Opposition to the concept of a maximum 10-foot wall across town was the main reason the Menlo Park Planning Commission did not support Monday night a proposal to separate the Caltrain tracks from three Menlo Park roads.
The commission voted 4-2, with commissioners Henry Riggs and Drew Combs opposed and Katherine Strehl absent, in favor of the other option proposed to them: to separate only Ravenswood Avenue from the tracks by tunneling the roadway under the Caltrain rails.
The commission was asked to recommend to the City Council one of these two options:
● Tunnel Ravenswood Avenue about 22 feet beneath the Caltrain tracks.
● Raise the Caltrain tracks and lower the roads in a "hybrid" crossing that would allow passage beneath the rails at Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood avenues. This would require creating a berm a maximum of 10 feet tall at Ravenswood and Oak Grove avenues. The berm would go down to about 5 feet at Glenwood Avenue.
Preliminary cost estimates for the Ravenswood-only option are $160 million to $200 million; for the triple-crossing option, the estimates are $310 million to 390 million.
Both options would offer bicycle and pedestrian routes out of the tracks' path.
Grade separations are intended to improve traffic flow (since vehicles don't have to stop for trains) and safety at rail crossings.
The measure the commissioners supported includes a provision that staff more clearly explain the problems with other alternatives discussed in previous studies, such as a building a viaduct (raising the tracks) or trenching or tunneling the tracks below ground.
Commission Chair Drew Combs said he wasn't convinced the benefits outweigh the costs to the city – both fiscal and psychic, he said, expressing concern about constructing a berm that would divide the city.
He said he was in the "skeptical category on whether this is something imminently needed."
Commissioner Larry Kahle said he preferred the Ravenswood Avenue-only tunnel. One concern was noise -- though Caltrain horns wouldn't have to be sounded at the separated crossings, in the other alternative, some expressed worries about other mechanical noises being amplified if the tracks were elevated. Another was the visual "blight" of a wall or berm elevating the tracks through the three crossings.
Commissioner Henry Riggs, who opposed recommending that the council identify the Ravenswood-only tunnel as its preferred alternative, wanted more serious consideration given to a viaduct and look more at "what would benefit Menlo Park, not fit in between what Caltrain engineers prefer and where Atherton would like us to fall."
While a trench/tunnel alternative for the tracks would be enormously expensive, he acknowledged, he added that there are few other downsides. "We are compromising for the sake of money," he said.
In a public comment, former councilman Steve Schmidt said he wanted Encinal Avenue to be separated with the other rail crossings at Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood avenues.
Staff later explained that the Encinal Avenue crossing is too close to the Atherton border to be brought back down to ground level, following Caltrain's requirements to stay within a 1 percent maximum grade change.
Options to build a viaduct or tunnel for the tracks were ruled out because they are far more expensive than even the alternatives being proposed, and the road elevations would still likely need to be reconfigured. Those ideas would also require coordination with Atherton and Palo Alto, something neither neighboring city is interested in doing now, staff said.
A number of emails commenting on the two options submitted to the council and commission appeared to be operating under the false assumption that the crossings reduce access to Oak Grove and Glenwood avenues. Those would remain unchanged with the Ravenswood-only alternative.
According to a staff report, in previous community meetings, about 85 percent of about 55 attendees favored the triple-separation option.