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November 12, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, November 12, 2004

Rengstorff improvements delayed due to lack of funding Rengstorff improvements delayed due to lack of funding (November 12, 2004)

City waiting for state bond measure to help

By Kathy Schrenk

Drivers who are tired of waiting for trains to pass while traveling on Rengstorff Avenue will have to keep waiting.

It will likely be several more years before the city can come up with the $45 million needed to tuck Rengstorff beneath the railroad tracks.

For years, the city has wanted to separate Rengstorff from the Caltrain tracks and Central Expressway, which is adjacent to the tracks. Traffic gets backed up on Rengstorff during rush hour, and delays are made worse by passing trains.

Two years ago, the council commissioned a study on the feasibility of depressing Rengstorff under the tracks and the expressway. The cost was estimated at $65 million, a figure the council considered too high.

The city is now considering having Rengstorff go underneath the tracks but rise to meet Central. This plan would bring a significant amount of traffic relief by itself, said Tim Ko, assistant public works director for the city.

This option would also eliminate the need to change the level of the train tracks and avoid using on and off ramps for Rengstorff and Central.

The scaled-back plan will also require purchasing fewer parcels through eminent domain. Under the new plan, these include a market, its parking lot, a house, a gas station and part of a shopping center on the corner, said City Traffic Engineer Dennis Belluomini.

The biggest barrier to the project remains money. State funds are available for grade separations, but that would only put a $5 million dent in the price tag, Ko said.

Instead, officials are pinning their hopes on a $9.9-billion state bond measure to pay for high-speed rail and grade separations that will be on the ballot in November 2006. And though it's uncertain, the city wants to be ready with plans in place should the money become available, Ko said.

City staff will be on the lookout for other funding in the meantime, Ko added.

Cost savings of $20 million aside, council members like the scaled-back grade separation project because they want to avoid the large "visual barrier" created by the elevated tracks in cities such as San Carlos and Belmont.

"I'm concerned about the community division that comes with grade separation," said Council member Rosemary Stasek. Putting Rengstorff under the tracks and the expressway would also create a "pretty significant tunnel," which she wants to avoid.

Besides providing traffic relief, eliminating the railroad crossing would also improve the safety of the intersection, said Caltrain spokesperson Jayme Maltbie Kunz.

"You get huge safety benefits," she said. "But the thing residents will most appreciate is the traffic improvement."

Caltrain has not studied the benefits of a grade separation at Rengstorff. But at a crossing in San Bruno that's slated for grade separation, cars on average have to wait for passing trains for 50 seconds. During rush hour, 267 cars per hour sit through that delay, Kunz said.

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