24 January 2019

Palo Alto: Designing in a Vacuum

Palo Alto is continuing the fraught public process of winnowing down the feasible and acceptable options for grade separating the four remaining rail crossings. Having hired an engineering consultant, the city is busily making plans for railroad land that doesn't belong to it and over which it has no jurisdiction.

The fancy renderings from a recent meeting, envisioning a tunnel, a trench, a hybrid embankment, or a viaduct, invariably show expansive new landscaping when construction is finished. This is reflective of the ample railroad land available through most of Palo Alto. Caltrain's land is typically about 100 feet wide, excepting a few short sections of the corridor near Southgate and Peers Park that are just 60 feet wide. South of those narrow spots, there is plenty of room to accommodate four tracks (about 75 feet required) if needed in the future, no matter what the pot-stirring local press may say.

Palo Alto's planning process thus far seems to have missed these important facts:

  1. Caltrain's nascent business plan envisions ambitious expansions of service in the next two decades, growing far beyond the initial goal of electrification. Service planning thus far strongly suggests (pp. 64-67) that new overtake tracks will be needed approximately from south of Peers Park to the Mountain View border. The additional tracks in south Palo Alto, featured in all remaining options (p. 34), would allow express trains to pass local trains.
  2. In other cities to the north and south where Caltrain has become directly involved in the planning process, it has levied a requirement that city-generated grade separation designs preserve the future option of adding overtake tracks, expanding the corridor from two to three or four tracks. Two examples:
    • Whipple Ave in Redwood City, where the city recently hired Caltrain to lead the planning effort. On page 138 of the October 1st, 2018 city council meeting agenda, a letter from Caltrain states: "... the Project Study Report must include at least one design option that accommodates the potential overtake. In this context, "accommodate" is understood to have the following minimum threshold of meaning: the grade separation design maximizes the preservation and configuration of existing right of way such that overtake tracks could be built later with no or minimal right of way acquisition; the grade separation design does not force future overtake tracks to be built in a way that substantially increases their cost and complexity."
    • Rengstorff Ave in Mountain View, where the city recently hired Caltrain to lead the preliminary engineering and environmental clearance effort. On page 105 of the December 2018 JPB board meeting agenda, we read that "the design will consider and accommodate Caltrain / high-speed rail blended system improvements and be designed to allow for up to four tracks."
In practical terms, this adds a new constraint to Palo Alto's grade separation deliberations. We can reasonably infer that Caltrain will require at least the Charleston / Meadow grade separation to be engineered for four tracks, or at least not to preclude four tracks. The sooner this constraint is incorporated into the city's planning process, the less anguish and recrimination there will be in arriving at an acceptable design.

When planning construction on someone else's land, it helps to know what the owner wants.