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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Palo Alto’s biggest problem?

Uploaded: Nov 30, 2018
When retiring City Manager Jim Keene gave to a talk to the Rotary Club of Palo Alto recently, he ended it by saying he thought Palo Alto’s biggest upcoming problem was grade separations – keeping cars away from trains by elevating or lowering the roads or tracks.

Grade separations are really expensive to build, and Palo Alto has four crossings to contend with – Charleston, Meadow, Churchill and Alma – a possible $438 million just for Meadow Drive alone. The city could decide to close one or two of these crossings, but then where would cars and bikes go to get across? The separations will each take a couple of years to construct, including turning some four-lane roads into two laners for a couple of years, and since Caltrain service has to continue throughout the construction process, the tracks may have to be moved. For example, Caltrain could install temporary tracks directly onto Alma Street, meaning cars couldn’t use that roadway. That would cause a bit of angered concern, for sure. To complete this project, some houses may have to be torn down, trees bordering tracks will be removed, utility equipment will have to be relocated, and the construction is so complex there are sure to be additional unpredicted problems. Once a track system is decided, catenaries will have to be constructed for the electrification – big high poles on both sides of the track with electrical wires running down the line – ultimately, ugly.

Just as Oregon Expresssway has created a north-south divide, the new track configurations, whatever they will be, could also result in an east-west divide in this town.

So why even do it? Well, Caltrain now carries some 4,500 people per hour, each direction, while weekday Palo Alto boardings at University and Cal Ave stations average 9,052 people, and the need for more trains is rapidly growing. While there are 10 trains hourly that go through Palo Alto, after electrification in 2022 or so, there will be 12 per hour that could easily expand to 20 trains an hour, making driving across tracks a constant waiting game. And if high-speed rail is ever completed, those bullet trains will also run down these tracks.

Nadia Naik provided me with these numbers. She’s a Palo Alto resident and co-founder of CAARD (Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design), an objective fact-finding volunteer group. Naik herself has spent years following this subject and is one of the brightest people I know working on this problem.

The city is faced with four possibilities for grade crossings and each approach has its own set of difficulties and complexities: tunneling, trenching, raising or lowering the tracks or road, or a very high viaduct. Most Palo Altans immediately say tunneling, but that means going down 80 feet (yes, eighty), deep enough to go under the creeks and capable of carrying the two-deck trains. Stations would require long escalators to get to the trains, there are air and safety issues but the biggest obstacle is cost – one estimate is a minimum of $4 billion dollars (plus anticipated overruns) and years of construction to enable the train to descend into a tunnel stretching from San Antonio Road north and ascend in Menlo Park.

And by the way, there’s no money for all this. Maybe a little from the state but lots of cities along the Caltrain corridor want that money, and maybe several million from sales tax and bond issues, but the feds probably won’t contribute much, so Palo Alto would have to find billions of dollars to make tunneling work. Simple, right?

Yet I wonder why Caltrain doesn't pay for some of this. Caltrain wants the electrification, and that will cause grade separation issues, so shouldn't Caltrain mitigate for the problems it's causing?

The city has held several community meetings asking residents for their input, and the council is scheduled to talk about some of these proposals at the end of this month, but a final decision will take awhile and none of those deciding (including council members, most residents and me) are certainly not experts in this area.

But we need to track (pardon the pun) this as best as we can. It’s the biggest undertaking this city has had in years and what we do will affect us for years to come (financially and practically).

And new ideas are pouring in every day, e.g., a proposal from CAARD to tunnel the area from Charleston to Meadow for only electric train use and let the three rail freight trains travel at the current ground level; move the tracks temporarily to the vacant area between the road on Alma and the current tracks, removing all the green buffer bushes; getting Stanford to chip in millions of dollars to help finance this project, etc.

My current leaning is having train tracks run on an above-ground berm and lowering the roadways to go underneath the new tracks, as San Carlos and San Mateo have done. But other, more clever ideas may surface.

