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.