By Marcy Abramowitz
Before the train leaves the station on the Menlo Park rail grade separation decision, the City Council will open up its options beyond the previously chosen Option A, a road underpass at Ravenswood Avenue, and Option C, three hybrid over/under crossings at Ravenswood, Oak Grove, and Glenwood avenues. The council's upcoming vote on Feb. 12, presumably for C, is in part a technicality to receive grant reimbursement for studies done to date. Let's get that done.
That vote is not the final say, however. This council, like the last, has expressed interest in exploring other options, including a tunnel or trench, as well as a fully elevated structure cutting north-south across the city.
While just about everyone can agree that putting the train below ground would be the ideal solution in terms of safety, aesthetics, and cross-town connectivity, the cost may be prohibitive. Like others, I hope that by working with neighboring communities we can find an innovative funding solution.
If the tracks must be elevated, there's far less consensus about how far up they should go. Despite some enthusiastic supporters, many, myself included, feel a fully elevated track would be inappropriate for Menlo Park. At a height of 50 feet, and running from south of Ravenswood to Encinal, this city-wide divider of track and catenary wires would be the tallest structure west of 101. Trains would be visible and audible from great distances, even without horns. Businesses and residents near the tracks would be moved literally into its shadows. It's no coincidence that so many cities across the U.S. are tearing down their elevated structures.
Fortunately, there is another viable choice that deserves serious consideration: the Menlo Park City Council's own Option B. Like Option C, Option B calls for hybrid over/under crossings at Ravenswood and Oak Grove, but it excludes Glenwood. In April 2017, the council voted to use limited funds to study Options A and C, reasoning that C would yield insights for B. Based on what we now know, B offers two big advantages over C:
● Significantly less cost and disruption. The city's vehicle crossing data shows that 75 percent of daily crossings take place at Ravenswood and Oak Grove, with just 13 percent at Glenwood. On a proportional basis, Option C's estimated $390 million, five-year construction plan across three crossings would cost 50 percent more and create 50 percent more headaches and disruption than Option B's two crossings, while providing limited additional benefit.
● Lower visible barrier. Option B's peak track height of 17 feet would be located (relatively) unobtrusively south of Ravenswood, roughly between the Arrillaga Recreation Center and the Big 5 retail store, and would come down to 6 feet by Oak Grove. By contrast, Option C's 10-foot berm would extend from Arrillaga/Big 5 all the way to Oak Grove before coming down to 5 feet at Glenwood, creating a significantly larger visual barrier on both sides.
Importantly, two grade-separated crossings are more than ample for Menlo Park's needs. Menlo Park's four crossings span only 0.6 miles in total, the highest density of rail crossings in any primarily residential area on the Peninsula. By comparison, Palo Alto averages a half-mile between crossings.
The choice of grade separation is likely to be the most consequential decision this council will make, since generations to come will live with the consequences. Hopefully, our council will choose an option that addresses necessary safety concerns, while also preserving as much of the character and sense of community that makes Menlo Park such a wonderful place to live. Option B deserves due consideration.
Marcy Abramowitz is a longtime resident of Menlo Park who follows train-related issues.