In a 7-2 vote, with Larry Klein and Karen Holman dissenting, the City Council voted to approve a contract with the engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald to evaluate the trenching of Caltrain between the city's southern tip at San Antonio Road and Matadero Creek, just south of Oregon Expressway. The study would also look at the cost of building underpasses at Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road.
The $127,550 study was prompted by a number of changes looming on the near- and long-term horizons for the roughly four-mile Caltrain corridor in Palo Alto. In the long run, the corridor is envisioned as a conduit for California's highly controversial $68 million high-speed rail system, which under the current plan would share two tracks with Caltrain on the Peninsula. In the more near future, Caltrain is looking to convert from diesel to electric trains, a long-awaited change that would enable more trains to travel along the already busy corridor.
The looming changes have created angst in the community, argued Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who chairs the council's Rail Committee and who was one of the seven council members to support the study. Her committee had discussed the proposed analysis over a series of meetings this year before narrowing down the list of options to be studied to the two in its recommendation.
Shepherd said the study would provide the council with valuable information about which options, if any, are feasible for the potential future redesign of the Caltrain corridor.
"If there is a 'no' here for some of our options, we need to know what that 'no' is," Shepherd said.
The study is also expected to address a common local concern about the Caltrain corridor — its effect as a barrier between east and west Palo Alto. Last year, when the council received a report from a citizen task force charged with forming a "vision" for the corridor, one of the main themes in the task force's report was the limited number of roads that run east/west.
"The Caltrain corridor represents the most significant barrier to east-west connectivity in central Palo Alto. ... It is a difficult barrier that divides the city in half," the report stated.
Councilman Pat Burt argued that the study will allow the council to hold informed discussions with the community about addressing the relative lack of grade separations in Palo Alto. He noted that that the problem is particularly bad in the south. Building underpasses would ostensibly help relieve the traffic jams that already occur at the crossings and that will only get worse as Caltrain ramps up its service.
"That entire half of Palo Alto already doesn't have good access form the east to the west," Burt said. "We only have seven points where we cross east to west across Palo Alto."
Burt called the information in the proposed study "a critical part of our long-term future"
"If we just kick this down the road and don't even evaluate our alternatives until it essentially hit us in the face, we're not going to have the options at that time," Burt said.
Councilman Larry Klein, the sole member of the Rail Committee who opposed the study, rejected this argument and argued that the council shouldn't spend another dime on studying alternatives that would be way too expensive for the city to implement. Earlier projections from Hatch Mott MacDonald had estimated that trenching the Caltrain tracks along the entire four-mile corridor would cost between $500 million and $650 million. The committee agreed to limit the scope of the study to the 1.7-mile segment between San Antonio and Matadero Creek because of the high complexity of building trenches in the northern half of the city, which would require overhaul of the two Caltrain stations and extensive work around the San Francisquito Creek.
"I think this is an example of Palo Alto hubris," Klein said. "We have a tendency to think we can do everything. We can't. We don't control the money on this and we're not likely to."
Klein also argued that the city is moving too fast on the proposed study and urged his colleagues to at least wait until the ongoing lawsuit against the California High Speed Rail Authority is settled before determining whether to commission the analysis. He also argued that the council should get a "buy-in" from the community about the benefits of grade separations before proceeding with the study. The study, he argued, "will be a classic report that will be put on the shelf and not used."
Councilwoman Karen Holman also argued that the city should seek more feedback from the public before studying any dramatic proposals involving the Caltrain corridor, particularly any proposals that would require seizure of houses.
"We have to do a better job in reaching out to the public and getting them involved and engaged in this proposal, Holman said.
Others took the opposite stance and sided with Burt. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who also sits on the Rail Committee, agreed with Klein that the city is in some ways ahead of the big regional agencies in studying the alternatives. That, however, is a good thing, she said. The city needs to conduct the the necessary analyses to make sure it can be as competitive as jurisdictions in San Mateo County in lobbying for grade-separation funds, she said.
"I think Palo Alto should stay ahead of it all," Kniss said.
Councilwoman Gail Price agreed.
"I don't think we should wait until respective agencies feel the need or responsibility to provide this information," Price said, adding that the study will make the city "better prepared" for conversations with regional agencies. "This is a very, very modest cost to set us on one way."
The approved study would be split into two phases, with the council having a chance to revise the scope after the first $59,790 phase, which would look at the underpass and trenching scenarios and include "draft cost estimates and design exhibits." The second phase would cost $67,760 and would refine the data and include a "final feasibility report."