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.


  1. Palo Alto definitely needs to look at split grade solutions. On a recent trip to Boston, I didn’t even notice the split grade solutions in place they were so well hidden. All you need is to plant a bunch of trees.

  2. Thanks as always Clem for you clear thinking and careful research. I have to figure out whom to write to again here

  3. Retired Saratoga woman’s lawsuit leaves Measure B tax money on hold, delays transportation projects

    The lawsuit claims Measure B’s language was unclear and misleading to voters and that the BART extension will eat up the majority of funding, an estimated $6 billion over 30 years.

    (A clause buried in the measure allows the VTA board to alter or ignore the project spending allocations.)

    The plaintiff also argues the BART extension will be extremely difficult — if not impossible — because of an aquifer that sits below the site of the planned downtown San Jose station.

    “They’re planning to build a deep tunnel in the aquifer,” said Jensen, who worked 20 years as a planner for SJ and SCCo. before teaching environmental planning at SJSU. “If they have to drain the aquifer to do this, can we lose all that water? No, we can’t. The whole concept is a problem.”

    Here's an excerpt from the Measure B language with the problematic clause (emphasis mine):

    "If approved by a 3/4 majority of the VTA Board of Directors, and only after a noticed public meeting in which the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors, and the city council of each city in Santa Clara County have been notified at least 30 days prior to the meeting, VTA may modify the Program FOR ANY PRUDENT PURPOSE, including to account for the results of any environmental review required under the California Environmental Quality Act of the individual specific projects in the Program; to account for increases or decreases in federal, state, and local funds, including revenues received from this tax measure; to account for unexpected increase or decrease in revenues; to add or delete a project from the Program in order to carry out the overall purpose of the Program; to maintain consistency with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Plan; TO SHIFT FUNDING BETWEEN PROJECT CATEGORIES; or TO TAKE INTO CONSIDERATION new innovations or UNFORESEEN CIRCUMSTANCES."

    In other words, technically, with a vote of 14 of the 18 VTA board members, they can literally and legally do whatever they want with the Measure B funds ... like funnel more (or even all!) of the money to BART in case of an "unforeseen" cost escalation or overrun ... or just because they feel like it.

    1. Few people realize just how easy it is to reprogram these funds. This follows the pattern of Measure A (2000), where all of the funds promised for Caltrain were spent instead on BART. There are no reasons to believe Measure B will be any different, since a 3/4 majority of the VTA board will be easy to achieve if (when) the financial viability of the agency becomes threatened by BART cost overruns.

    2. 50075.1.
      On or after January 1, 2001, any local special tax measure that is subject to voter approval that would provide for the imposition of a special tax by a local agency shall provide accountability measures that include, but are not limited to, all of the following:
      (a) A statement indicating the specific purposes of the special tax.
      (b) A requirement that the proceeds be applied only to the specific purposes identified pursuant to subdivision (a).

    3. Right. None of that prevents grade sep money from being spent on the other specific purposes already listed in Measure B.

  4. Palo Alto approaches decision on rail redesign
    Despite high costs, putting Caltrain in trench remains city most popular alternative

    Even after hearing about the drawbacks of a trench — the high price tag, the years of construction, the potential impact on groundwater — about 90% residents picked it as their preferred design for grade separating each of the city's 4 Caltrain crossings.

    A trench is now estimated at $1.15b — roughly 6 times the cost of a "hybrid" grade separation with tracks slightly raised and roads slightly lowered. The cost of raising roads over the rail corridor is a comparative bargain at $43m.
    The city expects to get funding from Measure B, which SCCo. voters approved last year and which allocates $700m for grade separations in Sunnyvale, Mtn. View and Palo Alto. The funds are being administered by VTA, and some Palo Alto officials, including Mayor Scharff, have been adamant about the need to move faster on picking a design so as not to fall behind the other 2 cities in a race for county cash.

    "We're trying to avoid this rush to be the first in line," VTA board Chair Jeannie Bruins said. "This is not about who gets to be the BART of grade separations and consume all the money — and then anyone at the end gets nothing."

    The VTA funds won't be nearly enough, however, to pay for a trench. Additional funds, potentially from residents, would be needed.

    It's easy for Palo Alto residents and electeds to demand expensive stuff as long as someone else is paying for it.

