The Menlo Park City Council's answer to the nearly $400 million question – "One grade separation, or three, at Menlo Park's Caltrain crossings?" – will have to wait.
About the only thing the council, minus Councilwoman Catherine Carlton, could agree on, following a lengthy discussion at its Oct. 10 meeting, was to table a vote on the matter until she was present.
Grade separations reconfigure a crossing so a road goes over or under rail tracks, improving traffic flow (since vehicles don't have to stop for trains) and safety.
A two-year study has yielded two options, from which the City Council was asked to pick one for further study:
● Option 1: Tunnel Ravenswood Avenue about 22 feet beneath the Caltrain tracks at an estimated cost of $160 million to $200 million and an estimated construction duration of three to four years. Access to Alma Street from Ravenswood Avenue (a popular route to the Civic Center) would be eliminated.
● Option 2: Raise the Caltrain tracks and lower the roads to allow vehicles to pass beneath the rails at three crossings: Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood avenues. The estimated cost is $310 million to $390 million. Estimated construction duration is four to five years. This option would require creating an above-ground berm that the train would travel on. At its maximum, the berm would be 10 feet high at Ravenswood and Oak Grove avenues, and about 5 feet at Glenwood Avenue.
Mayor Kirsten Keith and Councilman Rich Cline favored Option 2 with further provisions; Councilman Peter Ohtaki favored Option 1, and Councilman Ray Mueller favored waiting to move forward with any preferred option until more information is available from Palo Alto about the feasibility of pursuing a trench or tunnel.
The vote was also split when the matter came before two commissions that advise the council.
The Planning Commission favored Option 1 on a 4-2 vote with one commissioner absent. Commissioners cited their opposition to the berm in Option 2 and they noted that Option 1 would cause less disruption to the city during construction.
The Complete Streets Commission favored Option 2 on a 6-3 vote with one commissioner absent. Commissioners said they preferred having more grade separations and they noted that Option 2 would allow easier access to the library on Alma Street.
Working with other cities?
When the scope of the grade-separation study was established, the council agreed to limit the study to Menlo Park's city limits in order to complete the study, ideally in six months or less, according to Assistant Public Works Director Nikki Nagaya.
Now, two years later, council members and some members of the public have asked if the study's scope was comprehensive enough and inclusive of neighboring cities.
Ms. Keith said that while she supported moving ahead with selecting the three-separation option, city staff should find out where Atherton's Town Council stands on the concept of elevating the tracks. (City staff members have have met with Atherton's staff, but the matter has not been presented to the Town Council.)
If Atherton were open to allowing an elevated rail track in some portion of its boundaries, then a grade separation at Menlo Park's fourth rail crossing, Encinal Avenue, might be a possibility. That could happen via a viaduct (fully elevating the train tracks over Menlo Park crossings along the entire city) or a hybrid grade separation (raising the tracks and lowering the road to get enough clearance for traffic to flow beneath).
The viaduct idea was not studied formally, but former council members Steve Schmidt and Mickie Winkler, among others, have asked in recent weeks that it be evaluated further.
But pursuing a viaduct or a grade separation at Encinal Avenue could create new problems, according to city staff and consultants.
First, Ms. Nagaya said, separating Encinal Avenue from the Caltrain tracks near Atherton would require acquiring private property, which is why it wasn't pursued further in the study that was presented.
Furthermore, there could be substantial visual impacts to elevating the rail line. A viaduct structure would be about 22 feet high. Poles for an electrified Caltrain would add another 35 feet, which would make the structure nearly 60 feet high.
Councilman Ohtaki compared the viaduct concept to towering BART lines elevated in the East Bay, and noted that, in his experience, elevated trains make more noise and require tree removals.
Although an elevated train might make more mechanical noise, if all four rail crossings were separated from roads, then the city could become a "quiet zone" in which Caltrain wouldn't have to blare its earsplitting horn.
Noise studies haven't been done yet to see exactly what the auditory impacts would be, according to Assistant Transportation Engineer Angela Obeso.
If Encinal Avenue is not separated, then Ms. Keith said the city could consider installing a "quad" gate there instead, which could allow the city to ask Caltrain to make the city a "quiet zone."
A tunnel or trench?
Councilman Ray Mueller told the council he thinks the city should give more study to the option of tunneling the rail line through the city, and perhaps connecting to neighboring cities.
City staff said the tunnel and trench ideas were ruled out in previous studies because they're an order of magnitude more expensive than building grade separations.
"I've been convinced we need to study a tunnel. This is our one shot," he said. He referred to apparent widespread interest in Palo Alto in a tunnel or trench. He said he preferred to postpone a decision until the findings of consultant research in Palo Alto about such a project's feasibility and financing options are available. "I think we have enough residents in the city who would prefer to wait to hear what result of that effort is, (and) see if it's viable."
Councilman Rich Cline agreed he would support a tunnel over the three-separation option – but only if there's a dramatic change in the positions of Menlo Park's neighbors soon.
He called it a "massive mistake" to not tunnel the rail line, but said, "I have softened over time from the position I've had, which is 'bury it or bust,' because it requires multiple jurisdictions to be aligned to do that and none of our neighbors are."
Adina Levin, Menlo Park Complete Streets commissioner and executive director of Friends of Caltrain, speaking as an individual, expressed doubt about there being sufficient will in Menlo Park to commit to an excavation solution.
She told the council she has not seen "any evidence that we are seriously grappling" with the price tag of a trench or tunnel, which is likely to be hundreds of millions of dollars.
"The library makes us nervous," she said, referring to a later agenda item that involves the council trying to figure out how to raise an estimated $30 million to help fund a new library. "What about ten times that amount?"
Another potentially complicating factor with a tunnel or trench option, noted Ms. Nagaya, is that Caltrain may not support it, as it could be more logistically challenging to maintain and operate than an above-ground system.
"There's an outstanding question of liability and who absorbs that liability if someone chooses to move forward with an option that Caltrain doesn't support," she said.
On a deadline
Caltrain spokesperson Liz Scanlon told the council that there's a long list of cities along the Caltrain corridor, between San Francisco and San Jose, that are in different stages of planning for grade-separation projects.
There's a very limited amount of funding that must be split across multiple grade-separation projects in the county and region. Menlo Park's plans are currently behind Burlingame and San Mateo, but ahead of Redwood City and Palo Alto in the many-year process to pursue grade separations.
If the city doesn't pick an option soon, then other cities may overtake Menlo Park's place in the funding line, Ms. Scanlon said.
There have been routine studies of possible grade separations since the 1960s, with the most recent in 2003 to 2004.
Councilman Peter Ohtaki, who was the only council member in favor of the Ravenswood Avenue-only grade separation, said, "My overriding concern is that I'd really like to see this happen in our lifetime."
One logistical question left unanswered was how a shoofly, or temporary rail setup to keep Caltrain running during the project's construction, would work with space constraints through the city. Only preliminary engineering on that aspect of a potential project has been done, according to AECOM consultant Etty Mercurio.
One Menlo Park resident, who did not provide his name, but told the council he preferred to remain anonymous because of his employer, argued that transportation is changing quickly and many grade separations may not be needed. Within the next five to 10 years, he said, the landscape of transportation and its technologies could change dramatically, due, in part, to some of what's being developed in town, such as self-driving cars. He favored minimal changes.
"Don't build a giant Berlin Wall which makes a huge racket and lasts 100 years if you don't need it in five years," he said.
The matter may return to the council as soon as Oct. 17. The council meets 7 p.m. in the council chambers at 701 Laurel St. in the Menlo Park Civic Center.