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Menlo Park: New look at grade separations

Original post made on Nov 29, 2012

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.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, November 29, 2012, 9:41 AM

Comments (25)

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Nov 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Wasn't there an article by Sandy in last week's ALMANAC about this? I shouldn't complain because a. the issue is far more consequential than most people believe, and b. grade separations in Menlo Park (and on the Peninsula) are closely coupled with the high-speed rail issue, which is its own Pandora's box of problems.

So thanks, Sandy, for staying on top of this.

As I said previously, "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.

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 to Chip Taylor, $225 million may pay for one or two grade separations (the half-up, half-down version), at the most. To grade separate at Ravenswood is enormously complex and I'm guessing that $200 million will be barely enough."

It is inconsequential that the proposed letter of supplication for funding of studies should include allusions to the two tracks with no elevation, called the "blended option." The fact is, the rail authority will pay no attention to the "blended" two-track alternative if and when further funding materializes. The CHSRA and their Caltrain colleagues will NEVER relinquish their determination to obtain the elevated four-track viaduct.

Therefore, whatever Caltrain gets built on its corridor in the interim -- electrification, grade separations -- will require removal and reconstruction when funds become available for the full corridor build-out. And that game is far from over!

Most of my fellow Menlo Parkers still have no idea how disruptive and destructive grade separations will be in our town, both during construction and forever after. Yes, they have been built elsewhere on the Peninsula. But, rather than polling people in those towns, we should visit those grade separations ourselves and mentally transport them to our four cross-streets to appreciate how intrusive and divisive they will be. And, construction will be a multi-year nightmare!

By all means, get funding and do studies. They can't hurt. However, they invariably turn out to be advocacy and promotional in nature and we better think very cautiously about seeking grade separations. Be careful what you wish for; you may get it.

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Posted by fix the mess stop the NOISE
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Go spend a couple minutes at ECR & Ralston or ECR & Holly.

After realizing how much of a relief it is to have those areas cleaned up and running much smoother because of the grade separations, go away from the tracks a few blocks and listen: no horns, no bells, no clanging gates. When the late evening Caltrain rolls through, and the freights roll through at night, no clanging, no horns blowing late at night.

Improve it and make life a little better in MP, or live with it -- live with the noise, the traffic, the frustrations.

San Carlos and Belmont showed they could improve their towns.

Are they better than Menlo? Well, they've shown they want a better quality of life in their towns. And they decided to do something about it.

As far as "nose under the tent"... notice how the HSR whiners use EVERYTHING as a "nose under the tent"?

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Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 29, 2012 at 2:24 pm

So how would our town look with Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the West Bank Barrier running through it. Oops, forgot about all the electrification power poles on top of it all.

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Posted by Sybille
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Nov 29, 2012 at 2:50 pm

I totally agree w/ "fix the mess stop the NOISE".

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Posted by fix the mess stop the NOISE
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm

"So how would our town look with Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the West Bank Barrier running through it."

Golly, good thing the poster didn't turn on the rhetoric much!

I could stay in his vein: How will it look? Not like a hick town with a couple tracks running through the middle of it!

Seriously, though: how will it look? Not dissimilar to how it looks at the places I mentioned.

Looks good at Holly and Ralston. Looks okay at Harbor, because Harbor and ECR is a run down part of Belmont.

'cepting the Lariat and IG, of course.


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Posted by fix the mess stop the NOISE
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 29, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Forgot: How does it look at University and at Embarcadero in Palo Alto?

Imagine if PA hadn't done it!

What a mess!

Is Menlo the town that can't do anything for itself?

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Posted by mickie winkler
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 29, 2012 at 3:44 pm

One Grade Alternative NOT YET considered.

Neither the Almanac or the City Council have considered the Arial Viaduct option—as San Carlos has. Note that this would partially raise the tracks,
1. would increase connectivity in Menlo Park,
2. would keep all the current crossings open
3. and would potentially not require a disruptive shoefly during construction .

A rendering is posted on the City website at Web Link It shows that the tracks are suspended on posts, such that parking or kiosks can exist underneath, and none of the roadways are not closed.
We have been told by a professor at Cal Poly that trellis-style Grade separations can be done without creating a shoefly—and without disrupting daytime traffic flows. An extreme plus. We should at least study this approach.
Mickie Winkler

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Posted by confused
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 29, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Grade separation like Palo Alto's would fit much better in Menlo Park than what is in San Carlos. The latter isn't going through a residential neighborhood like here. Just one side has housing, and that is separated by a street. Not so in Menlo Park.

The ideal is to put the train underground like other civilized countries do in nice communities.

The next best is to put the east-west street crossings under the tracks. That should help El Camino traffic, too. Even better would be to figure out how to put undercrossing of both the tracks and El Camino.
Hard? Expensive? Yes, but the right things to do. Not a time to wimp out.

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Posted by Peter B
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Nov 30, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Elevated tracks are good enoug for San Carlos Belmont Palo Alto etc... but the troglodytes in MP raise up from underground to prevent progress. Pitiful.

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Posted by confused
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 1, 2012 at 4:55 pm

Peter B - the tracks aren't elevated in Palo Alto like they are in San Carlos. Why do you call people names when they have legitimate concerns about a particular design and when there are alternatives? If you can't speak to issues without trashing others, please keep your thoughts to yourself.

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Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Dec 13, 2012 at 9:32 am

I am having a hard time understand why the plans don't give a price estimate for undergrounding the tracks. Once they do that they can figure out the temporary property tax assessment needed to fund construction. Put it on the ballot. If people are willing to pay for it, then make it happen (just like Berkeley did for BART). If it gets voted down, then presumably it will be a more inexpensive option.

