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By Dana Hendrickson

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About this blog: My wife and I moved to central Menlo Park in 1985 where we have raised two sons. A retired high-tech executive, I now actively participate in local and national community service programs. I am the founder and director of Rebuil...  (More)

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Menlo Park Needs A Fully Elevated Rail System "Downtown"

Uploaded: Jan 28, 2019

In my last post, I promised to explain why I, and others, believe fully elevating tracks downtown is a far superior “grade separation” solution for Menlo Park than the alternatives our city has studied so far. Our reasoning requires a major shift in mindset. For more than a decade, Menlo Park has viewed grade separations solely as a solution to future crossing-related problems. Caltrain plans to more than double the number of daily passenger trains within the next decade, and if rail crossings are not separated, BOTH traffic congestion and the safety of motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians will worsen. So naturally, the city has focused on “where and how Menlo Park could best separate its streets from tracks.”


Here is where the mind shift occurs. We believe the need to install grade separations has created many extraordinary opportunities to enhance our city, in particular the “up-in-coming” downtown business district in the train station area. Imagine an attractive viaduct as an iconic element in a beautifully landscaped plaza that transforms this location into a vibrant hub for social and retail activities and a major source of civic pride. Large viaduct openings would offer pedestrians and bicyclists convenient options for traveling between Merrill and Alma, and at eye-level, these streets would be visually integrated for the first time. The FEGS alternative offers another huge benefit: street and lane closures would be minimal during construction because NO street excavations are required. (Note: the grade separation alternative currently preferred by the city – Alternative C – requires concurrent excavations and closures on three streets.)

It’s a given that no grade separation solution will satisfy everyone as there are significant trade-offs between all the practical alternatives. That said, there are good reasons to believe a well-designed and well-performed FGEGS study will demonstrate that the NET benefits of this approach far exceeds those for the currently preferred Alternative C. The following tables summarize our expectations.

R = Ravenswood OG = Oak Grove G = Glenwood


A FEGS solution can take many forms in terms of track profiles. It’s important that our city council not exclude any feasible ones a priori based on the particular political bias of individual neighborhoods. All residents deserve the chance to weigh facts and arguments and express their informed opinions to our city council BEFORE a final decision is made.

Note: In my next post on grade separations, I will provide the rationale for the ratings in the above scorecards.

(This is the third post in a continuing series about planning for future Menlo Park grade separations.)
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Comments

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Phil, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton,
on Jan 29, 2019 at 4:57 pm

I look forward to the next post. I have no opinion on this matter, but it is hard to understand how FEGS is Green on Construction (is Jeannie going to wiggle her nose?) and Noise (with the trains elevated there will be fewer objects to muffle the sound, so the sound will travel farther and louder).


 +   7 people like this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Jan 29, 2019 at 5:15 pm

Phil: Thanks for you comment. The FEGS study will perform a comprehensive analysis of noise from elevated trains and in a future post I will identify a number of factors that will contribute to train noise reduction. I am not a sound expert but one of my team members has discussed the behavior of sound from elevated sources. Caltrain now employs many sound mitigation technologies and electric-powered trains are coming soon.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Peter, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on Jan 29, 2019 at 7:20 pm

Great to see a positive plan that supports a safer Menlo Park, an opportunity to add additional opportunities for community and social connection in the space currently occupied by the train station, and finally, a level of train service substantially higher than we currently have connecting us to San Francisco. A truly valuable mass transit solution means that riders don't need to look up the train schedule, people should simply get to the station knowing that a train will whisk them on in just 10 - 15 minutes, and not the once an hour that riders have to contend with now, when traveling outside of rush hour.
A welcome improvement!


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Brian, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Jan 30, 2019 at 10:01 am

Brian is a registered user.

Personally I prefer the Option C for the simple reason that it allows access to streets near the tracks (Merrill and Alma for example) and it will keep the tracks low enough that some sound will be abated. I am willing to live with the temporary inconvenience of road closures to have a long term solution that does not have the "worst case" impact on anyone including our neighbors in Felton Gables. I will hope that the city and the construction company come up with a way to minimise the impact of any closures. That plan should be made before any agreement or contract is signed. After seeing the impact of the Willow/101 exchange I would think that this would be foremost in the councilmembers minds.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by bob.smith, a resident of another community,
on Jan 31, 2019 at 8:59 am

The challenge of fully elevated will be cost.
Caltrain's rule of thumb is that a viaduct is 50% more expensive than a berm, also building the viaduct 5 feet higher will make the viaduct 1000 feet longer, and raising the entire train station on stilts will be a big cost driver.

