Council agrees to pay up for study of fully elevated grade separation option | News | Almanac Online |

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Council agrees to pay up for study of fully elevated grade separation option

 
Eastbound traffic on Ravenswood Avenue waits while Caltrain travels south toward Palo Alto during the evening commute. Menlo Park is exploring options to separate the roads from the rail line at existing rail crossings throughout the city. (Michelle Le/The Almanac.)

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.

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Comments

24 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 15, 2020 at 12:31 pm

I'm not sure that $260K is going to tell folks anything different than a back-of-an-envelope study to say- Can you ramp up from the county boundary at the creek for a delta of 10' in the short length we have? Can you ramp up the full 18' from Watkins and not wipe out Encinal and Glenwood? You'll quickly see the answer is no and the Council is being bullied by the pie-in-the-sky, Popular Mechanics reading crowd, happy to waste our tax dollars while slowing everything down.


9 people like this
Posted by Musings
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 15, 2020 at 2:03 pm

@really. I listened to the study session last night and the fully elevated grade separation alternative appears only to require that the Oak Grove and Ravenswood crossings be fully elevated. And that should allow the northern and southern grades can be built well within city boundaries. Where they start depends on what is done at Glenwood and the grade percentage Caltrain will approve. The study will show what's possible. Council, city staff and AECOM know what they are doing. You can of course share your knowledge with them.


15 people like this
Posted by Looks like? Or sounds like?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 15, 2020 at 2:53 pm

I agree that what the viaduct looks like matters, but the sound is going to travel a lot farther than the sight. Elevated freight trains running through your neighborhoods? Remember, this is not a track for cute mini electric cabs. The freight trains are big, heavy, and diesel. Now imagine the vibrations and the sound that will be transmitted.

Still only worried about what this will look like?


12 people like this
Posted by Open-minded
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 15, 2020 at 3:25 pm

Remember that both grade separation alternatives - hybrid and fully elevated - require elevated tracks. Also, the scope of work for the study includes noise and vibration evaluations performed by subject-matter experts.


10 people like this
Posted by Looks like? Or sounds like?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 16, 2020 at 8:19 am

The degree of elevation matters because interference from the built environment is the main thing decreasing sound transmission. While it's helpful to study and measure the noise, even better would be real-world examples of quiet elevated freight trains. How quiet is it by the elevated tracks up and down the Peninsula? If there is new sound and vibration dampening technology, where is it deployed?


5 people like this
Posted by TBM
a resident of another community
on Jan 16, 2020 at 9:02 am

While on paper the Northern ramp could begin at the Atherton border, it will be financially and politically challenging to extend the temporary shoo-fly track north of Encinal Avenue. Beginning the ramp South of Encinal will be the construct-ability path of least resistance.


11 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jan 16, 2020 at 3:12 pm

With a slight depression of Alma there is no reason that the Southern ramp up could not begin at the University Ave station and then eliminate the Palo Alto/Alma grade crossing - a true win-win situation.


5 people like this
Posted by Open-Minded
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 17, 2020 at 4:43 pm

@Looks like? Or sounds like?

The FEGS proposed study will perform noise analysis at actual locations along where tracks would be elevated here in Menlo Park and factor-in both the new trains that will use the Caltrain system and train system sound mitigation technologies. Once we have the facts, assumptions and analysis residents can either accept, question or challenge them. This approach sounds reasonable and I expect it's done is whenever tracks are elevate. You can research them if you have interest.


7 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 18, 2020 at 3:47 am

Here's are some articles about how well the communities/neighbors in Melbourne who had the same concerns that are being raised here are liking their new viaduct (and, yes, it can and does carry the occasional freight train):

More than a year on, has 'sky rail' turned suburbs into ghettos?
Web Link

A unifying act: Caulfield to Dandenong Level Crossing Removal Project
Web Link

YouTube: Caulfield to Dandenong Level Crossing Removal Project Overview
Web Link


5 people like this
Posted by Just wondering
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 18, 2020 at 12:44 pm

@Reality Check. Good links about the positive sides of existing elevated rail systems. Also worth noting the fully elevated track is only proposed between Oak Grove and Ravenswood - and possibly extended to Glenwood. So, the area under the tracks in downtown near the train station would be open. That seems like a good idea. Better east-west connectivity for bicyclists and pedestrians.


7 people like this
Posted by Looks like? Or sounds like?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 18, 2020 at 9:37 pm

I have found studies to be optimistic -- technology, deadlines, impacts. Once the tracks are built, there is no going back. I think any analysis needs to say what if anything can be done if (when) the noise and vibration are worse than the study predicted.

This happens *all the time* with development. Developers find studies that will say just about anything, then they get their way and move on. Everyone else is left holding the bag.

