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.

  14. A 13.5-mile tunnel will make or break California's bullet train

    "The need to build the starter system’s 13.5-mile tunnel was identified earlier this year. Until late last year, officials had considered building five shorter tunnels. But that plan cut too close to the San Luis Reservoir, according to federal records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act."

    "Critics say a lot of the current problems could be solved if the state reconsiders an old 1990s plan to go over the Altamont Pass, a lower passage to the Bay Area that lies west of Tracy."

    1. Seems like a fine time to dust off the SETEC Altamont alignment, which features many fewer miles of tunnels. At this point you could even throw in a Dumbarton tunnel under the Bay (a piece of cake tunnel in well-known and easy soils) and still come up short of 13.5 miles of tunnels for the entire Bay Area to Central Valley connection!

    2. Just imagine the traffic relief on the 580, 680 and 84 (Dumbarton) corridors... many more freeway lanes of trains.

    3. Higher costs.
      PLUS Higher risk. Oh yeah. Yeah baby, run in up. Oh yeah.
      PLUS Longer (infinitely longer, ideally, and almost certainly) project delivery time
      PLUS Worse service. For everybody, everywhere!
      PLUS Greater impacts.
      PLUS (did I mention?) higher costs MULTIPLIED by (did I mention?) "unexpectedly" "unforseeable" higher risks MULTIPLIED BY (did I mention?) hugely prolonged endless-deferred reprogrammed/rephased/repackaged/restaged/restructured project "schedules"?

      What's not to like?

      Who's not profiting?

      Screw Altamont! The system is working as designed.

  15. Re-reading your post with attention to funding. Let's assume the magical tunnel unicorn can put the trains underground without any shoo-fly intruding on Alma or adjacent residences. What will the city put on top to capture some value to cover some of the construction cost? Where there isn't "open space", housing is probably a good bet. Are people going to flock to single-family homes whose driveways line Alma? More likely are condo/apartments in the standard 4-story configuration. I would rather have a berm backing to my home than four stories of neighbors.

  16. Sunnyvale grade separation documents are out. Looks like they favor an underpass for cars in both places.


    1. That link is from August and there have been several meetings since then. My understanding is that they have settled on an car underpass at Mary Ave., maybe with a jughandle connection to Evelyn. At Sunnyvale ave, they are still considering a bike/ped only undercrossing. See this more recent document:


  17. Published Thursday, November 2, 2017 by the Silicon Valley Business Journal

    Why high-speed rail is holding off on Diridon Station viaduct plan
    San Jose's search for alternative to high-speed rail's Diridon Station viaduct slows project

    By Jody Meacham
    Reporter, Silicon Valley Business Journal

    Click here to exit the Mercury Reader view

    San Jose's search for alternative to high-speed rail's Diridon Station viaduct slows project - Silicon Valley Business Journal
    Nov. 2nd, 2017

    Send to Kindle
    California high-speed rail is delaying filing federal paperwork for its alignment through San Jose’s Diridon Station while consultants hired by the city look for possible alternatives to the elevated tracks it wants to build through downtown.

    While the delay should only be a couple of months, it is significant for a city where Diridon’s emergence as a major transportation hub — envisioned as a huge driver of downtown development — might instead further splinter downtown with a huge elevated structure, much as the Guadalupe Freeway did when it split downtown into eastern and western sections in the 1980s.

    The agreement to delay was struck in an Oct. 19 meeting between Mayor Sam Liccardo and Dan Richard, chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board. Richard drove to San Jose following a Sacramento board meeting to meet face-to-face about the issue.

    “The mayor asked if I would be open to having our organization give the city time to develop an alternative alignment or alignments that they could talk with us about,” Richard said Wednesday.

    Given Diridon’s position as the northern terminus of the initial operating segment, planned to open in 2025, and its future status as the high-speed rail system’s largest transportation hub, Richard said he agreed.

    “They didn’t want to have door slammed on them,” Richard said. “They wanted to have time to develop some additional thinking on this. I was appreciative of the mayor’s outreach and I wanted to respond in kind.”

    Liccardo said: “Chairman Richard gets it about the importance of building a system that will meet the goals of Californians and also meets the goals of those cities like San Jose that provide a critical path for the system’s success.”

    The city is spending $90,000 for a study by Omaha-based HDR, Inc., on possible alternatives to a viaduct that would carry high-speed trains for most of the 21 miles they would travel within the city limits. It's spending another $70,000 with Exeltech Consulting of Lacey, Washington, to study the feasibility of an underground high-speed station at Diridon. Their findings are expected to be released in January.

    Other options

    High-speed rail’s planners have been saying since October 2016 that they had dropped consideration of below-ground and at-grade alignments. The underground decision was because of unsafe soil and water table conditions beneath Diridon.

