High-speed train analysis raises grade-separation concern in Palo Alto | New

As California’s high-speed rail construction agency finalizes plans for the peninsula segment of its disputed system, Palo Alto officials are sounding the alarm about a feature conspicuously missing from the proposed design: the uneven.

City leaders have worried about the potential impacts of the high-speed rail system since late 2008, when voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the San Francisco-Los Angeles line. Local feelings turned sharply against the project shortly after the California High-Speed ​​​​Rail Authority unveiled a four-track design that raised fears of seizure of local property to accommodate the new system and prompted members of the Palo Alto City Council to take a formal stand against the project which they say is neither financially viable nor particularly desirable.

The initial panic has subsided over the past decade as Palo Alto and nearby towns successfully lobbied lawmakers and the railroad authority to change the design from a four-lane route to a ” mixed system” in which Caltrain and the high-speed train share two tracks. on the peninsula. At the same time, the rail system has been stymied by funding shortfalls and political roadblocks in Sacramento, with its price rising from an initial estimate of around $33 billion to more than $100 billion according to the latest calculations. .

Today, however, high-speed rail is back in the limelight. In June, the state legislature agreed to releasing $4.2 billion in 2008 funding for building the system and appoint an inspector general to supervise the blocked project. The railway authority also published in June its final environmental impact report for the segment between San Francisco and San José. Its board of directors is due to review and approve the document on August 17 and 18.

The release of the environmental scan comes at a pivotal time for the Palo Alto council, which is currently finalizing its grade separation plans – the realignment of grade crossings so lanes do not intersect with local three-cross streets. at level: Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road. This week, the council agreed to impose a business tax in November that would help fund the grade separation, a project expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take more than a decade.

The high-speed train project could conflict with these plans. The recently released environmental analysis evaluates two alternatives, which generally stick to the two-way design of the “mixed system”. The main difference is that one of the alternatives also includes a 6-mile four-lane overpass between San Mateo and Redwood City, an overhead viaduct near San Jose Diridon station, and a maintenance facility in Brisbane. The analysis concluded that the alternative without the passing lanes is the environmentally superior option, a conclusion the city generally supports.

Palo Alto officials are concerned, however, that the analysis does not consider an alternative in which the crossings are grade-separated. Instead, the analysis proposes installing quadruple barriers at level crossings to prevent cars from entering the tracks as trains pass. While this option would improve safety, it would do little to alleviate local concerns about traffic jams that would occur around crossings as Caltrain improves rail service and the high-speed system begins operating on the peninsula.

A new report from the city’s Bureau of Transportation challenges the rail authority’s conclusion that traffic impacts related to traffic and emergency response are significant. The environmental scan concluded that 41 of the 49 level crossings between San Mateo and Palo Alto would operate at “E” or “F” levels of service — the two lowest levels — by 2040 if high-speed rail was operating. He also found that 27 of these intersections would be affected by the rail project during morning and afternoon rush hours.

Some of the worst delays would occur at intersections adjacent to Meadow Drive and Churchill Avenue in Palo Alto, which would see increases of 187 seconds and 334 seconds, respectively, during morning rush hours. Only the Brewster Avenue crossing in Redwood City would experience a greater delay, with a predicted increase of 387 seconds at the intersection of Perry Street and Brewster Avenue during the morning rush.

The environmental analysis also identifies many local intersections that would be expected to have a low level of service even without the rail project, but would experience other negative impacts under either high-speed rail solution. These include the intersections of El Camino and Sand Hill Road; Alma Street and Palo Alto Avenue; the intersections of Churchill Avenue with Alma Avenue and Mariposa Avenue; and the intersections of Park Boulevard with Meadow Drive and Charleston Road.

Palo Alto staff strongly disagree with the rail authority’s conclusion that the “significant and unavoidable” impacts to traffic identified in the report cannot be mitigated, according to the new report. Specifically and significantly, it fails to consider the most obvious — albeit complex — way to curb traffic: separating lanes from roads, the city argues.

The topic of grade separation and its potential conflict with high-speed rail has come up at recent meetings of the council’s rail committee, which in June approved new guidelines that address the subject. The guiding principles, which the board is due to adopt this Monday, Aug. 8, state that Palo Alto believes the California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority “should coordinate with Caltrain as the lead agency and should fund the study and construction of any potential passing lanes and, if necessary, grade separations or changes to grade separations and shall not commence service until they are completed.”

Nadia Naik, who co-chaired a citizens’ panel that helped the city come up with grade separation alternatives, proposed the principle at the committee’s June 15 meeting.

“There’s a weird scenario where we build a grade separation in the future, and then the high-speed train comes along and decides it wants to change something,” Naik said.

In addition to ratifying the Rail Committee’s new guiding principles, the board must approve a letter to the rail authority urging it to consider an alternative that includes a grade separation. The letter, which is signed by Mayor Pat Burt, asserts that the grade separation “would reduce this identified significant and unavoidable impact to less than significant and therefore needs to be investigated” and asserts that the rail authority is unfairly charging the city ​​with the cost of analyzing the impacts of the rail system on traffic.

“The City continues to assert that the impacts on all elements combined, including vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian safety, delays and emergency response warrant grade separation analysis as an alternative to proposed project or as a mitigation,” the letter reads. “A proper analysis of the reasonably foreseeable future state would only further demonstrate the need for a comprehensive plan to deal with identified impacts such as grade separation.”

The city’s past requests for the railroad authority to study the grade separation failed to sway the state agency. When City Manager Ed Shikada asked the rail authority in 2020 to study grade separations, the state agency denied the request saying such options “significantly expand the footprint of a railway project”. The infrastructure that supports the grade separation can extend well beyond the crossing to accommodate the fact that grade changes in the track need to be gradual, the railway authority said.

“In other words, it may not be possible to build a single grade separation in some areas, where proximity to level crossings means that building a grade separation would then require the construction of several more grade separations,” the rail authority’s response read. “It can increase the cost of a grade-separated rail alignment. It can also increase costs associated with right-of-way acquisitions, require additional infrastructure, and increase construction disruptions.”

Jose P. Rogers