In the ongoing discussion of how best to separate at-grade rail crossings, the Menlo Park City Council took a small step forward Tuesday to commit additional funding toward studying a fully elevated grade separation option. The council voted 4-1, with Councilwoman Betsy Nash opposed, to commit $260,000 to conduct a feasibility study and do technical evaluations on the possibility of fully elevated tracks through Menlo Park's portion of the Caltrain rail line.
By studying a fully elevated grade separation option, the council would explore the concept of building a viaduct or some other raised structure on which Caltrain could run above the existing roadways. The challenge is that the section of the rail line that Menlo Park controls between Palo Alto and Atherton isn't very long, so it doesn't give the city much runway to raise the rails and then lower them back to ground level within the city's bouncaries.
The city has also identified a preferred "hybrid" approach – partially lowering some roadways and partially elevating the rails – to create separations at the Ravenswood, Oak Grove and Glenwood avenue crossings, but that plan isn't perfect either: It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and create crippling construction impacts that would make east-west travel across the city a problem for years.
The council supported breaking the process to study the fully elevated option into two phases, as recommended in a staff report. Before deciding whether to move on to a second phase, the council can check in again with the consultants and staff after the first phase, expected to cost $139,000.
Council members also agreed to put together an ad hoc committee made up of Ray Mueller and Drew Combs to talk through some of the additional details, such as whether to ask the transportation consultant firm to develop renderings of what the visual impacts of a fully elevated option would be to the surrounding neighborhoods.
The request came from Marcy Abramowitz, a representative from the Felton Gables Homeowners Association,who has voiced concerned about grade separations. She asked the council to support analysis by the consultants to explore visual impacts and real estate impacts.
"Fully elevated grade separations don't belong in residential neighborhoods," she said.
Last year, the city's rail subcommittee, then made up of Mueller and Combs, agreed to study a fully elevated grade separation option after hearing from a number of community members about the potential benefits of the alternative.
Combs explained that on the rail subcommittee last year he and Mueller heard from community members that a fully elevated rail option could be the most cost-effective and offer the least amount of construction impact of the options yet explored, and for that reason, they agreed to move forward with studying it extensively.
Now, however, Nash is on the rail subcommittee, and says she's "very skeptical" about the viability of a fully-elevated grade separation option.
"I don't see it happening," she said, "It seems like not a good use of resources."
Given that the council had held an hours-long discussion about limited staff resources earlier in the evening, she added, she would rather see transportation staff resources focused on immediately addressing dangerous intersections for pedestrians or moving the Middle Avenue bike and pedestrian underpass forward faster. And while much of the work would be done by AECOM, the consultant firm the city's working with on the project, it will still require staff work, City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson said.
Mueller said he suspected that the viability of the project will likely "come down to what the design looks like.
"The longer I'm on (the) council, the more I think: If you do something beautiful, anything's possible, if you do it bad, it's not," he said.