26 September 2017

Thoughts on Palo Alto

There is a vigorous discussion of grade separations now underway in Palo Alto. It misses several important points:

1) Grade Separation is not one project. Trying to come up with a single, grand unifying grade separation scheme for the entire rail corridor through Palo Alto is to over-constrain the problem and to limit the range of feasible solutions. The wide geographical spacing of the four remaining grade crossings in Palo Alto leads naturally and logically to three separate and independent projects: Alma, Churchill, and Meadow/Charleston. These three projects can be and should be completely decoupled from an engineering perspective, if not from a political perspective. The underlying geometry of Palo Alto does not lend itself to a single project.

2) Creating new cross-corridor access is not grade separation. While it is understandable that the city desires to knit together neighborhoods on opposite sides of the track by creating new places ("trench caps") where people can access the other side of the corridor, this is not grade separation and should not be funded by scarce grade separation or transportation dollars. It can't be said that the city was actively divided by the rail corridor, since the rail corridor was in place decades before Palo Alto grew into a city. While everyone agrees that new cross-corridor access would improve Palo Alto, the distinction of scope between grade separation of existing crossings (today's network topology) and new cross-corridor access (tomorrow's network topology, a nice-to-have) should remain crystal clear. Muddling the project scope will muddle the discussion of funding.

3) Split-grade solutions should be studied with due diligence. When the city commissioned a grade separation study from engineering firm Mott Macdonald, the council deliberately excluded from consideration any designs where rails or roads might rise above existing grade. From the outset, this eliminated the standard solution that every other peninsula city has adopted: San Bruno, Burlingame, San Mateo, Belmont, San Carlos, Menlo Park and Sunnyvale either already have or are planning split grade separations, where the rails are raised a bit and the streets are lowered a bit. Turning a blind eye to split grade solutions, however controversial they may be, casts doubt on the entire decision making process. Without due diligence in studying a full range of grade separation solutions, the politics of assembling the necessary funding will become unnecessarily complicated.

4) Funding matters. The most expensive options are the most popular because the cost isn't yet borne by anyone. Everything is paid for with OPM or Other People's Money. If you went to a restaurant with OPM, of course you would select the Filet Mignon (or truffles, if you're vegetarian). A selection process that ignores funding is detached from reality. This also means teaching people about orders of magnitude: capturing ill-defined revenue from new uses of 45 acres of highly impaired land that the city doesn't own, even at Palo Alto prices, doesn't begin to pay for the astronomical expense of burying the tracks. Until funding is seriously factored into decision making, it's all just unicorns and rainbows.

5) County grade separation funding is always at risk. While 2016 Measure B set aside $700 million for grade separation projects, a 3/4 majority vote of the VTA board is all that it takes to re-program some or all of that funding "as circumstances warrant" towards BART, in the exceedingly likely event that the San Jose extension goes over budget. Spend it soon, or flush it into a giant sink hole in San Jose.

Failing to properly acknowledge these realities will likely leave Palo Alto's decision making process tied in knots as other cities move forward.