Menlo Park: Expert says paying for train tunnel would require 'significant' new development


About a week after the Palo Alto City Council scrapped plans to tunnel Caltrain beneath its city, the Menlo Park City Council last night (May 21) heard a presentation by Professor Michael Bennon, managing director at Stanford's Global Projects Center, to discuss the feasibility of an underground Caltrain line through Menlo Park.

In short, Bennon stated, "This would be an extremely expensive project."

Palo Alto's evaluation that the cost of a potential tunnel there would run between $2.5 billion and $3.8 billion seems accurate, Bennon told the Menlo Park council.

"My intuition is that those numbers are not that far off," he said. Menlo Park's potential tunnel segment would be shorter than Palo Alto's, but still extremely costly to build.

There are a few different funding mechanisms the city could apply, Bennon explained. One he's evaluated in other case studies is to capture some of the new land value that would open up above the underground rail line by permitting development on top.

That land belongs to Caltrain, so the city would have to work out with that agency some kind of agreement and development plan for the property, Bennon noted. He's seen cases where both rail agencies and cities have been the leaders in developing atop underground rail lines, he added.

Grant funding is another source, as is a "Mello-Roos" special tax, which is a form of parcel tax that would need to be approved by two-thirds of voters and could be used to support a "community facilities district," he explained.

Even factoring in those sources, in California especially, public works projects are very costly, and many turn out more costly than planned, he said. "Almost all cost estimates are too low, as you are well aware," he told the council.

The project would likely be more costly and slow-moving because of the number of agencies and jurisdictions that would have to sign off on it, he noted, adding that there would be significant environmental review, a long planning process, and the buy-in of multiple cities and institutions required for it to work.

(On the other hand, he said, spreading the costs across multiple jurisdictions through the formation of a joint powers authority or some similar structure might make the project more politically feasible. Palo Alto's decision to not pursue this option through the city would likely have some impact on the feasibility of the effort in Menlo Park, he noted.)

While the notion of undergrounding rail lines in general doesn't raise much community opposition, Bennon said, residents where these projects occur elsewhere do tend to raise concerns and objections over the "attendant development that occurs."

The amount of development and added density that would have to go on the land above the rail line to generate "in the high hundreds of millions of dollars," according to Adina Levin, Complete Streets Commissioner and co-founder of Friends of Caltrain, is something along the lines of a million or more square feet of office space and thousands of housing units. Bennon agreed, noting it as a "very broad-brush estimate."

That scale of density growth, Levin argued – speaking as an individual and not a representative of the organizations she works with – is "not in scale with what we have contemplated in our area."

The cost of projects to underground rail segments are more likely to "pencil out" in areas where more land could be opened up for "significant" density, such as Caltrain's 4th and King Street station in San Francsico, Bennon explained.

Another challenge, Levin said, is that in Palo Alto's evaluation, there were findings that during construction of an underground rail line, bypass tracks would have to be constructed that were expected to require the "removal of a few dozen homes." That was a surprise finding and one the residents of that city found unacceptable, she noted.

"These are some of the challenges that have led Palo Alto to take that option off the table and would pose, I think, insurmountable challenges for us," she summarized.

The discussion was informational and did not yield policy recommendations from the City Council.


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7 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on May 22, 2019 at 12:28 pm

Grade separations need to get started NOW. The longer MP waits, the more costly it will be. A tunnel is ridiculous - there need to be a couple of grade separations near the station, maybe one more, and then shut down road access on the northern one to save money. Get it done, MP - electrification is coming!

3 people like this
Posted by Menlo Boomer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on May 22, 2019 at 9:02 pm

OK, so this sounds pretty authoritative, but on the other hand- Rich Cline read and believed an April Fools article about Elon Musk ponying up for a tunnel, so...?

9 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 22, 2019 at 9:17 pm

No more dreaming about tunnels thank God! Maybe we can get down to business and progressively build infrastructure, parking, housing, manage traffic......Oh wait, this is Menlo Park.

3 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on May 22, 2019 at 10:34 pm

Don't worry, the merry-go-round of tunnel / viaduct / berm / do nothing will continue for decades to come, with those tax dollars flowing into consultants' pockets all the while.

7 people like this
Posted by Pot Meet Kettle
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 23, 2019 at 1:49 pm

As a point of reference, San Mateo's grade separation project will elevate the tracks from Hillsdale Blvd to just north of 25th Ave (the main entrance to the Event Center)--a span just under 1 mile long. It will provide an east-west connection at 3 intersections. The project cost $184MM and will take about 3 years to complete. And this is despite the San Mateo City Council being decisive and aggressive about getting the project designed, funded, and built.

The Menlo Park City Council has taken almost literally the oppposite approach. We won't see a Menlo Park grade separation for many, many years.

3 people like this
Posted by Pot Meet Kettle
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 23, 2019 at 1:52 pm

Oh, I neglected to mention San Mateo had been working with Caltrain and the State for something like 12-14 years on this project before it went out to bid.

3 people like this
Posted by Tired of Waiting
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on May 24, 2019 at 12:35 pm

Menlo Boomer: Not only did former councilman Rich Cline fall for the Palo Alto April Fools joke he used it to spuriously attack other Menlo Park residents. Nice guy! Web Link

5 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 24, 2019 at 2:19 pm

'So tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for yooooooo-oo-ou.......'

Actually it's really sad to read the snitty/b*tchiness of that Cline email. It's no wonder we flounder around an nothing happens other than a lot of hot air and expensive consultant studies

Like this comment
Posted by Plan for your money
a resident of another community
on May 24, 2019 at 8:42 pm

There is a bill in the state legislature that would place on a regional ballot more money for Caltrain to waste. Wages are a little low. Caltrain employees should qualify to retire at age 30. Watch politicians line up in support They will ask something like: will you pay a tiny sales tax for better train service that would reduce congestion for us all? And the sheep will follow..

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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