheim. That allowed the cost estimate to return to $68 billion.

It's amazing how the studies commissioned by politicians seem to always agree with their agenda. The politicians paying for the studies are not looking for objectivity; they are looking for propaganda with a scientific veneer.


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Posted by reason
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 21, 2016 at 1:19 am

@ Train Fan: whatever issues there are with creating shoefly tracks apply equally to both trenching and berms. So...you do not support adding a berm to the Caltrain ROW, correct?

No, the bern in San Carlos was created in-place, by pulling up one side of the track on nights and weekends, to add dirt and ballast material. Elevating the tracks 10 feet is not a big deal. Burying tracks is something that has never happened on the Caltrain line.

A trench would need to first be dig out and then reenforced. For obvious reasons, you can't construct a trench right next to an existing rail line. When the underpass at Oregon Expressway floods, drivers find another way Alma. A Caltrain trench would need to somehow pass through the various creeks without flooding.


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 21, 2016 at 1:54 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

@reason: who told you there was no shoofly for the San Carlos grade separation project? They were wrong!

A long shoofly and temporary station platforms were built between the historic San Carlos depot and El Camino Real.

Here's a 1996 video shot from the new Howard Ave. overpass showing a southbound train on the shoofly crossing Brittan Ave. (when you first hear the horn) and then Howard Ave.: Web Link

That said, it should be possible to slowly elevate the tracks in place by small amounts over successive nights and weekends ... but in this case, it was probably a lot easier to just build a shoofly so they could build the overpasses, new bike/ped tunnels and new station platforms without trying to work around train schedules and off-hour shutdowns.


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Posted by why impossible?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 21, 2016 at 9:26 am

@Clem - "flat suburbia"?
More than half of Menlo Park homes already are multi-family dwellings. The DTSP's UPzoning allows considerable density in the downtown area (IF housing is built) and the ConnectMenlo effort would add considerably more.
There WILL be more transit riders as congestion increases. That already is happening. Time to take a long term view and not base long-term decisions on the past.

@reality check Google maps show that houses in San Carlos are separated by a street from the raised track. That would not be the case here.
It appears that there are some homes directly next to the tracks in San Mateo and Burlingame only between Monte Diablo and Peninsula Ave. The rest are separated by a street.


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Posted by Clem
a resident of another community
on Jan 21, 2016 at 1:56 pm

Consider population density in people per square mile:

55,000 Paris
27,858 New York City
18,187 San Francisco
8,483 San Mateo
5,600 San Jose
3,955 Redwood City
3,378 Menlo Park <------- flat suburbia
2,500 Palo Alto
1,400 Atherton


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 21, 2016 at 2:56 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

@why impossible? good, you cite exactly why I didn't list San Carlos as having "houses and backyards up against elevated tracks". The point is that the world keeps turning and life goes on in places that do.


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Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 29, 2016 at 2:25 pm

It looks like Burlingame will be competing for the same grade separation SMCTA funds Menlo Park will be requesting.
Web Link

We already know that San Mateo's 25th Ave grade separation project is further along and probably will get first dibs on funds.

From a money perspective, it doesn't look good for grade separating more than one crossing unless we want to wait for a larger chunk of funding to become available, but that could take a long time. Grade separating low traffic crossings (i.e. not Ravenswood) is low on SMCTA's priority list.


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Posted by long view
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Feb 1, 2016 at 10:49 am

our city and council need to take the very long view about the entire train corridor, El Camino, and the crossing streets. Then, make short term decisions in that perspective. I do not believe that is what is happening now. Instead, a couple of short term changes to only a few intersections are being examined.


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Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Feb 1, 2016 at 2:33 pm

@long view

Everyone knows exactly what the best long term grade separation solution from a cost perspective is. The problem is that the solution for the entire rail corridor is going to cost billions. Right now, there's a few hundred million on hand to spend.

If Menlo Park is only interested in the long term solution, SMCTA will keep turning down their application for funds. Instead, they will send what's available to San Mateo and Burlingame, which are proposing single road grade separation projects.

And when the next round of hundred of millions become available, you bet these cities will be back again to finish grade separating the rest of their respective cities.

That's how this game is played.


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Posted by reason
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 2, 2016 at 8:58 am

@Apple opens with, "Everyone knows...", but I don't know what @Apple is talking about. I truth, "everyone" rarely knows or agrees on much. In situations like this, people are motivated by fear and self interest. My fear is that grade separations will be delayed and more people will die each year. Residents living next to the tracks will have an improved quality of life with grade separations; no more horns from passing trains, and the threat of derailment will be greatly diminished.


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Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Feb 2, 2016 at 5:03 pm

@reason

Let me explain. If we want to grade separate all four MP rail crossings, it's cheapest if it is done all at once with a "split" setup. If we do it one at a time over two to three decades, it gets very expensive.

It's sort of like buying on layaway vs. outright. If you have cash flow problems, layaway will get you there. But it's cheaper if you can pay for all of it upfront.

Doing it one at a time likely means trenching the road under the current rail elevation. There's a whole host of costly issues when you do that, such as flooding when there's rain, eminent domain of adjoining properties, and requiring road mitigation work to connect those properties to the trenched road.


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Posted by reason
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 2, 2016 at 8:05 pm

@Apple, thanks for the clarification. Yes, the only way to work on intersection at a time is to go under. Going under is a horrible idea.


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda

on Sep 26, 2017 at 2:06 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


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