The winning bidder of a High Speed Rail construction package reduced estimated construction costs by $130 million by NOT building Hanford station on a viaduct as initially proposed. Web Link


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Jan 31, 2019 at 10:37 am

Bob: The cost of each grade separation alternative will remain a concern. Imagine asking for $billions for a tunnel.

Re: the viaduct, it is only proposed between Glenwood and Ravenswood, a small section of the end-to-end length of elevated tracks. All the approaches are graduated train grades that would be installed on lower cost berms. Also, only the passenger platform would be elevated; there is no need to build an elevated train station. Check out what San Mateo is currently constructing for an idea of what that city is doing.

Thanks for pointing out these issues.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Jan 31, 2019 at 10:49 am

Brian: I hope I can address your concerns.

1. I expect the proposed noise study will show that the fully elevated grade separation alternative will NOT produce significantly more noise than Alt C AND both would be much quieter than today.

2.Today the train station area is divided by existing tracks. Alt C will install a 10-foot berm that will physically and visually separate Alma and Merrill. The viaduct would allow pedestrians and bicyclists to pass under the tracks almost anywhere.

Thanks for contributing to this discussion.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by PT Barnum, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Jan 31, 2019 at 5:27 pm

So much money in search of a real problem. Fools for sure.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Brian, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows,
on Jan 31, 2019 at 10:30 pm

Brian is a registered user.

Dana,

We will have to see what the study says but to me it seems common sense that the higher you make it the worse the sound will be and the farther it will carry. That is why they elevate warning alert speakers as high as they can.

I am not sure having people be able to cross under the tracks is that large of an issue. Currently people (bicycles and pedestrians) are only able to cross at specific places (Ravenswood, Oak Grove, etc.) so if there was a berm it would be the same as it is today.

Fully elevating the tracks would also allow for easily putting in more streets that connect to El Camino like Willow which would have a major, and negative impact, on several neighborhoods already having major issues with traffic. I am sure that alone would bring a lot of residents out against a fully elevated track.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Forwardin opinion, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Feb 1, 2019 at 10:10 am

<I took the liberty of copying a recent comment from an older news article on this topic that may get lost otherwise>

I agree wholeheartedly with in particular Peter Carpenter's post above about doing this right once and for all, and then benefit for many decades to come. An underground solution eliminates all traffic concerns and is the safest choice, it eliminates all noise issues allowing Caltrain to run as many trains as they want, and most importantly it frees up land above that can be used for housing and urban planning, potentially offsetting some of the cost.

Boring does sound expensive, but an alternative used in many other places such as Stockholm Sweden is to dig out a trench, which then has a concrete lid. From a financial perspective one could in a first phase build an open air trench, with bridges for traffic above, and then top it off on a city by city basis when it makes sense.

Elevating a train track is a recipe for graffiti, spontaneous and more permanent night guests, maximizing noise pollution, not to mention the ever-lasting eye sore. It is one thing to do a cozy and sunny rendering of a romantic brick viaduct, and quite another to build that in reality.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Feb 1, 2019 at 10:17 am

Hi Brian:

1. Caltrain will use electric trains and sound mitigating technologies not currently used on existing tracks and bridges. A noise study would reveal whether potential noise problems would be significant and either can or cannot be mitigated.

2. Pedestrians and bicyclists actually cross the tracks for different reasons. In the morning, DOZENS of Hillview students currently travel from Alma, ride on the Ravenswood sidewalk to Merrill, and then cross El Camino at Santa Cruz. Also, train commuters often arrive/leave via Alma and can only cross the tracks at one place between Ravenswood and Oak Grove. This true for office workers on Alma, as well.

3. The viaduct only needs to be fully elevated between Ravenswood and Oak Grove in order to enjoy its benefits. (Extending it to Glenwood is an option.) Both the northern and southern grades would be constructed with graduated berms.

Thanks for your questions.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Feb 1, 2019 at 10:27 am

Forwarding opinion:

"Elevating a train track is a recipe for graffiti, spontaneous and more permanent night guests, maximizing noise pollution, not to mention the ever-lasting eye sore."

