11 January 2015

Second Thoughts in Palo Alto

The Caltrain board of directors recently certified the Final Environmental Impact Report for the electrification project, the last environmental clearance necessary to move ahead with construction.  As part of this certification, a list of unavoidable impacts (which cannot be reasonably mitigated) is issued along with a statement of "overriding considerations," basically a justification for why no mitigation is feasible.

This doesn't sit well for the Palo Alto Weekly, which already wrote about the lack of mitigation for the expected worsening of local traffic around several already-jammed intersections in the city.  The Weekly ran an editorial ("Caltrain's electrification project is pushed forward with impunity", a title later toned down to "Caltrain's Bad Judgment") that calls out Caltrain for a number of supposed failures.  Read in the context of the long-running debate over high-speed rail, however, this editorial is off the mark.

Most glaringly, the editorial blames Caltrain for a failure to study grade separations together with the electrification project: "it's long past time for Caltrain to include planning and engineering costs for the least expensive method of eliminating grade crossings: raised berms and lowered roadway undercrossings."  This demand is more than a bit disingenuous, since just five years ago Palo Alto residents were vehemently opposed to raised berms (see Palo Alto Weekly article from April 2009), which were then described by the more alarmist members of the community as a "Berlin Wall".  The heavy-handed public outreach process carried out by the CHSRA five years ago thoroughly poisoned the well, and discussions of above-grade solutions still elicit raw emotions.  Case in point: a recent grade separation study commissioned by the City from tunneling firm Hatch Mott MacDonald studied only the most expensive below-grade options while pointedly excluding a raised berm solution from its scope.  Considering this context, the Weekly would do better to call for the City of Palo Alto to study those controversial raised berms.

Rather than complain, the Palo Alto Weekly should start covering what it really takes to get grade separations built:
  • Calling on the City of Palo Alto to perform a complete study of grade separations, one that does not side-step or ignore affordable above-grade solutions
  • Building strong community support for grade separations, by educating the community not just about technical possibilities but also about costs and available funding sources
  • Prodding the BART-obsessed VTA to start paying attention to the funding needs of northern Santa Clara County
  • Scraping together a local funding contribution as Berkeley once did for their preferred BART configuration
  • Working through the Public Utilities Commission, the agency that regulates all grade crossings and grade separations in California, to obtain Federal and State funding contributions
  • Applying to get Palo Alto crossings onto the CPUC's grade separation priority list
  • Undoing years of misinformation and community resentment lingering from the controversial HSR process
Grade separation of the peninsula corridor is a decadal undertaking that will eventually run its course.  The Palo Alto Weekly editorial board can either help or hinder this necessary progress, and blaming Caltrain doesn't help.