Caltrain trenching study wins green light

Palo Alto commissions a study for trenching tracks, building underpasses near Mountain View border

Declining to stand idle while change arrives along the Caltrain corridor, Palo Alto officials on Monday agreed to commission a study that would evaluate the cost of digging a trench for trains in the southern half of the city near the Mountain View border.

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."


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Posted by Susan
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2013 at 2:18 pm

I think someone should consider the water table in the area. San Antonio can't be more than 75 feet above the water table Dig a 30 foot deep trench and I bet there would be seepage. Where will all the dirt go?

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Posted by konrad M. Sosnow
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Nov 5, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Mountain View can benefit from this study. While our situation is not identical to that of Palo Alto, we have crossing issues at both Rengstorff and Castro streets.

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of another community
on Nov 5, 2013 at 2:47 pm

1. Contracting for any rail study, for Palo Alto or anywhere else on the Peninsula, should not be conducted by HMM, or any other company that seeks business with high-speed rail development. Since all studies are biased, the study that Palo Alto should seek is one that looks out for Palo Alto's needs and identifies -- honestly -- possible adverse consequences of any construction.

2. Just looking at trenching only is already more conclusion-based than appropriate. Palo Alto needs to study ALL alternatives to Caltrain corridor development, up and down, good, bad and indifferent. What are the upsides and downsides of each option? What deleterious effects will each option have on the city? What are the cost/benefits of each option? What can be anticipated if HSR does not appear on the Caltrain corridor in any configuration? What will the impacts of electrification be for Caltrain only? For both Caltrain and HSR? What trackage expansion can be expected, including passing track additions? There are surely many more questions that an independent study should find answers for. (Menlo Park has rail elevation alternative option studies dating back to 2003. What was the point of those studies? They certainly didn't look out for Menlo Park's interests.)

3. Larry Klein is right. Decide what to do after Judge Kenny hands down a firm, unambiguous decision. If there's to be no Prop. 1A funding even for local rail transit development, that's a major game changer.

4. Final point: Transit and rail studies tend not to be worth much, since they usually ignore the political realities behind government sponsored development. Remember, the CHSRA has NEVER been interested in solving transit problems, locally or state-wide. They were interested in launching and operating a mega-project that would involve mega-dollars. And, that's exactly where they are today, when they scramble to start digging up the Central Valley.

Caltrain has been pursuing the wrong business model since forever. They love spending big bucks on big projects; note their pursuit of super expensive CBOSS as a PTC solution when off-the-shelf technologies, used universally, are far cheaper. As I've been saying since forever: "It's not about the train; it's about the money!" All that needs to be kept in mind when bureaucracies seek to fund studies.

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Posted by Rossta
a resident of Waverly Park
on Nov 5, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Rossta is a registered user.

Mountain View might benefit from the study, but it has different constraints. Just a short distance east of Castro, Stevens Creek crosses just below grade with high water close to grade, so I doubt there is any way to lower the CalTrain tracks at that point. This could force Mountain View to look at grade separation the same way as most of the other cities have - by elevating the tracks and having other traffic cross underneath. Hey, maybe that is where the dirt Palo Alto digs up would go?

Elevating should be studied, too, though less desirable. You have to cross a train 30 feet below (26 feet clearance), but you don't have to raise it nearly as much. And, there may be solutions by blending raising tracks and lowering the roads that can work together for minimizing the work.

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Posted by chas
a resident of Monta Loma
on Nov 6, 2013 at 11:00 am

chas is a registered user.

I think it is unrealistic to have the high speed rail system terminate in San Francisco. The Peninsula is just too high density to put something like that in place. High Speed Rail should terminate in San Jose at a terminal that also has a connection to BART.

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Posted by Otto Maddox
a resident of Monta Loma
on Nov 8, 2013 at 12:29 pm

It's funny seeing people discuss "high speed rail" like it's ever going to happen.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Waverly Park

on Jun 5, 2017 at 4:35 pm

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