Nobody that I know who lives near an elevated train likes it. It's just so weird that you and some others are looking forward to that. There just is no new magic that keeps these enormous trains so high up quiet.


3 people like this
Posted by Open-Minded
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 18, 2020 at 10:33 pm

@Looks like? Or sounds like.

An EIR will be required just like any large-scale project and mitigation measures required, if necessary, BEFORE this is approved and AFTER it's required.

" It's just so weird that you and some others are looking forward to that."

The FEGS alternative is superior to the alternatives so I will prefer it IF the noise and visual impacts are minimal. If not, I would not support it.

I appreciate your concerns but will not pass judgement before the study and EIR are completed.



8 people like this
Posted by @ Reality Check
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 18, 2020 at 10:34 pm

Helpful links.

Do you know if Melbourne RR is next to private property where people live? From the pictures it looks like public land on both sides. Here, people live next to the RR. I wouldn't want a raised train taller than my house.


3 people like this
Posted by Open-Minded
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 18, 2020 at 10:34 pm

CORRECTION:

An EIR will be required just like any large-scale project and mitigation measures required, if necessary, BEFORE this is approved and AFTER it's completed


6 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 20, 2020 at 12:09 am

Someone asked if Melbourne's aerial (viaduct) grade separations passed by homes. Of course they do. There are lots of homes between stations ... we're talking about a corridor similar to Caltrain's with both passenger and freight ... and even the occasional special steam excursion for railfans.

Suburban homes served by the newly elevated rail lines are visible in at the 2:44 mark of the following video: Web Link

And if you read the article I linked above, there are resident opponents who actively fought the viaducts who now admit that they actually *like* them now. Here it is again:

More than a year on, has 'sky rail' turned suburbs into ghettos?
Web Link


4 people like this
Posted by Neil Shea
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 20, 2020 at 8:43 am

Looking at the videos from the very nice project near Melbourne Australia, I believe the consultant and the city will need to create great visuals and ideas of how to use the space under the tracks, for park/open space, north/south trail avoiding El Camino, open pedestrian access east/west, parking, coffee shop, etc.

Without good visuals many neighbors may make negative assumptions as happened in Melbourne, despite people loving the final result.


5 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Jan 20, 2020 at 11:42 am

In Menlo Park's case, the contemplated "fully-elevated" viaduct alternative would only be across downtown. "Fully elevated" in this case, about 20 feet, means high enough to allow Ravenswood and Oak Grove to pass underneath with 15.5-feet of clearance and without having to lower them and the adjoining streets (Alma, Merrill, Garwood), thereby avoiding very disruptive and costly utility relocations. This also results in newly-created open space and connectivity underneath the viaduct and station across the downtown area.

The tracks would gradually slope back to their current ground level north of Oak Grove and south of Ravenswood (where they already rise onto a tree-screened berm along Alma going toward Palo Alto starting at Burgess Park).

20 feet is actually lower than most any two-story house roof. So if you have any two (or more) story houses in your neighborhood, you've got a feel of what 20 feet (or more) looks like (and from how far away those are no longer visible due to trees, bushes and other neighborhood features). However, outside of downtown, the tracks will be significantly lower as they slope back down to their current grade on berms to the north and south. As the study will likely show, they'll not even be visible over a backyard fence when you get as far from downtown as Encinal.


12 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 21, 2020 at 9:09 am

Has anyone bothered to see what 'elevating the tracks' means to our rail authority? Look what's being done at Hillsdale. It's not dainty light-rail viaducts. It's big, heavy, earth-moving civil engineering projects with lots of width to achieve modest grade separation, serving a bigger population and a larger jobs center, and is engineered for heavy freight (which we would have to be as well). This was not paid for with regional pocket-change from behind the sofa.

The more we flap our gums about magic tunnels and bridges, the less likely we'll get anything we can manage in my lifetime.


Like this comment
Posted by Howard Crittenden
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 22, 2020 at 4:41 pm

This is the best solution. Not everybody will be happy. Life is a compromise. Still the best solution when all benefits are balanced against disadvantages.


4 people like this
Posted by Bike Menlo Park
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jan 24, 2020 at 12:38 pm

I'm confused by the enthusiasm for elevated rail. Why would we want to build the equivalent of an elevated freeway in this day and age, and alongside residential neighborhoods? I appreciate the lighter, modern example in Vancouver shared by "Reality Check," but even those give you a good idea of the massive structures that are required. Tons of concrete and rebar, or tons of steel. Major visual impact. Menlo Park is an official Tree City, not an industrial district on the way to somewhere else.

Cities are tearing down elevated freeways, as this story discusses:

Web Link

To my mind, Betsy Nash is showing leadership and fiscal prudence by trying to move forward with plans for grade separation instead of slowing it down by commissioning (yet another) expensive study.


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