The viaduct would be short, in a public space near the police station, and could be equipped with security cameras. I am confident our city can handle potential homeless and graffiti problems.

" It is one thing to do a cozy and sunny rendering of a romantic brick viaduct, and quite another to build that in reality."

Caltrain has already designed the elevated grade separation for Burlingame, and Menlo Park can insist that its design is acceptable. FYI: Caltrain does want to create community goodwill, not destroy it.

Trench and Tunnel advocates continually ignore the fact that Caltrain does not want to build underground rail systems and fighting for these approaches will consume years of legal warfare. Meanwhile, there will not be ANY grade separations in Menlo Park.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Caltrain doesn't get to decide our future, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton,
on Feb 1, 2019 at 10:55 am

The fact that Caltrain doesn't want a particular solution is hardly a reason for a cities, especially in a growing location like Silicon Valley, to lay down and play dead. It might be worth a couple of years legal battle to get an ideal solution that will last decades. We have our generations to think about as well, not just a traffic concern that is inconvenient at the moment.

With the growth of the valley, there will be more and more traffic, which in turn will make trains more attractive for commuters. More demand will generate a need for more trains, and the more frequent trains run, the more convenient it will be for commuters. If these trains are underground no one will mind this development, and we might finally get a handle on the exploding traffic load on our highways and communities.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by TBM, a resident of another community,
on Feb 1, 2019 at 12:57 pm

@>> "The fact that Caltrain doesn't want a particular solution is hardly a reason for a cities, especially in a growing location like Silicon Valley, to lay down and play dead. It might be worth a couple of years legal battle to get an ideal solution that will last decades." <<

Legally the cities don't have a leg to stand on. Interstate railroads have enjoyed extraordinary federal protections ever since the 1800s when railroad robber barons rigged the system to their advantage.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Feb 1, 2019 at 1:05 pm

Caltrain doesn't get to decide our future:

There are FOUR good reasons neither trench nor tunnel will be built on the Peninsula.

1. No one has figured out who would pay for it (and how). Certainly not the affected cities. Nor other state taxpayers.

2. The CA PUC decides what is built and already has a prioritized list of almost 40 grade separations it intends to build in the state; only a few are on the Peninsula.

3. Caltrain would oppose it from operational perspectives.

4. A legal battle would not even start for a couple of years and would last for many more. Who would pay for the appeals? Any grade separation will take 3 to 4 years to complete after its designed. Waiting another decade or more makes no sense.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Keep an open mind, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton,
on Feb 1, 2019 at 2:58 pm

Dana, I understand that you have spent a lot of time on this, by why so firm in your position? Don't you agree that a trench/tunnel would be the best way forward if it was possible? Of your four reasons, there is really only one that is a solid reason, which is cost.

1. Yes, admittedly a problem. However, if all parties agree it would be the most desirable solution it is certainly worth pursuing. If there is a will there is usually a way, and in some areas land value has significant cost offsetting. Why would it be 10 times more expensive to trench than to elevate?

2. So?

3. Why? This seems to be an assumption on your end.

4. There would not be a legal battle if item 1 could be solved.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Feb 1, 2019 at 3:25 pm

Keep an open mind

1. Agree

2. Is related to #1: 40 x $250 M = $10B statewide total cost (rough estimate) and Palo Alto wants more than $1 B

3. You can ask AECOM, the consultants. One member of my group knows a great deal about trains, has served on local transportation boards, and talks to Caltrain about grade separation issues. His view. Some mentioned concerns. Access to passenger and freight trains during emergencies, fires, accidents. Cost of installing and maintaining flood control systems.

4. Not true: if the PUC and Caltrain opposes going underground, money does not matter.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by TBM, a resident of another community,
on Feb 1, 2019 at 4:19 pm

@ "Why would it be 10 times more expensive to trench than to elevate?"

A trench needs a lot of concrete and steel, a berm is just a mound of dirt.
A trench needs to go down 30 feet, a berm needs to go up only 20 feet.
A trench severs gravity sewers and utilities.

A trench is presently under construction in Fresno Web Link. It is costing $985 million for 2 miles. Web Link .
A similar trench in Menlo Park would work out at $79,000 per household.

The Fresno trench is a fixed price design-build contract, so the contractor has incentive to do value engineering. Web Link


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