Since last October a small team of residents has been encouraging the council to conduct a short study of a third alternative that offers significantly more benefits and causes no significant negative impacts anywhere along the rail corridor. However, our proposal lacks the support of a council majority due to two unjustified fears.
First, some members believe a further delay in making a final selection might jeopardize future project funding. And, all are sensitive to the public pressure being exerted by residents who adamantly oppose a new study. They incorrectly believe this third alternative would severely damage the quality of life in Felton Gables.
It is extremely important that residents and local businesses understand what is happening, express their concerns and preferences to the council, and insist that the council base its grade separation decisions, not on fear, but instead on critical information and sound reasoning. A new study will not take long to complete, and if the solution costs less, the odds of our city receiving early funding might increase.
The proposed alternative would use fully elevated grade separations at Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood avenues — a strong preference of both residents and the council — and would not require that any streets be lowered. An elevated and open rail structure in the train station area would create usable space underneath, unobstructed views, and convenient paths for pedestrians and bicyclists. (Note: The currently preferred alternative divides the train station area with a solid 10-foot-high rail embankment.) Encinal could be closed to vehicle traffic only, a change that would significantly improve the safety of Encinal School students who walk and bike. And finally, fully elevated grade separations would significantly shorten construction, greatly reduce street closures and constrictions, and minimize various negative impacts on local businesses.
No persuasive evidence supports the fear that the proposed new study would risk future funding for Menlo Park. First, San Mateo County does not have any uncommitted funds set aside for grade separations. Burlingame's Broadway project has long been "shovel-ready" and is at the front of the line for funding. And Redwood City still needs funding for a study of grade separation alternatives for Whipple and will likely remain far behind Menlo Park. And finally, Caltrain will continue to build new grade separations as funding becomes available, and Ravenswood remains a top state and Caltrain priority.
At a recent Rail Subcommittee meeting, a large number of Felton Gables residents expressed strong opposition to any track elevation north of Encinal and, in particular, to the use of a train viaduct near their neighborhood. They are naturally concerned about potential negative noise and aesthetic impacts.
In reality, their fears are factually unfounded. First, no viaduct has ever been proposed for this section of tracks. Next, it is highly doubtful that mechanical train noise at ground-level would significantly increase materially over current levels even if the rail bed were raised a small amount. And finally, Caltrain can install thin, 30-foot electrification poles up to 180 feet apart so these and passing trains would rarely be seen from Felton Gables yards due to tree screens. Both of these claims can easily be verified during a study.
Finally, recently discovered information suggests the council's preferred grade separation alternative has a big obstacle to clear. A large Hetch Hetchy pipeline lies just below the surface of Garwood Way, Oak Grove and Glenwood, and possibly below Ravenswood, as well. Lowering these streets even a few feet would require the pipe to be relocated, an action that the California Public Utilities Commission will oppose, resist and possibly block. It's not even clear where and how the pipe could be rerouted. So any alternative that lowers streets has a big implementation and schedule risks.
The council should never forgo a study simply because a vocal group opposes one, especially when they lack reliable information. Nor should it fear a potential lack of future grade separation funding. Instead, the council needs a study so it can both fairly consider the interests of all Menlo Park residents and downtown businesses and fully justify its final decision. It's time to start one now!
Dana Hendrickson is a longtime Menlo Park resident and a member of a newly formed coalition of residents, local businesses, and property owners who advocate that Menlo Park carefully study fully elevated grade separations.
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