Mountain View council members signaled early support for closing off Castro Street at the Caltrain tracks, making for a dramatic transformation of the city's downtown strip. The idea, which is still being studied, would prevent traffic from crossing the tracks, blocking vehicles from Moffett Boulevard and Central Expressway heading to the downtown.
At the March 22 study session, a majority of the council hailed the idea as the least disruptive way to preserve the character of downtown.
"Closing Castro at the railroad is the best we could do for downtown for safety and for emerging transit options," said Councilman Lenny Siegel. "By doing something simpler and cleaner, this would give us money we could use to improve transit options."
The spot has long been considered a safety risk due to the large numbers of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians who regularly converge there to cross the tracks. Those dangers are expected to grow as Caltrain moves forward with plans to electrify the tracks and add twice as many trains. In addition, the rail corridor will someday be used for California High Speed Rail trains.
With those projects on the horizon, city staff and a consultant team say they needed to find options for improving the crossing. Among those ideas, they considered lowering the Caltrain tracks to run below the street. But making those modifications would have been enormously expensive and complicated, possibly requiring miles of track modifications and even a new tunnel running under Stevens Creek.
On Tuesday, staff presented a slate of other options that centered around lowering Castro Street about 18 feet to dip underneath the trail tracks. While this type of grade separation would require extensive construction, city staff suggested the idea could include also lowering Central Expressway. If the city desired, project manager James Lightbody suggested the city could even create a new downtown plaza space over the roads. Lightbody said the cost estimates for these ambitious plans would come at a future date.
A majority of the council expressed wariness about trying to dramatically modify Castro Street for the convenience of drivers. The idea would be great if the city had "an infinite pot of money" said Councilman Chris Clark, but otherwise city officials had to be strategic about how it spent its resources.
"My guess is we can handle a closure there," he said. "If it's a permanent closure, people will learn."
Only about 20 percent of the cars heading into downtown are coming from the Moffett Boulevard direction, according to a city traffic analysis. Nevertheless, the possibility of closing the Castro Street crossing raised concerns among some speakers in the downtown business community. Club owner Sarah Astles said she experienced on average a 17-percent business drop each time the city closed Castro Street for street fairs.
"It's hard to like any of these ideas," she said. "People already have a hard time finding their way into Castro if they're not familiar with Mountain view."
City staff members said they would conduct an economic impact study and gather input from the business community, and council members urged them to get this information before any final decision is made. On this note, Councilman John Inks warned that the city was trying to craft plans even though there was a lot of uncertainty.
"(These plans) are lacking and it makes it difficult to pick a design at this stage in the project," he said. "We're being asked to select a point design before the design for the whole (transit) system is established."
City staff agreed there were some mixed signals coming from the California High Speed Rail Authority over how the system would be built along the Peninsula. Mountain View's downtown transit center has been identified as a possible Midpeninsula station for the future high-speed rail. Adding to the complexity, Mountain View leaders are also investigating plans for a new automated mass transit system centered at the station.
Given the many challenges, City Council members threw their support behind simplicity and certainty in backing the Castro Street closure.
"I realize that any underpass proposal would just destroy downtown and its ambiance at the expense of citizens," said Councilman Mike Kasperzak. "All you have to do is be downtown at lunchtime, and you can see (this traffic) blocks up downtown."
As part of the closure plans, staff members said they would look into expanding Evelyn Street so that it would connect with Shoreline Road, creating a new route into downtown. City staff expected to build some kind of overpass or tunnel across the Caltrain tracks so that pedestrians and bicyclists could still cross at Castro Street. Siegel suggested the city should look into creating some kind of pick-up/drop-off area at the end of Moffett Boulevard.
The City Council was only giving feedback at the study session on what options members wanted to pursue, and no final decisions were made. Through a series of straw votes, council members showed support for continuing to investigate closing off Castro. A minority of the council also asked staff to further study two alternative plans that would lower Castro Street beneath the tracks.
The city is expected to have a community meeting on the transit center plans in May.