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News - November 28, 2012

Menlo Park: New look at grade separations

by Sandy Brundage

They aren't sure what they plan to do with the money, if anything, but the Menlo Park City Council decided to ask for county funding to study and possibly build grade separations at train crossings.

Public Works Director Chip Taylor explained during the Nov. 13 council meeting that the issue was last studied in depth about eight years ago. Some of the assumptions underlying that study no longer hold; for example, it assumed that crossings in Palo Alto and Atherton would all be at ground level and high-speed rail would be built on four tracks.

"At the time there was a need to do further analysis," Mr. Taylor said, particularly in evaluating impacts, alternative designs and costs.

The county is only asking for letters of interest at this point, not actual project proposals. It has $225 million available — an amount that Mr. Taylor said will pay for three to five grade separations out of the 40 crossings in the county.

"If we even got funding for one we would probably be considered lucky," Mayor Kirsten Keith noted during the meeting.

The letter of interest needed to indicate a prioritized list of rail crossings, a proposed timeframe for completion, safety and congestion issues near the crossings, any potential economic and transit development benefits, and whether other funding sources were available to chip in.

The four Caltrain crossings in Menlo Park were prioritized based on traffic counts conducted in 2012, with Ravenswood Avenue leading the pack with an average 24,100 vehicle crossings a day, followed by Oak Grove Avenue, Glenwood Avenue and Encinal Avenue, according to the staff report.

The three Dumbarton Rail crossings within city limits were not considered a priority given the current lack of passenger trains on the line.

Although council members Kelly Fergusson and Rich Cline suggested "having a priority of one," i.e., focusing on the Ravenswood crossing, Mr. Taylor pointed out that building a grade separation at one crossing may create a need to make changes to the others, so in the end the council agreed to indicate it wanted to study grade separations at all four crossings.

"I don't disapprove the idea of a study," Mr. Cline said, acknowledging that the previous reports were outdated. "I want to make sure that when we do that we're articulating very clearly what we want and don't want" just in case high-speed rail heads in a different design direction than expected.

He expressed concern that a lack of clarity in the letter would suggest to the California High-Speed Rail Authority that Menlo Park had come onboard with the four-track design. "No, we have not."

Mr. Taylor agreed that the letter could reiterate Menlo Park's support for a two-track design with no elevated segments.

The council voted 4-0, with Councilman Andy Cohen absent, to submit the letter, which was due Nov. 21.


Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Nov 27, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Here we go again. The camel can't seem to keep its Caltrain corridor development nose out of the tent. Grade separations were aggressively promoted by the dynamic City Council trio of Winkler, Duboc and Jellins in 2003. Studies were conducted. Consultants were hired. All four crossings were under consideration. The project was aggressively promoted by city staff and Council. The studies produced and the consultant presentations were exercises in highly misleading distortions.

None of the actual adverse consequences were considered (or were ignored when presented) since it promised to be a project involving many millions of dollars. After all, capital development funds are the most fun to spend and they lubricate the functioning of public bureaucracies.

Now, ten years later, we're back to square one. Only this time, the idea of grade separations has become contaminated with the confounding facts of the anticipated high-speed rail, which none of us who have tried have yet managed to derail.

Will the "blended" design for the corridor -- combining high-speed rail with Caltrain on two tracks -- remain the preferred option? Yes, but only until further funding materializes. The inevitable destiny of the Caltrain corridor will be four tracks elevated on a viaduct. (Please feel free to live in denial and reject this prediction.)

My point here is that any grade crossing separation project that ignores the intentions of the California High-Speed Rail Authority does so at the risk of all of us in Menlo Park. The harm that will come to the city has been outlined repeatedly in this newspaper.

With all due respect for Chip Taylor, $225 million may pay for one or two grade separations (the half-up, half-down version), but certainly no more. To grade separate at Ravenswood is enormously complex and I'm guessing that $200 million will be barely enough.

But that's not the point right now. I gather the issue is to obtain funding to do studies. After all, studies are the bread and butter of our Administration. I'm fond of quoting former Councilman John Boyle who once noted that doing studies is highly desirable because they prolong making decisions and acting on them.

Attention Menlo Park. Listen to Nancy Reagan and "just say No."

Like this comment
Posted by Barnes
a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park
on Nov 27, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Nancy Reagan (an odd person to cite wonder how often she is cited as an expert on anything?) was wrong on the 'just say no' campaign, as it hasn't worked. Ever.\

Say yes.

Grade separations in San Carlos and Belmont have made a huge difference in the daily lives of those in the area and those traveling to/from the area.

And the whistle noises and clanging bells are gone.

Quality of life.