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By Diana Diamond

Caltrain grade crossings: an uncoordinated problem with too little communication

Uploaded: Oct 3, 2019

It’s that proverbial cart-before-the-horse problem again, and this time it could be an expensive undertaking because the whole effort to redo grade crossings has been miserably uncoordinated. Unfortunately, taxpayers may be forced to pay for a problem that should have been ironed out earlier.

Here’s the issue. Several years ago, when Caltrain announced it would be getting new and fast electrified trains, probably ready by 2022, the cities along the Caltrain tracks were told they each were responsible for their own grade crossings – those 42 areas along the line where cars routinely cross the tracks until the gates go down and trains rush by. Cities have been working on getting a way for autos to go under or over the tracks, to avoid the delays that occur when those gates go down. And Caltrain has said that in the not-too-distant future, there will be more trains so motorists will have more waits for the trains to go by.

Surprisingly, Caltrain announced it is finally doing a $5 million study of its grade crossings – a move probably inspired by a San Mateo County civil grand jury report that said it wasn’t doing enough to help cities in their grade crossing efforts and also suggesting Caltrain should pay some of the cost.

I talked to Caltrain’s spokesperson, Dan Lieberman, who said the study will begin early next year, after Caltrain completes its business plan, and the study will help “streamline the process” along the whole corridor (whatever that means) because the business plan will “expand Caltrain’s services” by adding more and longer trains and having lengthier train stations. It probably will build more bike lockers at train stations and not accommodate riders who want to bring their bikes to work. Caltrain is predicting a 300 percent increase in ridership by 2040.

But – and it’s a big “but” – many cities have already started planning and spending money for improving grade crossings, and neighboring cities have not talked much to each other about their city’s plans. Palo Alto Mayor Eric Filseth said he talked to Menlo Park’s mayor about the crossings, but “not in detail,” and has had no conversations with Caltrain.

Palo Alto has already spent more than $1.7 million on consultants, and estimates grade separations will cost anywhere from $100 million to $300 million apiece – and this city has four. Thus, the price tag ranges from $400 million to $3 billion, Filseth said in March.

Mountain View has already decided it wants to tunnel the train at Rengstorff Avenue, while it would close the crossing at Castro Street, both for an estimated $180 million cost, some of which may come from the county.

In other words, cities on their own could develop great rollercoaster tracks as trains go up and swoop down according to a community’s preferences. The problem is trains don’t easily do this -- they need graduated grade levels to ascend or descend.

I asked Lieberman if Caltrain would ask the feds for funds. Unclear, he said. The study will not interfere with cities deciding how they want their grade separations and the tracks to run. But where do they get the money to accommodate their wishes?

Maybe if Caltrain gets the money, it might want to tell cities what to do, which is the opposite of Caltrain's previous suggestion, do what is best for your city. And if cities want Caltrain’s money but certainly don’t want its tracks high in the sky creating visual blight, then what are cities going to do? Lieberman said it’s unclear what cities and Caltrain will do.

It all seems so uncoordinated, and not thought out enough in advance, particularly since that cart is now firmly ahead of the symbolic horse.