    The at-grade alignment along Caltrain’s route would further adversely affect the Gardner neighborhood, split first by the railroad and later by the I-280 and Guadalupe freeways. That option also raises the possibility of high-speed train delays in an already crowded train yard at Diridon.

    Almost every special interest downtown from business to residents and the Gardner neighborhood would prefer a tunnel and underground station as the option least disruptive to the status quo, but no one disputes that option would be the most expensive.

    The underground station's status as dangerous to build and possibly to use because of underground water has been hotly disputed at public meetings by engineers.

    “The good news is that we’re learning that some barriers can be overcome as we seek to ensure that (high-speed rail) is a train that will serve our residents and our community,” Liccardo said.

    ( ... article continues ...)

    1. ( ... continued from preivous posting ...)

      While neither consulting firm has released a preliminary report, city transportation head Jim Ortbal said work so far is looking at eliminating a viaduct down the median of Monterey Highway south of downtown by using a trench instead, something high-speed rail has been investigating on its own.

      HDR is looking at how to unclog the Diridon yard. The station is where many Caltrain and all Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains terminate, are serviced and then head back north.

      The 2008 law authorizing the high-speed rail project requires that trains be able to bypass any station at mainline speed to provide the operational capability for local and express trains.

      One possible way to remove parked trains from Diridon would be to relocate Caltrain’s CEMOF (Centralized Equipment Maintenance & Operations Facility) — now located alongside the Caltrain right-of-way between Lenzen Avenue and West Taylor Street – to somewhere south of Diridon.

      The facility cost $140 million when it was opened 10 years ago and employs 100 mechanical department workers and is the base for 120 train crew. A Caltrain spokesman could not be reached for comment, but that railroad is intimately involved in the joint planning for a new Diridon Station as its owner and largest user.

      Three railroads

      The Valley Transportation Authority, which now runs light rail trains and buses through the station, is working on the project to extend BART to Diridon within a year of high-speed rail’s arrival and also is affected by the state system’s plans.

      All three railroads and the city are involved in the planning effort.

      “After we meet all the operational needs and the user experience — we want the station to be beautiful,” said Chris Augenstein, VTA’s planning director. “We want it to be something others look at and say, ‘Wow!, they did such a great job in San Jose, we want to go there and learn how to do this right.’ That’s what everybody is coalescing around.”

      Richard volunteered in his interview that high-speed rail established a “very aggressive schedule” for environmental approvals in its 2016 business plan because getting the railroad up and running is key to its survival as a project.

      A revised environmental clearance schedule “will be part and parcel of a broad look at where the program is that we’ll be reporting on as we develop our (2018) business plan,” he said.

    2. Let's have HSR fund the relocation of CEMOF so San Jose can provide more land to Google? Seems totally reasonable, given the history of decision-making for transit in the 408.

  18. Looks like Palo Alto has a new report on potential financing for grade separations here:


    As expected, the only practical way to raise the ~$1B needed even a minimal trench solution (2% grade, Meadow/Charlston only) would include a ~20% property tax increase. (from 1.15% to 1.4% of assessed value). We'll see whether these numbers inject some reality into the conversation there.

    1. I dunno. As crazy as a 20%-50% property tax increase is (especially with the likely IRS exemption for it ending) I could see a majority of PA voting for it if it "got rid of the trains". They could brand it as a greenbelt initiative, and demand their own 101 trench too. Zuckerberg himself could pay for it like he's paying for Samtrans to study Dumbarton.

    2. You’d almost think that with all the “bury the train” fervor, the Alma traffic sewer actually beautifies the city!

      Also note, the new costing white paper studiously omits any options that raise the rails even one inch. If the city can’t bring itself to cost out a standard split grade sep for Charleston/Meadow, maybe Caltrain will do it for them!

    3. Honestly, I think Caltrain/HSR would be better to focus on the grade separation opportunities at Alma and Churchill. When combined with the planned grade separation(s) in Menlo Park, this could result in a completely grade separated 3 station stretch from Menlo Park to California Ave. potentially wide enough for at least 3 tracks. Since all Caltrains stop at University Ave., this would be a great overtake location.

    4. Hopefully Caltrain will cost out a standard split grade separation. Do people understand that University and Embarcadero are already separated by going *under* the tracks or how deep to go under San Francisquito Creek?

      One of the problems is the lies and propaganda spread by anti-rail groups and morons. I recall there was quite a bit of talk in the past (not as much now) of numerous property seizures to accommodate a split/below grade street crossing because it would cause some driveways to results in and elevation change of over 2 feet. Well I see driveways like this all over the peninsula, so what’s the problem?

      Then there is the cutting of trees BS, that anti-rail people put on a level of the crime of murder… unbelievable!!!

      Berlin wall… hogwash!!! The ROW is obscured by vegetation through much of Palo Alto.

