The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury on July 18 released a report calling for a more coordinated approach to tackling grade separations along the Caltrain rail line.
It recommended that the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which governs the Caltrain rail service, work with Peninsula communities to develop a master plan for grade separations.
Throughout the Peninsula, there are 42 at-grade Caltrain rail crossings – meaning the rail tracks directly cross paths with roads.
At-grade rail crossings are problems for a number of reasons: They can be unsafe, and when trains are crossing and the drop-down gates are lowered, they can worsen traffic and delay emergency vehicles, and in doing so, worsen pollution by interrupting the flow of traffic.
Between 2009 and 2018, over 80 collisions occurred at Caltrain's at-grade crossings. More than 30 of those involved a fatality, according to the report.
In addition, due to high and growing ridership numbers, Caltrain is planning to expand the frequency of its trains in the coming years, which means that the gates that go down to block traffic and clear the path for the train will be down more often, creating a new urgency to build grade separations at these crossings, according to the report.
By 2022, Caltrain plans to increase its daily number of trains per weekday to 114, up from 92 now, according to the report.
Grade separations can take a number of forms, but all involve putting either the rail line or the road at a different level so the risk of collision is abated. These might be options such as fully or partially elevating a rail line with a viaduct or berm; lowering the rail line by excavating a trench or tunnel; or lowering or elevating the road under or over the rail line with an under- or overpass.
However, these projects are extremely expensive: Caltrain estimates it would likely cost $8.5 billion to $11.1 billion to separate all 42 at-grade rail crossings on the corridor, or about $202 million to $264 million per crossing, in 2018 dollars, according to the report.
The current approach to grade separations, the report says, is "piecemeal" and not coordinated. Individual cities are considered responsible for their own grade separations, which are large infrastructure undertakings that generally require drawing upon a tight pool of regional and often state funding.
Grade separation projects have to be added to the California Public Utility Commission's prioritization list, which accepts applications only every two years, and then cities have to prepare reports, get a letter of agreement from Caltrain, and line up initial funding with the county's transportation authority.
After a design is complete, the city then has to seek additional funding. Projects typically take seven to 10 years from the start of the planning process until construction begins in San Mateo County, the report said.
However, this process can take much longer.
Menlo Park, in particular, was singled out for its decades-long debate over design alternatives. Even in the past year, the City Council reversed its preferred grade separation alternative decision.
Also, the current process doesn't take into account what impact each city's decisions about rail separations have on other cities. For instance, the report states, "If Menlo Park constructed an elevated grade separation at Ravenswood Avenue, then Atherton would be limited in the design alternatives it could consider."
Atherton, for its part, has expressed general disinterest in grade separations and has indicated to the city of Menlo Park it opposes any elevation of rail within its city boundaries. But, Atherton officials told the grand jury, "If grade separations at (its two) at-grade crossings were proposed and funded by other agencies, the Town would support them."
The report continues: Even if cities can come together to identify a plan and design for a grade separation project, there's the funding question.
Because county funding for grade separations is very limited, considering the demand, San Mateo County cities have been forced into a chaotic race to pull together their design plans first.
At a majority of Menlo Park City Council discussions about grade crossing options, there's been a question of whether further deliberation would force the city to lose its place in a countywide funding queue for Measure A dollars, which in some meetings created a sense of urgency to make a quick decision.
To start, the report recommends that the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board should create a Grade Separation Master Plan for Caltrain's Peninsula corridor – by March 31, 2020.
It should make a plan for each of the 42 at-grade rail crossings in the corridor, and set priorities based on consideration for city and county needs, and should plan to reach out to all cities on the Caltrain Peninsula train corridor by Sept. 30 this year.
Areas with adjacent at-grade crossings should be paid special attention, the grand jury report advises.
The report said that several city managers in the county recommended that higher priority should be given to crossings closer to hospitals so that emergency vehicles won't get stuck waiting for the train, as well as to crossings with a greater number of fatalities.
Other rail lines in California, such as those in Riverside and Kern counties, have successfully developed corridor-wide approaches, the report adds.
The joint powers board should also evaluate other worldwide train corridors, it recommends.
Once the plan is created, drawing upon research from other rail corridors and feedback from the affected cities and counties, the joint powers board would support funding and design efforts based on the priorities established in the master plan. The new system would be aimed at bringing in new funding, rather than pitting cities against each other to compete for Measure A funds. The joint powers board should also bring in technical and regulatory expertise to streamline the approval process for these projects.
One potential downside of this new approach that some city managers in the county have identified, the report points out, is that some cities seeking grade separations could potentially see their project downgraded to a lower-priority status with a new, regional prioritization system.
"It is clear from grand jury interviews with (San Mateo County) City Managers that some cities would resist a regional approach if it meant receiving a lower priority status for their city's grade separation project(s)."
The report must receive a response by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board within 90 days, and 60 days from any elective county officer or agency head, according to the San Mateo County Superior Court.