What are your suggestions – and preferences?
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Abitarian, a resident of Downtown North,
on Dec 1, 2018 at 7:57 am

My feeling is that Palo Alto's biggest problem is the incompetence and corruption at City Hall which makes all the other problems larger than they should be.

Posted by bob.smith, a resident of another community,
on Dec 1, 2018 at 8:52 am

@@@"But other, more clever ideas may surface."

Grade separations have been going on for more than 100 years (or 2000 years if you include Roman aqueducts), so a clever idea that has lain undiscovered all that time is extremely unlikely.

@@@"Yet I wonder why Caltrain doesn't pay for some of this. Caltrain wants the electrification, and that will cause grade separation issues, so shouldn't Caltrain mitigate for the problems it's causing?"

Electrification does not cause grade separation issues, high operating speeds might eventually. Caltrain could chip in, but they are not going to fund the Taj Mahal.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 1, 2018 at 9:35 am

I'm not sure Caltrain should be the only one to chip in as they do not own the right of way, but lease it from Southern Pacific. Presumably any increase in traffic on the tracks will lead to more money for them as they are the ones presumably getting rent for the lease.

If a Bond Measure can be passed to get BART to San Jose, then I think something similar should be done to improve Caltrain along the Peninsula. Why should the individual cities be paying for something that will improve the service for all including those who don't use Caltrain between San Jose and San Francisco. All counties/cities should be footing the bill on this. In fact, since the President promised money for infrastructure improvements I would suggest that we should be looking at Federal Grants for some of this also.

With grade separation and increased numbers of Caltrain each day, everyone in the Peninsula and South Bay will see improvements. The more riders on Caltrain, the less need for improvements to Freeways (along with better public transport meaning buses that use the freeways). Now is the time to get together with the region as a whole to improve a service that benefits everyone living in the region.

Posted by Nadia Naik, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Dec 1, 2018 at 11:48 am

Nadia Naik is a registered user.

Important Correction to Diana's story: NO HOMES WILL BE TORN DOWN under any of the current plans being considered by the city.

Posted by Nadia Naik, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Dec 1, 2018 at 12:35 pm

Nadia Naik is a registered user.

More corrections:

CARRD has recommended that the City Council consider ADDING A DESIGN ALTERNATIVE for Meadow/Charleston that would be a short, electrified only tunnel with one track of freight at the surface.

CARRD is NOT advocating that this is the right solution - we are merely suggesting it be included given that we have significant concerns that the popular trench idea might be fatally flawed due to concerns with crossing the creeks. Our full public comment is available here:

Web Link

With regard to how to fund alternatives - there IS money available!

Funding is available for grade separations from a number of sources. The primary source is 2016 Measure B dollars (potentially up to $350 million) which are available for Palo Alto.

In addition, SB 1 (gas tax) has funding available for grade separations. Other potential funding sources include a possible 2020 three county (SF, SM and SCC) sales tax for Caltrain funding, including some money for grade separations. Yet another possibility, in a business license tax. In other cities, business license taxes are used to have companies pay their fare share of transportation and infrastructure improvements. This is typically a more popular funding source with the voters rather than a property tax for residents. If PA had a business license tax even 1/2 as high as cities like SF, we could raise a very significant amount of money. Mountain View and East Palo Alto just passed significant expansions of their business taxes this November.

Posted by Diana Diamond, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Dec 1, 2018 at 3:37 pm

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

Nadia -- Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate them But allow me to respond to your response:

No homes will be torn down -- I hope not, but we still are not positive until we decide on which track configuration we will use and where we will be the alternate temporary tracks be situated the current track, and will that affect any homes. I really hope you are right.

As to my saying no money is available -- the rest of the paragraph did say 'Maybe a little from the state but lots of cities along the Caltrain corridor want that money, and maybe several million from sales tax and bond issues, but the feds probably won’t contribute much,"...