I should note that other countries that underground rail in "nice communities" really only do so in very high density neighborhoods of which Melo Park is not. If this were being built in Europe I would guess that they would probably just build a raised berm for grade separation.

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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 13, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Well Robert, we're not in Europe and most of the electorate is now against HSR which this is just a ploy to make it easier to invade our community. We don't want elevated tracks seperating our city. If they want to run HSR through here they should be required to put it underground. People complain about the noise trains make now (I'm not one). Can you imagine how much nosier they would be if they were elevated in the air making the transmission of their noise easier for a much greater distance?

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Posted by Adina
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm

Grade separation doesn't make it easier or harder to start running high speed trains. At the speed they're planning to run on the Peninsula it won't be legally required. The question is how much backed up traffic we're willing to put up with at Ravenswood and Alma.

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Posted by SC
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Dec 14, 2012 at 11:46 am

HSR isn't going to happen. Quit deflecting on the issue of grade separations! We need to always work to improve the quality of life in Menlo. Raise the tracks.

I echo the writer above - why can Palo Alto, San Carlos and Belmont among others get it done and have a much better experience while Menlo sits and whines?

Sits at a crossing and waits and waits. Train whistles and bells ringing at all hours.


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Posted by FRED
a resident of Atherton: other
on Dec 14, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Children's sleep is interrupted in the middle of the night because freight trains need to blow their horns at crossing starting in Menlo Park and continue through Atherton. Just thank the short sighted NIMBY's. Gabriel, Blow that Horn!

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Posted by Gern
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Dec 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm

@SC, apparently you couldn't be bothered the read this discussion thread in its (short) entirety, but as at least one other reader has pointed out Palo Alto has no such raised tracks, while Belmont and San Carlos do not have homes adjoining both sides of the tracks the way Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, and other communities do. Have you ever seen the right-of-way through Palo Alto? Your comments would seem to indicate you have no absolutely idea whereof you speak.

And to those suggesting we underground the tracks there's the little matter of the Union Pacific Railroad, which runs the long freight trains over the right-of-way, chiefly at night. You may wish to take up undergrounding with that company as a start, but good luck with that. :)


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Posted by SC
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Dec 14, 2012 at 12:49 pm


Nice try!

Take a look at El Camino and Ralston. ECR & Holly. ECR & Brittan Ave. ECR & Harbor. The whole raised section through San Carlos and Belmont.
Now look south, the track crossings and the gates and bells at Oregon Expressway. University Ave. Embarcadero Road. San Antonio Rd.

Oh, yeah, those roads don't have clanging gates at those intersections!

Peter above said it best: troglodytes find reasons to NOT improve their life.

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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm


the tracks in Palo Alto are not elevated. The roadways are depressed beneath them. I think most folks would be happy with that approach vs. sticking trains fifteen feet or more in the air.

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Posted by SC
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Dec 14, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Menlo Voter: Of course. There's a variety of options. Not even sure which I favor, but it seems silly that other cities can move forward with a quieter ans more efficient system, yet we cannot.

Or maybe we can listen to those who insist that progress is bad and just stick with two tin cans and a string. No sense getting all modern or anything!

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Posted by Adina
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 14, 2012 at 5:19 pm

@menlo voter did you know that the last time the city studied grade separation options, the underpass approach resulted in turning Alma and Merrill into cul de sacs, blocking off the pedestrian and bike entry/exit to the station. That option also severely reduced/eliminated access to nearby properties. On the surface, an underpass sounds good, but if you look at this particular site, it didn't work so well.

Meanwhile, the San Carlos/Belmont type design didn't create cul de sacs and had the least impact on nearby properties.

The old study analyzed a 4 track crossing. Given the current Caltrain/HSR blended system plans, the tracks at Ravenswood are going to be 2 tracks, or at most 3 (if it turns out that passing tracks would go here instead of elsewhere).

So, the study needs to be redone for less than 4 tracks, and maybe the underpass won't be so destructive. Wouldn't you want to know the impact of all the options? Personally I want to look at all of the reasonable options before having an opinion.

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Posted by steve schmidt
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Dec 14, 2012 at 6:10 pm

If Menlo Park experts think that $200M + is needed for burrowing only Ravenswood under the existing Caltrain tracks, shouldn’t Menlo Park residents and all County taxpayers also know the dollar cost of a viaduct that grade separates all four of our at-grade streets from the tracks? Don’t forget that a viaduct would also eliminate the use of train horns, not take access and property from local businesses, and enable safer east-west passage of pedestrians, bikes and cars for entire length of the City?
What benefits are we going to get for our money?
Steve Schmidt

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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 14, 2012 at 7:08 pm


then put the tracks underground.

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Posted by Adina
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 14, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Have you taken a look at how much that costs? In 2009 Burlingame studied their grade separation options, including keeping the street at grade and elevating the rail tracks ($179 million), partially elevating the rail and partially depressing the street ($214 million), and a trench for the tracks ($500 million).

I recently took a look at the proposed plan to fund the Downtown Extension from 4th and King to Transbay. There is a detailed funding plan including money from local, regional, state and federal sources: real estate development near the new service, local sales taxes, bridge tolls, federal new starts funding and some HSR funds.

That project has plenty of flaws, but the point is that San Francisco didn't wait for the infrastructure funding fairy to bless it a transit project, they wanted something expensive and worked to figure out how to get it paid for.

If we want the expensive option we will need to work to figure out how to pay for it.

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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 14, 2012 at 10:12 pm


yes, we need to figure out how to pay for undergrounding the trains. Elevating them isn't an option.

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Posted by Adina
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 17, 2012 at 11:35 am

I think we should study all of the practical options and then decide through public discussion what the right cost/benefit is.

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