Background

Beginning in 2009, the Palo Alto rail corridor has been a subject of considerable discussion and community focus in response to planned rail investments along the Caltrain rail corridor, specifically the California High Speed Rail project and the Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project. Caltrain electrification will be complete by 2022, which means by 2025 there could be 20 trains per hour during peak times. This would mean that gates at rail intersections would be down 25% of the time during daily peak periods with traffic congestion doubling by 2030. The $700 million in Measure B funding is also being split between other communities and projects that are further along than Palo Alto, adding to the time constraints.

What is Connecting Palo Alto?

Connecting Palo Alto (formerly the Palo Alto Rail Program) is a community based process to address long-standing challenges associated with at-grade crossings on the Caltrain corridor that runs through the community. This process will inform decisions affecting both community aesthetics and mobility choices for many future generations. Community feedback and collaboration will be a vital part of the decision-making process. Engagement activities that inform, educate, gather input and connect citizens about potential rail design alternatives will help prepare the City for the transit landscape of the future.

Why is Connecting Palo Alto needed?

There are currently six roadways where motorists can cross the railroad tracks in Palo Alto.  These intersections, called grade crossings, differ from vehicular intersections because a train, in most cases, cannot safely stop in a timely manner to avoid collisions. Two of the grade crossings cross the tracks below the level of the tracks (at Embarcadero and University) and four of them cross the tracks at the same level (at Charleston, Meadow, Churchill, and Palo Alto Avenue/Alma Street). Traffic congestion is expected to get worse at all of these locations in the future with additional trains as part of Caltrain’s electrification and potentially high speed rail. This will mean that crossing gates will come down many more times each day – as much as 45 seconds every 3 minutes –  impacting traffic and safety. If we don’t do anything, traffic delays will increase and more traffic will divert to existing grade separations like Embarcadero, University, and San Antonio (in Mountain View) as motorists look for ways to avoid the worst congestion. 

What is the purpose of Connecting Palo Alto?

Connecting Palo Alto strives to: recognize and build offof the previous rail corridor planning work, improve safety along the rail corridor, reduce the traffic congestion that occurs at existing at-grade crossings every time a train passes by, minimize right-of-way acquisitions and local road closures, improve circulation and access across the rail corridor for all modes of transportation, separate bicyclists and pedestrians from automobile traffic, deliver grade separations and circulation improvements in a timely manner, reduce train noise and vibrations and minimize visual changes along the rail corridor, and support Caltrain service enhancements.

Study Area Map City of Palo Alto Rail Program

Rail Corridor Timeline 2008 to Present

The following timeline summarizes key local, regional, and state decisions and milestones which have shaped Palo Alto’s rail corridor planning efforts to date.

November:
California voters pass Proposition 1A, the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century, authorizing issuance of $9.95 billion of general obligation bonds to partially fund a statewide high-speed rail system.

Winter:
The California High Speed Rail Authority begins the scoping process as part of the project- level environmental review for the San Jose-San Francisco project section. The number of tracks, vertical alignment, and horizontal alignment, among other factors were major issues raised by the City of Palo Alto and other communities along the project section.

July:
Palo Alto City Council authorizes appointment of a 17-member task force to generate a community vision for land use, transportation, and urban design opportunities along the Caltrain corridor, particularly in response to improvements to fixed rail services along the tracks through Palo Alto.

November:
The Palo Alto Rail Corridor Study is initiated as a component of the city’s response to planned rail investments along the Caltrain rail corridor, specifically the California High Speed Rail project, and potential modifications to Caltrain operations.

April:
U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, State Sen. Joe Simitian, and State Assemblyman Rich Gordon officially propose the “blended system” approach for the Caltrain corridor consisting of a primarily two-track system shared between Caltrain and future California High Speed Rail trains.

August:
California High Speed Rail Authority technical peer review group supports principles identified in the blended system proposal.

April:
California High Speed Rail releases the Revised 2012 Business Plan, proposing Silicon Valley to Merced as the initial operations segment for high speed trains, and adopting the blended systems and operations approach for the San Jose-San Francisco segment along the Caltrain corridor. The blended system along the Caltrain corridor was described as “primarily a two-track system that will be shared by Caltrain, high-speed rail service, and current rail tenants.”

May:
The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (Caltrain) approves the Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project.

July:
State Legislature passes Senate Bill SB1029, providing high speed rail funding for construction of the “blended system” as defined in the Revised 2012 Business Plan.

January:
State, regional, and local agencies establish a regional funding memorandum of understanding to support the blended system, which was further defined as “remaining substantially within the existing Caltrain right-of-way and will accommodate future high speed rail and modernized Caltrain service along the Peninsula corridor by primarily utilizing the existing track configuration on the Peninsula.

Palo Alto Rail Corridor Study approved by Palo Alto City Council.

May:
Agreement signed between the California High Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain.

November:
City Council authorizes Hatch Mott McDonald to proceed with an analysis delivering a conceptual cost estimate for a range of preliminary grade separation alternatives south of the California Avenue Caltrain Station. This work would become the 2014 Palo Alto Grade Separation and Trenching Study.

October:
As part of a study session, the Palo Alto City Council reviews Palo Alto Grade Separation and Trenching Study and discusses the report findings.

September:
Caltrain awards contracts to Balfour Beatty to construct the electrification infrastructure
and Stadler to manufacture high-performance electric trains. The electric trains are anticipated to be in service in 2022.

November:
Measure B is approved by Santa Clara County voters, which includes $700 million for grade separations along the Caltrain Corridor in Santa Clara County.

April:
Palo Alto City Council directs Staff to move forward with Context Sensitive Solutions Alternatives Analysis.

May:
City of Palo Alto hosts a Connecting Palo Alto: Community Workshop #1 to engage the public and receive insight on the current challenges and future goals of the rail program.

June:
City of Palo Alto sends out Community Questionnaire #1 to capture ideas and feedback from the community about issues / concerns related to grade crossings along the corridor.

August:
Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee directs Staff to develop a white paper on trench scenarios, which will address constraints to a longer trench while providing a more extensive look at the Charleston-Meadow trench.

September:
City council adopts Connecting Palo Alto Problem Statement, Goals, and Evaluation Criteria.

City of Palo Alto hosts a Connecting Palo Alto: Community Workshop #2 to review Connecting Palo Alto’s problem statement, goals and evaluation criteria, and start discussing design alternatives and constraints for grade crossings in Palo Alto.

October:
Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee receives a Presentation by the Chief Executive Officer of the Alameda Corridor East Construction Authority on their grade separation trench project.

November:
City of Palo Alto hosts a series of three Community Roundtables to engage the public to help evaluate potential grade separation options at each of Palo Alto’s four Caltrain rail crossings.

Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee receives a presentation by the City of Menlo Park on their Railroad Grade Separation Project at Ravenswood Avenue, Oak Grove Avenue and Glenwood Avenue.

Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee receives a presentation by City of Burlingame on their Broadway Railroad Grade Separation Project.

Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee reviews the draft Rail Corridor Circulation Study
White Paper and the draft Rail Financing White Paper.

January:
The Rail Team, comprised of multiple City departments and the City Manager’s Office,
implements a project reset in order to accelerate the planning, design and construction of railroad grade separations within Palo Alto. Tentative goals include narrowing the suite of alternatives by July 2018, adopting locally-preferred alternatives by December 2018, completing environmental analysis in 2019, beginning final design in 2020, and starting construction in 2023.