I should have said no big funds are available currently to make it possible to complete grade separations that will cost millions of dollars. Yes, we may get up to $350M from Measure B, but that would be almost enough for only one grade separation. And we could adopt a business tax in Palo Alto (although residents and the council have talked for years about such a tax and the objections to one have been vociferous), and we could have another sales tax --- but we still are going to have big million-dollar money problems.

So we have a money problem. Maybe the state or the feds will ultimately help. I hope so.

Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Dec 3, 2018 at 12:23 am

Reality Check is a registered user.

@Resident incorrectly writes that Caltrain does not own the right of way. In fact, the Caltrain Joint Powers Board purchased the SF - SJ right of way from Southern Pacific (SP) for $220 million in December of 1991. (And SP no longer exists ... as it was absorbed by Union Pacific not long thereafter.) Also, grade separations do not allow faster or more frequent train operations.

While grade separations eliminate the occasional crossing crashes and resulting train damage and delays caused by scofflaw road users, road users who must no longer wait for trains to pass are the primary beneficiaries (also those who no longer suffer train horn-blowing ... which can also be legally and safely eliminated by establishing FRA- and CPUC-authorized train horn "quiet zones.")

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 3, 2018 at 9:14 am

@Reality Check. Thank you for reminding me that we have to be so careful with our accuracy and how we choose our words here on Town Square, because someone will pick you up and correct your mistakes :).

Yes, I should have said Union Pacific rather than Southern Pacific. The ownership of the right of way is obviously a lot more complicated than I understand it. But my point as to the owners needing to pay towards grade separation should still stand. Caltrain uses the tracks on the right of way and it would not be logical if they paid more than the owners to improve the right of way by grade separation.

I also know that grade separation will not make the trains more frequent or faster (although I am not sure about the speed angle, but definitely the frequency angle). My point is that grade separation as well as a higher number of trains will be needed to see a better improvement to traffic efficiency on the roads and freeways. Better public transportation will mean less need for wider freeways and so will grade separation for local roadways as road traffic will not have to stop for trains.

I do think that grade separation will boost traffic flow for all of us, not just those who need to transverse the tracks. The more trains per hour taking more passengers will enable local traffic to move efficiently as well as freeway traffic less likely to increase if drivers have better options than driving solo.

Posted by TBM, a resident of another community,
on Dec 3, 2018 at 1:04 pm

>>> "But my point as to the owners needing to pay towards grade separation should still stand. Caltrain uses the tracks on the right of way and it would not be logical if they paid more than the owners to improve the right of way by grade separation."

The owners of the right-of-way do not see a trench or tunnel as being an improvement, on the contrary it is a degradation of their valuable property. A trench is expensive to maintain, is prone to flooding and earthquake damage, and narrows the right-of-way to half the current width.

Caltrain prefers to keep its right-of-way as it is now, flat, wide, at ground level, because it is cheap to maintain, resistant to natural disasters, and flexible enough to handle future transportation technologies developed over the next 100 years.

Caltrain has no money, they are a quasi public service that operates at a loss. They depend largely on government grants to fund capital improvements.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 3, 2018 at 5:18 pm

I give up! I'm trying to look at the big picture of what the region needs. Caltrain and Palo Alto are not the only way to look at this. This is a bigger kettle of fish than just the local aspect, but if it suits you to pull my thoughts apart without trying to understand my meaning. Go ahead. List all my errors, but without digging deeper (pardon the pun), the surface of the problem is all that will ever be seen.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Dec 3, 2018 at 5:55 pm

"all politics is local"

Posted by Gale Johnson, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Dec 3, 2018 at 6:30 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Well well well, just another of our big local 'big' issues to deal with. I'm sure Cory Wolbach is trying his darnedest to get something done as chair of that committee before his "lame duck" one term on PA's CC is over. It looks like, from reading reports in our local papers, that Mt. View is beating us to the punch as far as funding any project that might survive the final test. I think this whole process is like smoking a beef's going low and slow.

Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Mountain View,
on Dec 5, 2018 at 5:36 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Gee, an area that I have become an expert: RAPID TRANSIT AND GRADE SEPARATION. Ask Elon Musk about using his Boring Company to create a tunnel. His company is local and is a boring ( pun INTENDED! ) solution to the required depth.


I have seen cases were people DID lose houses and businesses to allow RTD Light Rail to create the Gold Line. That ROW was used ultimately for UPPER grade separation. RTD IS ELECTRIFIED and has towers with " ugly " catenary towers. If BART had been able to finish the loop 40 years ago, YOU WOULD NOT HAVE THOSE " UGLY " TOWERS! You would not have this ugly abortion known as Caltrain, either. Nor would you have a grade crossing for that " son of an abortion " known as the VTA.

Nadia Naik: To see mass transit and " Light Rail " done right, invest in an airplane ride and a rental car, or just use GOOGLE MAPS to trace the actual lines that serve Metro Denver to most of the suburbs. Downtown Denver DOES have at-grade crossings, to pick up commuters and take them to their homes, many which ( Gasp ) use their RTD provided BIKE LOCKERS to bike home ( usually less than a 1/2 mile away ).

On the grade separation issue: the former Santa Fe railroad had required grade separations built and has ONE level crossing in a heavily industrial area. These trains often are a HUNDRED CARS with helper locomotives both in the middle and both ends. It takes over a mile to emergency stop these trains and the flat wheels have often had to be replaced. The cars with partial flat wheels make multiple banging noise when the car is reused. Now that Buffet likes to play with REAL TRAINS it is the BNSF in a pumpkin orange, replacing the " war bonnet " designs of the old and new Santa Fe

Much of RTD simply used the old Denver Trolley ROW. The older houses on the middle of the street trolley lines had to go the Eminent Domain route. That also crossed a business driveway and that business owner made a lot of noise over it. Guess what? Noise but no action. The Gold Line still got built.

Quite a few weeks ago, I spent an evening following the RTD Light Rail Line on Google Maps. How many other cities have a true " union station " where AMTRAK, DIA, RTD Bus service and RTD Light Rail meet all at one place?
Oh, you could have had the same thing, IF BART COMPLETED THE LOOP AS WAS PLANNED 40 YEARS AGO.

Golden ( where Coors beer is made ) demanded a busy local highway TRENCHED through it's city limits; $500 MILLION A MILE would be the cost. 3 to 4 miles; you do the math. That busy highway is still there. That figure was 10 years ago.

In some cases, Santa Fe brought in fill dirt to make their 4 track crossings for auto below grade crossings. The engineers designed them ahead of time. Denver has busy freeways and busy train usage.

These designs were built to expect both more cars and both regular freight and Light rail use.Both issues were planned for and solved.

I model the SuperChief Train in it's heyday, now long past. I also supported BART as it would take care of commuters for the next hundred years. If Eminent Domain had been applied, we would not need this conversation today

The bottom line: somebody gets hurt. You will have enemies no matter how you build. Astich in time saves nine. You pay me now or pay me later.

Posted by TBM, a resident of another community,
on Dec 6, 2018 at 12:50 am

@@@ "Ask Elon Musk about using his Boring Company to create a tunnel."

Elon's Boring company is using a second-hand tunnel boring machine made by the worlds leading manufacturer of tunnel boring machines.
If Palo Alto want a tunnel boring machine the can go straight to the manufacturer and cut out the middle man.
The biggest problem with a tunnel is cost, and the cost of a tunneling is largely driven by the laws of physics. Elon can't revoke the laws of physics, despite his assertions to the contrary.

Posted by Mick Elongfellow, a resident of Community Center,
on Dec 6, 2018 at 4:57 am

Look at all those towns north of us that have successfully raised the tracks - San Carlos, San Bruno, Belmont, etc...

They have better traffic, it's a heck of a lot quieter and so many benefits.

I can't believe that Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto did not do the same thing when Redwood City and Belmont raised their tracks.

Posted by Mick Elongfellow, a resident of Community Center,
on Dec 6, 2018 at 5:00 am


There was a vote to raise sales tax to pay for it. San Mateo county voted against it.

