In a decision with big impacts for the city's scenic downtown, the Mountain View City Council on Wednesday night backed plans to close Castro Street to car traffic at the Caltrain crossing.
In a 5-2 vote, the council gave its support to a $45 million package to counterbalance the road closure by building a new underpass for cyclists and pedestrians across Central Expressway along with various improvements to reroute vehicle traffic along Evelyn Avenue.
At the late-night meeting, a large showing of Castro Street business owners and representatives urged the council to delay the decision out of fear the closure would harm the city's vibrant dining hub. But council members asserted they needed to provide the "high-level" direction to guide other upcoming improvements for the city's downtown transit center and infrastructure.
The city still needs to conduct significant analysis for the project, and actual construction is expected to be years away. The full project is unlikely to be completed until 2021, according to a city traffic consultant.
Council members defended their decision as the most sensible and manageable solution for a troublesome intersection where trains, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians converge.
Redesigning railway crossings at Castro Street and Rengstorff Avenue, another notorious spot, would soon become a necessity as the rail corridor begins introducing trains that are faster and more frequent, said Councilman Chris Clark.
"Rengstorff and Castro they're disasters right now. Doing nothing is not an option; it's only going to be getting worse," he said. "I get that closing Castro sounds bad, but when you look at other options, this is the only one we can fully control."
The decision was a personal matter for many downtown business leaders, who described the street closure as a threat to their livelihoods. Business groups, including the city's Central Business Association and Chamber of Commerce, urged council members to delay the decision for further studies.
The relationship between local political and business leaders suffered a similar setback earlier this year when the council spearheaded a regional push for a $15 minimum-wage increase. Local merchants and restaurateurs were still coping with that cost increase, said Julie Smiley of the Central Business Association.
"Cutting the artery to the heart of downtown would be a detriment to the business community," she said. "Don't make a decision on this until there (are) more detailed business studies."
In preparation for the Wednesday meeting, the city commissioned a $30,000 economic study that gave very general suggestions for defraying business impacts. Among its key findings, the report gave assurances that the Castro Street district could persevere through a prolonged construction project.
But many business owners made it clear they felt the report was downplaying the potential harm.
As far back as 2010, the city has commissioned traffic experts to study ways to construct a so-called grade separation to split Castro Street from the train tracks. In March, the council began discussing the options in earnest, and council members zeroed in on two starkly divergent plans for further study.
On the one hand, they expressed interest in the $45 million proposal to close off Castro Street at the train tracks and upgrade other roads to handle the traffic diversion.
But they also signaled interest in an intensive $120 million project to tunnel Castro Street underneath the Caltrain tracks, requiring about two years of heavy construction and road closures.
At the Wednesday meeting, no one expressed support for the pricier tunnel strategy, but many speakers suggested some type of mixed plan combining a Castro Street underpass with elevated Caltrain tracks.
But this idea was dismissed as unworkable because the train cars wouldn't have enough clearance to fit under the Shoreline Boulevard overpass.
To varying degrees, the majority of council members signaled support for closing off Castro Street, with some describing it as a change that would ultimately improve downtown.
Presenting his own slideshow of proposals, Councilman Lenny Siegel described the closure as one step of a larger vision to better integrate alternative transit into the heart of downtown.
"We're going to have trains coming through here at 72 miles per hour. To think that the crossing gates will provide safety is a mistake," he said. "We need to make a decision now so we can move onto other things important for mobility."
On the opposing side were councilmen John McAlister and John Inks, who explained the city should get more information before making such a critical decision.
"As a business owner, I have not seen anything that would give me an indication of the viability of these options," McAlister said. "I may be a simpleton on this, but I need to see the data."
Taking a suggestion from the Chamber of Commerce, McAlister proposed creating a city task force with local business leaders, but Siegel declined to add it to his motion.
The council approved the plan, with McAlister and Inks opposing.