    5. Oddly enough, the CHSRA’s own consultant found in their analysis that a long triple-track overtake was far better than any of the options in their draft EIR. Which suggests the draft EIR is broken and wide open to litigation.

    6. Fortunately, the final EIR date for SF-SJ has been pushed back 2 years to 2019, so hopefully they have time to better analyze the overtake options and avoid this potential litigation. The 3 track alignment in this analysis goes all the way from CP Palm to CP Mayfield, which would include Meadow/Charlston. My hope would be that a shorter 3-track section (Maybe from CP Dumbarton to Matadero Creek) would be practical with Caltrain stopping at all stops in between.

  19. Per the study. PA property tax increases would be $1700-$6000 *per year*. All so that a handful of people who bought properties backing on a 150 year old active rail line don’t have to plant some trees on a berm?

    Other cities pay $100 - $150 million for grade seps, but some folks here think there is a free $1-2B laying around.

    I don’t have extra $$$ to increase my property taxes by $2k+/year forever (non-deductably from 1040 as you note). And if you wrote property tax checks in PA, you would not either.

  20. $6k/year per property would be a fantastic investment for any homeowner here in PA. Most would be pretty eager to buy into it. Most would vote for a tax assessment to fund it, I would think. The resultant appreciation alone would easily, EASILY offset the $6k/year/property for many of the houses around PA's. Probably most of the condos, too. Even if that burden was shifted entirely to the high-end property owners, estimate that they are 25% of the city, $24K/year would still be an incredibly winning investment for them on a 10 or 20 year horizon.

    The only thing that prevents it from being funded right now, instantly, is that people feel the gut pain of thinking about a 10-year construction project. If was doable in 6 months, it could get funded easily.

  21. Most people in PA do not live near the tracks nor are most ‘made of money’ (despite what non-PA folks may think). $6k/year at net present value will knock ~$200k off a home value — even if you are the tiny sliver who could afford that you would rather spend it on your kids’ or grandkids’ education or a 2nd home maybe.

    Andrew: Where do you live and what huge tax increases have you seen passed?

    1. Well, I live in PA now. I am fairly certain that the ultra-wealthy of PA would happily pay for a 10 year tax assessment to trench the train tracks, beautiy the city, make it easier to get their kids to Paly, etc.

      The property owners along Alma and in "Old Palo Alto" alone would like have plenty of cash to offer up for the benefit. De-training that frontage would likely add $6k/year to rental incomes on even the most modest units there.
      Considering the value growth of most property in PA has been 125% over the past 6 years, a $200K implied price burden is within reason for even 2br condo's.

      When I was in Berkeley, I saw neighborhoods that were willing to make investments to add to the value of their houses. Undergrounding utilities was a common one that my former neighborhood of Northside Berkeley was eager to do, money in hand, asking for a 10 year special tax assessment. It turned out that the city literally would not let them do it, because they did not want one wealthier part of the city to become nicer than other parts with less wealth.

      Of course, that whole city is now the new ultra-wealthy enclave of the whole bay area (apartments in Berkeley rent for more than those in Palo Alto, by a serious margin, and essentially every property is bought with cash), but that's another story for another time.

      Although I will correct myself on one thing I said above: the idea of a Palo Alto trenching project being doable in 10 years is laughable now that I stand back and think about it. That would be a 40 year generational project.

  22. So you are volunteering for your rent to go up $500 per month?

    1. If I had a choice between paying $1800 for a room on Alma near CA/PA station that was that price due to the trains roaring by, or paying $2300 for the same place in the same location but with electric trains running through a trench with walkability over to El Camino and Stanford ... then I'd prefer the second option.

      And the property owner would, too.

    2. Unfortunately what you (and any actual trackside dwellers) prefer is irrelevant. The question is what half (or possibly even 2/3) of Palo Alto voters — most of which live well away from the tracks — are willing to pay for absolutely zero additional transportation benefit over standard and far less costly "split-elevation" grade seps.

    3. I’d like to point out that trenching the train would not remove the blight of the Alma traffic sewer, so any pop in property values would likely not be significant. As soon as the train is made quiet (EMUs + quiet zones) the clamor for a trench will die away.

  23. After some digging, I found https://www.princeton.edu/~ota/disk3/1976/7609/760905.PDF

    Berkeley's bond to put BART underground provided for up to $20m to pay the additional cost of building the 2.75 miles of additional subway (p 22). The final cost was $12.4m.

    Now I don't know about inflation over 50 years, but I'm guessing that the $12.4m doesn't come anywhere close to compare to the funds Palo Alto would need to raise to put Caltrain below grade. So the "Berkeley did it" argument doesn't really hold up. (But good on Berkeley for doing it back then.)

    1. Berkeley’s $20M bond in 1966 would be equivalent to $500M today, only a small portion of the tab for a Palo Alto trench. It just won’t happen!