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There Must Be Some Way Outta Here (Menlo Park Grade Separation Dilemma)

Original post made by Dana Hendrickson, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park, on Feb 11, 2018

There Must Be Somewhere Out of Here?
(Menlo Park Grade Separation Dilemma)

In October 2017 Menlo Park conducted its most recent public review of the “project” that could have the biggest long-term impact on the quality of life in our city than anything I can remember. At the meeting the City Council expressed strong discomfort with the two alternatives for separating streets from train tracks at as many as three crossings (Ravenswood, Oak Grove, Glenwood) that have been studied. Yet the Council would have approved the “least undesirable” one if there had been a quorum. Fortunately, it did not. So how does our city get out of the bind it’s in?

Others and I are deeply concerned about the current state of the decision-making process for future grade separations in our city and find it troubling for two reasons.

First, a very promising solution, the full elevation of Caltrain tracks - with no lowering of Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood - continues to be treated as infeasible. Where is the analysis that establishes this position as either technically or politically infeasible? And how aggressively has this assumption been tested? If it is actually possible, then residents have been denied the opportunity to fairly consider a more promising alternative.

Secondly, the Council has paid too little attention to the negative impacts alternative grade separation solutions can have on the vibrancy and vitality of the Downtown/Train Area. This "core" commercial district is now enjoying a major economic transformation as developers invest in new offices, residential units and retail locations, and our city should do everything in its powers to encourage this progress. Dividing it with a physical barrier (or train trench) would be severely detrimental.

We recommend the City Council (a) truly understand the feasibility of the "full elevation" alternative and (b) carefully consider the need to enhance rather than diminish the future health of the Downtown/Train Area before deciding on a grade separation strategy.

Our comprehensive analysis of Menlo Park grade separation alternatives is available at Web Link.

Strong Council leadership is critical now, as our entire community will live with the consequences of its decisions for decades to come. Once again we invite the Council to discuss our concerns and recommendations, and we encourage residents who support a rigorous evaluation of the benefits and impacts of fully elevated grade separations to contact us via

Comments (12)

6 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Feb 12, 2018 at 9:36 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

When you have a Flavor of the Month decision making mentality where every new idea displaces something really important then grade separation will never get done.

3 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Feb 12, 2018 at 10:46 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

@Peter, yes, it's almost as if the council secretly doesn't really much care about grade separating the Caltrain line through downtown. It's safe to say there's little to no passion for getting this done. It's not even a case of analysis to paralysis, since they haven't even properly and fully studied a fully-elevated, fully-open underneath alternative, which, unlike with a berm, would visually and physically "reconnect" both sides of downtown (as it has never has been) without lowering so many downtown streets around the station into trenches (as with the "Ravenswood only" Alternative A). I suspect the council secretly prefers the status quo despite all the horn-blowing, traffic backups and the occasional, and typically fatal, tragic crossing smash-ups. As anyone who hasn't been under a rock knows, Caltrain is currently electrifying the system and there are plans for both increasingly more and longer trains for years thereafter ... and that's even before the California High-Speed Rail Authority begins operating its intercity high-speed express trains to SF via the Caltrain line.

14 people like this
Posted by peninsula resident
a resident of another community
on Feb 12, 2018 at 12:43 pm

+1 what Peter said.

Politically, the main blockers are people that insist that THEIR preferred grade separation option is the ONLY feasible choice, and attempt to block/delay/thwart/slow other viable solutions.

While my preferred solutions are trenching and/or tunneling, I'm grounded in the reality that funding for those solutions is problematic; if the most politically+financially viable option ends up being road underpasses or a hybrid underpasses+berm, I would not object in the least despite that solution not being my ideal. Just get it done!

That said, I'm puzzled by the positions of the viaduct-or-bust crowd: based on all other viaducts built in the Bay Area in the last 40-50+ years, there is no evidence that viaducts are aesthetically superior to a berm. On the contrary, viaducts are being DEMOLISHED in the bay area when the option to build/rebuild is an option.

By the way, the argument that trenching is aesthetically inferior and creates a greater aesthetic boundary vs viaducts is a very odd position to take: have any of you ever lived in/near viaducts????? I have and the experience is sub-optimal aesthetically. Also, I've lived in the bay area long enough to remember when 980 was opened in Oakland. That's a trench, and most people are likely to conclude that 980 is far aesthetically superior to the type of viaducts seen in the east bay.

Bottom line, believing that a Bay Area-style viaduct is visually superior to a trench requires not knowing what a trench looks like, and not knowing what Bay Area viaducts look like.

1 person likes this
Posted by dana hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 12, 2018 at 3:15 pm

Peninsula Resident:

A couple of clarification points:

1. A fully elevated separation is NOT a viaduct; it is simply a train bridge over a street that remains at grade. These are common on the Peninsula rail system.

2. We are recommending an elevated open rail structure with a large plaza underneath between Ravenswood, Alma, Oak Grove, and Merrill. Caltrain has already built smaller plazas under elevated open structures at the Belmont and San Carlos train stations. The one proposed for Menlo Park would be higher so there would be greater open space underneath.

3. A hybrid separation still elevates the train but to a lower height because the street is lowered below grade. The connection between Ravenswood and Oak Grove would be a solid 10-foot berm.

4. I much prefer the elevated and open structure; you might prefer a solid berm. The central point is that our community should get to decide and this alternative was not studied.

5. Take a look at the photos in the analysis linked to my post and see examples.

You can also view photos of the two most recently built train trenches on the West Coast - in Reno and San Gabriel. Simply google them and look at the ones in our analysis.