  5. Are they trenching Alma Street too? Lot more traffic and noise on Alma to divide the neighborhoods there on the Caltrain tracks. There are also few spots where there isn't continuous housing along the west side of the tracks. As was mentioned above, most of the city developed after the railway, so it's not like there are a lot of truncated streets that wold be re-opened. I doubt they mean more street crossings. New cross corridor access for bikes and peds can happen without a trench. Look at the Homer crossing. Add more like that at Peers Park and Loma Verde and just north of San Antonio. That provides a nice spacing throughout the entire city.

    The only really messy street to separate is Churchill, which might be able to be closed if improvements could be made to handle the increased traffic at the Embarcadero crossing. Churchill could be turned into a bike and ped crossing.

  6. Palo Alto Resident27 September, 2017 16:28

    I agree with your analysis, and that split grade separations is the only viable solution. But let me take issue with one comment, "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."

    Things have evolved quite a bit, with growth in density, and more frequent rail traffic. Crossings have been closed (e.g., California Ave) to accommodate rail, and it has created greater division in Palo Alto. Even where there is connection, like the Oregon Express underpass, it effectively cars only, and creates a pedestrian/cyclist barrier.

    TLDR: Increased rail has created more division in the city, split grade crossings would help correct it, it would nice to have for the existing crossings as well.

  7. @Palo Alto Resident: my brother daily rides his bike through the California Ave. bike/ped undercrossing ... so while the Oregon Expressway underpass isn't open to bike/ped traffic, there's bike/ped-only underpass just north of it at California Ave.

    The division of Palo Alto, if any, does not vary with train frequency. Anyone know for how many decades California Ave. crossing was voluntarily closed by Palo Alto?

    Interestingly, in May of 1929 Palo Alto voted down a $60k bond measure to build the Embarcadero underpass as being too “narrow, unsightly and expensive":

    The Embarcadero Underpass: Accident Before Action

    1. Palo Alto Resident27 September, 2017 20:18

      Tell your brother it is illegal to ride his bike through the tunnel, he needs to walk it. :P It is one of the reasons it is unpleasant to use (sucks to have to walk your bike as a cyclist, sucks to have to deal with cyclists who ignore the law as a pedestrian). I'd also avoid it at night, and it is less accessible if you live south of Oregon. It's generally a poor compromise to a street level crossing, and definitely more of a division than when California crossed the tracks.

    2. Really a shame that when Caltrain built their new underpass to access the NB platform, they didn't simply expand and modernize the existing underpass. The configuration makes zero sense.

      Also, the Homer crossing is a nice example that could be cloned at Churchill, if cost ever becomes an issue.

  8. Oregon Expressway was also a close vote:

    The Oregon Expressway: Residentialists Unite

    "The June 5th, 1962 voting was extremely tight. While the anti-Expressway forces took a 100 vote lead early based on large anti-expressway majorities in South Palo Alto, late evening votes coming in from the Walter Hays area put the expressway over the top. In the end, the road was approved by a razor-thin margin of 9,432 votes in favor to 9,030 opposed. Over the following year, houses were either moved or bulldozed, Oregon Avenue was torn up and the new expressway was constructed."

  9. The current Palo Alto process is not yet yet the Alternatives Development phase, so one helps additional reality will be brought to bear before long:
    * a bored tunnel cost far more than even the $1.1B Price of a trench
    * a trench cannot occupy the same space as the existing Embarcadero and University Avenue underpasses
    * a trench can likely not occupy the same space as the creek crossings without complex and expensive pumping infrastructure, or perhaps not at all
    * Charleston and Meadow can be handled as one project, ideally with a San Carlos style Hybrid

    And hopefully early next year our elected council and rail committee will help the citizens to understand that, beyond a best case $350M from measure B, and maybe another $50M from the state, there really are no other sources of funds anywhere on the horizon.

    And as Clem notes, the measure B funds probably have a very short shelf life.