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 6, 2018 at 6:42 am

I've always thought the only really good way to do this is to do the tunnel.

A tunnel will get rid of the sound. A tunnel will allow Alma to be safer and wider. No more crashes of suicides. No more train horns waking up the whole town. A tunnel will allow construction to take place in a less intrusive and annoying way. A tunnel will create less opportunities for crime. Tunnel is just all around win-win except for cost. Why can't some out of corporations contribute to the cost of a tunnel?

Except for the cost, a tunnel would be great. The cost is prohibitive, but what it will do to Palo Alto if it is either raised up or trenched down will also be prohibitive. Too bad this cannot be somehow folded into a HSR, High Speed Rail budget, not that I think we should even be doing HSR ... but if we are?

Can a tunnel be built? What about having to pass below the Creeks, University or Oregon underpasses?

Is there any way a tunnel can be built coincident with some kind of flood water management system that moves water out of the flooded areas and out to the bay?

One reason this is not all just subsumed under BART is that we have lots of freight trains passing through Palo Alto as well. Can they co-operate on BART tracks? I doubt it.

The problem is who is going to pay billions to save little Palo Alto from having to be chewed up by new train track trenches or overpasses?

Posted by Florence, a resident of Green Acres,
on Dec 6, 2018 at 7:53 pm

Israel built a train system that did not require removing homes. Has the city studied how other cities in the US and in other countries were able to build a train system without displacing residents?

Posted by Patrick, a resident of Woodside,
on Dec 7, 2018 at 11:50 am

Is it me, or are people who "expose" themselves the biggest problem in Palo Alto? I swear, I keep seeing stories about these incidents in PA and it seems to happen more in Palo Alto than in any other town. Can we get a study done by the PA Daily?

Posted by Make your own pie, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 8, 2018 at 11:40 pm

Palo Alto's biggest problem is that it is being overrun by companies that have no sense of their enormous and usually negative impact on residents, on displacement of residents, on costs, on quality of life, on the environment, traffic, people's productivity, and absolutely no sense of responsibility to pay for the ills they are creating.

There was a show on forum about housing, and the host asked why the companies don't move, and the answer was: the local brain trust, the amenities, etc. Those are all things that can be duplicated, if successful companies had a sense of paying back to the public for what they have gotten free that allowed them to be successful.

Palo Alto should not have to transform into a metropolis unsupported by the infrastructure, with the costs and negatives to safety foisted on the residents whose lives are being ruined, just so that successful companies don't have to move where they can grow. And yes, that means thinking about paying for creating that perfect place they got for free up until now.

Stop bringing in so many employees. If they can't find housing, get together with other companies on the Silicon Valley Leadership Council, and identify a few places to grow where you can create that perfect place that is as horrendously dense as you want. Don't forget to create another one with single-family homes so you can keep your employees when they aren't new hires anymore.

Somebody paid for all those things you got for free here. Now you are successful, you can pay for them, too. The world has gotten more crowded, and yet in this country, many places have lost so many residents, they have to close the schools.

Hold a national contest like Amazon did, only, promise investments in the place, diverse jobs, support for local college and other education, arts, environment, etc. And remember to put in place strong rules so that a few companies won't swoop in once your new center of innovation gets rolling and totally trash it for everyone who built it.

Posted by Carlos Marcos, a resident of another community,
on Dec 9, 2018 at 12:36 am

> and the host asked why the companies don't move

There is no choice - if you want a job that pays, you have to move here. But moviing here means that all the big paycheck you make goes into the pockets of real estate commissions and rents.

The country would be in much better shape just paying higher taxes than just dumping money into the drain of the private-imposed billionaire's taxm because that is all it is ... a tax imposed on the owners and merchants of the real estate industry. Then to make sure they maintain their profits the buy the government and disable the market system they crow about so much.

Then they import people from abroad in addition to sucking up people's paychecks in rent.

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