I believe a WIDE trench with a safety barrier would create too much physical separation between the east and west sides of Menlo Park and ruin the Downtown/Train Area.

Most new light rail systems worldwide build viaducts to elevate tracks over areas they cannot cross at grade but this is NOT the purpose of the structure proposed for the Downtown/Train Area.

1 person likes this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 12, 2018 at 3:21 pm

Peter: Are you implying that Menlo Park residents should NOT have the opportunity to weigh in on a grade separation alternative that was "ruled out" by the City Council without a solid justification? An alternative that would cause much less and shorter disruption to build than lowering three streets and provide an end product more residents might prefer? That would surprise me.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Feb 12, 2018 at 3:24 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Peter: Are you implying that Menlo Park residents should NOT have the opportunity to weigh in on a grade separation alternative"

I never said that or implied that. My concern is that sadly the whole grade separation issue has fallen off the council's priorities table.

3 people like this
Posted by Henry Riggs
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Feb 12, 2018 at 4:25 pm

Grade separations have not fallen off council's agendae.
And the suggestion to include a discussion of full elevation over the downtown core is not a call "viaduct or bust" . Its a fair question: if both Planning Commission members and Council members thought the transportation consultant was pushing a Hobson's choice of two bad options, why was a potentially good (even great) option dismissed by that consultant?
Its a good question, better asked now than after four years of road closures.

3 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 12, 2018 at 4:27 pm

Peter: A city staff member who is working on grade separations told one of my "associates" that the topic will likely be on the March City Council agenda even though it is odd that the subject is not listed as a city priority. So I agree this is confusing. In October, the Council appeared to feel that there was great urgency to make a final decision so I would be surprised if something has changed their minds. You can talk to Nikki Nagaya who manages the transportation Division to get an update.

Thanks for clarifying your initial comment.

Like this comment
Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 12, 2018 at 4:36 pm

Here is a photo of the San Gabriel Mission Train Trench: Web Link

And one for the Reno Train Trench: Web Link

Real beauties, aren't they?

Caltrain has never built a trench or tunnel. What makes anyone think they would build one in Menlo Park?

Like this comment
Posted by peninsula resident
a resident of another community
on Feb 12, 2018 at 6:09 pm

Regarding trenches:
* It's interesting that there's a debate on the merits of a trench, considering it's not even an option on the list of grade separation options for Menlo Park. If a trench was on the list of options, I could see the value of debating it. I'm unclear what debating it even serves.

* That said, I think you're missing one of the primary value propositions for a trench. Given a choice between something ugly sticking up from the skyline vs dug down below-grade, visual impact is reduced below-grade: some people would see a trench, but everyone would see a viaduct.

* Just to be clear, I have no opinion on the merits of having a Belmont-style station at the Menlo Park Caltrain stop. But the 'separation alternatives' document (and thank you for writing it!), espouses the (misplaced) benefits of viaducts, and only very careful reading makes it clear that the document's main interest is for a full-height non-berm at the train station location.

In a nutshell, the document can be summarized as: "Hillsdale train station design bad, Belmont train station design good!"

As someone who has frequented both of these stations (both as a rider and as a driver who parked there)...meah. If the cost between a berm-station and a viaduct-station is the same...meah. *shrug*, OK sure. But if there's significant difference in price, I advocate the less expensive option.

* You've espoused the benefits of a Belmont Train station design, both from an aesthetic point of view and for its alleged utility. I've been in-and-through that station: does the Belmont station get used in a manner you claim would occur in Menlo Park? I don't think so. So, what is it about Menlo Park and that design that makes you think the same design would have a different (better) impact?

* Just to be fair, a trench can look pretty. Observe this photo of train-in-a-trench p0rn: Web Link


1 person likes this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 12, 2018 at 10:26 pm

peninsula resident.

1. I did not initiate a debate on trenches. I simply mentioned it in my original post in passing as another example of a physical divider. You then chose to expand on this topic. ( By the way there are Council members who still think a Menlo Park trench is a better approach than the two studied options but acknowledge it likely is too expensive. But they are closely monitoring Palo Alto's current pursuit of a trench.

2. The Belmont elevated open rail structure is simply an example of how useful space can be created underneath. The proposal of a wider elevated and open structure over a large central plaza for Menlo Park is a significant variation on this idea with many features and benefits outlined in my analysis and NOT present at Belmont. I also believe this example illustrates that a structure can be attractive.

3. In a nutshell, the Menlo Park grade separation strategy should carefully consider the impact each alternative would have on the Downtown/TrainArea. I believe a berm will be a major detraction and a central plaza a major asset.

4. One of our city's top planning priorities is too reduce the physical separation of east and west neighborhoods due to the tracks. A berm makes it worse; a plaza can be a significant improvement.

5. I do not think the cost differential will be great. Keep in mind that the hybrid alternative requires three streets be lowered and all existing underground utilities be relocated. This will be expensive AND disruptive. No streets are lowered with the proposed fully elevated "bridges".

1 person likes this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 22, 2018 at 1:12 pm

Dreams of a train tunnel slip away (in Palo Alto)
Citing costs and obstacles, city prepares to abandon idea of a city-long tunnel

"But with a new study highlighting the high costs and steep engineering challenges of the project, city officials are preparing to pull the plug on the idea and to consider less ambitious and less costly methods for separating the train tracks from the city's roadways. Instead, they are focusing on the idea of digging an open trench only in the southern half of the city, which would affect the railway's intersections with Charleston Road and Meadow Drive."

Web Link

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