  10. Homer cost $4.1m to build in 2005. Add on soft costs (design, etc) and call it $5m. Escalate it to 2022 (five years from now) and call it $10m. Build the same thing for peds and bikes at Churchill, Peers Park, Loma Verde for $30m. Build other new ped bike new crossings (wide so there is space for bikes and peds) under Caltrain and Alma/Central at California and north of San Antonio. Assume $30m each (as the street/expressway is much wider than the railway. That's $90m. Then spend $10m on improvements to Embarcadero to make up for closing the car crossing at Churchill. That's $100m. The combined roadway grade separation project at Charleston and Meadow can get a quarter billion. I think those are realistic numbers and they yield a realistic plan.

    1. Yup. All of that built to allow 3 tracks.

    2. And Palo Alto Ave. in a future phase?

    3. Perhaps: Close that crossing, and connect Quarry to Everett instead. Vastly improves bus & shuttle circulation.

    4. Palo Alto has no desire to connect Quarry to Everett, as they actually want to impede bus, shuttle, and car circulation to the west side of El Camino. Note that they could easily connect the transit center to the Quarry Road intersection with El Camino, right now, without crossing the tracks, but it ain't gonna happen. It took years to convince them to widen the simple intersection between the transit center loop and westbound University/Palm (my God, they had to cut down a tree!). Before that, a bus waiting to head westbound at the light would often block incoming buses from the east, and bicyclists were at significant risk.

      Palo Alto wants to funnel all traffic to/from the university and medical center through University, then allow some diversion around downtown via Lytton and Hamilton (only). All other routes to/from the east (i.e. 101 and the Dumbarton Bridge) are carefully restricted or blocked. On the rare occasions when I drive or take a bus (rather than Caltrain) from campus, just getting to the bridge (not even across it) during evening commute takes about an hour. Palo Alto considers this to be a feature, not a bug.

    5. Agree with Marc. Although on paper an underpass under the tracks and El Camino (no connection) looks attractive, it would create a new connection to 280 via Arboretum which Stanford wont want, and for PA Everett is a residential street, not even a collector street like Lytton.

      Now if you made it a Shuttles and Bikes connection only --OR-- if it was a connection between Alma and El C only, not into Campus or Downtown, like Alma/Palo Alto Ave currently is, then maybe we could talk. But at that rate why not just make Alma an underpass under the tracks? (Maybe because there is not room to get back to grade at either side so now this needs to be a dreaded Hybrid separation...)

      More generally I do like the idea of lanes restricted to Shuttles, Bikes & Peds only... how many more Boomers need to die off before we can discuss that

  11. Some stupid questions that I wasn't able to google:

    1. What do you mean by trench caps?
    2. What is the controversy about split grade? Is it that people prefer one to trench completely under while the other one is level?

    1. Trench cap: you build a trench, and then cover it.

      Split grade: there's no real controversy, people just want the train to be completely invisible and silent, hence the opposition to anything other than a tunnel.

    2. The controversy is that a split grade separation raises the tracks 10 to 15 feet above existing level, creating what some people describe as a wall that divides their community—despite improved circulation.

    3. Wall shmall. Palo Alto already has a wall consisting of a combination of fencing and foliage (bushes and trees) along the Caltrain right of way. If the city were grade-separated by elevating the tracks a mere 10 or 15 feet, this would in a matter of years look about the same with foliage screening off a view of the "berm" ... but with the added bonus of several new bike/ped undercrossings and no more horn-blowing or cars getting smashed.

    4. Menlo Park's Caltrain tracks are up on an "invisible" wall (earthen berm) between San Francisquito Creek at its southern border with Palo Alto and Burgess Park along Alma St. But nobody takes notice because, as seen here, it's well-screened with foliage.

    5. Steve Schmidt wants a viaduct. Possibly the first time anywhere on the peninsula that someone has wanted a viaduct.

  12. Very true, up to 8' or 10' high in spots, could easily coast into a nice hybrid separation at Ravenswood Ave.

    With nice landscaping you don't notice anything, even catenary could be obscured with trees.

    Also near the Homer Avenue pedestrian undercrossing, Caltrain is a good 5-6' + above Alma.

  13. As posted on the Friends of Caltrain "Green Caltrain" blog, Menlo Park's city council is set to choose one of two very different grade separation alternatives at their meeting tonight:

    Grade separations: Menlo Park slated for decision Tuesday, Palo Alto refines process, Sunnyvale considers closing Sunnyvale Ave

    Staff report for tonight.

    The city's Ravenswood grade separation study/project web page.