Council to act on new rail committee September 9

September 7, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

Discussion of a new Rail Blue Ribbon Commission to advise the council on political and funding strategies was mostly deferred on August 19. City Council and many public speakers were unenthusiastic about staff’s proposal to comprise the RBRC of former mayors and council members, and many questions were raised about the roles and interaction between the proposed RBRC and the existing Expanded Community Advisory Panel, or XCAP. Staff returns to City Council on September 9 for a full discussion. 

The recommendation for exclusive appointment of former elected officials has been softened, but staff still urges a non-voting role for the Chamber of Commerce, Stanford, Caltrain, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

A revised staff report clarifies that the XCAP is primarily involved in building an informed understanding of grade separation options – developing and evaluating grade separation alternatives reflective of neighborhood perspectives. While the XCAP informs the process, they are not charged with making recommendations to council. As that process wraps up, the RBRC will engage to consider the political viability of the alternatives and potential funding strategies, leading to a design and funding strategy recommendation to City Council. Unlike the XCAP, the RBRC will report directly to council and be subject to the Brown Act and conflict of interest rules to ensure the RBRC’s recommendations are not tainted by potential real estate or financial interests of its members.

Monday’s continued discussion is scheduled for 6:45 pm on September 9 and will focus on the RBRC’s scope of assignment, its composition, and how members would be selected. 

Council may turn to strategic Blue Ribbon Committee to speed action on grade separations

August 15, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

The ongoing saga of deciding how best to separate roadways from the train tracks may see a new player as City Council considers appointing a Rail Blue Ribbon Committee, comprised of former Palo Alto mayors and city council members. On August 19, council will consider staff’s recommendation to appoint a politically savvy group to supplement the work of the Expanded Community Advisory Panel, or XCAP, that took over from the original Community Advisory Panel earlier this year. As proposed, the new group of former electeds may be joined by non-voting representatives from the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, Stanford University, Caltrain, Valley Transportation Authority, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. The RBRC’s primary role would be to advise council on the selection of grade separation alternatives, but may also extend to development of a funding strategy for implementation – a function of increasing urgency as Palo Alto’s allotment of Measure B grade separation funds may be reduced by a delayed decision, contrary to the expectations of many. 

The XCAP (comprised of neighborhood members, and representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, the Planning and Transportation Commission, PAUSD, and Friends of Caltrain), would continue its work to help staff “increase awareness and understanding of the options and complex trade offs that must be considered in the decisions ahead for the city” and ensure that “neighborhood perspectives are reflected in the development and evaluation of grade separation alternatives.

In contrast, the Rail Blue Ribbon Committee, or RBRC, would provide strategic recommendations directly to the council regarding “community-wide benefits and impacts, local and regional political considerations, and financing strategy for implementation.” Looking beyond neighborhood concerns, the RBRC will focus on how to build citywide voter support and compete for regional funding and project commitments. Staff hopes that former electeds will bring an understanding of both “the political environments locally and regionally” that will inform their recommendations regarding the viability of the various alternatives.

Beyond grade separation alternatives, staff recommends a range of RBRC involvement in funding strategy for the selected alternative:

  1. Limited to making recommendations on dollar amounts to be targeted via a tax ballot measure (regardless of the tax vehicle);
  2. Recommending a dollar target, timing, and the parameters of a specific tax vehicle; or
  3. All of option 2 plus design of polling and a community awareness campaign leading to decisions on a ballot measure.

This item is scheduled for council action on August 19, beginning at 9:15 pm. Click here for the staff report. 

New grade separation work plan calls for new working group and decision by October

May 5, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters

An effort to eliminate the popular, but complex and expensive citywide tunnel option for rail grade separations failed on a 3-2 (Kou, Tanaka dissenting) vote on April 22. (Because Councilmembers Filseth and Kniss are recused from grade separation decisions, four out of the remaining five votes are required for a motion to pass.) Along with retaining the citywide tunnel option, the council approved an updated work plan targeting adoption of a preferred grade separation alternative this October and including steps to engage the business community in planning for a potential ballot measure to raise revenues.

Council also agreed to a new 18-member working group, to be appointed by the City Manager, to help guide progress toward a final decision. The group will include the 12 members of the current Community Advisory Panel plus one representative each from Stanford University, Stanford Research Park, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, the Palo Alto Unified School District and the Friends of Caltrain board. The final member will be a representative from either Stanford Health or Stanford Shopping Center.

The citywide tunnel question will return to City Council on May 13 when the council will decide whether to abandon it, refine the alternative to include a shortened tunnel from Channing Avenue to the southern city limit, or leave the alternative on the table as is. At that meeting the council will also consider an initial weighting scale for evaluation criteria in order to create a more dynamic model to guide discussion and decision making. The May 13 discussion will begin at 8:30 pm. Click here to view the staff report.

City explores ways to pay for revamped Caltrain intersections

Palo Alto Weekly – by Gennady Sheyner / November 29, 2017

Rail Committee considers new studies on rail-crossing alternatives, financing

Despite years of discussions about the need to separate the Caltrain tracks from the local streets that intersect the rail line, Palo Alto leaders are still struggling to figure out what the project would look like and how it would be paid for.

On Wednesday morning, the City Council’s Rail Committee considered two new studies in an effort to make some progress on both of these fronts. But while the studies provided insight into the scope of the problem, the council’s discussion indicated that Palo Alto is still many months away from getting to real answers.

Guest Opinion: Exploring creative options for underground train tracks

Palo Alto Weekly – Guest Opinion by Tom DuBois / October 1, 2017 

City holding next grade separation workshop on Oct. 21

Palo Alto is planning perhaps the most critical infrastructure in its history: the separation of our roads from the rail line that bisects the city.

The desire from the community is clear. We need to exhaustively investigate creative approaches to put the train underground and evaluate whether it is possible to do it across town or across a portion of it. Past councils, past rail committees, past community groups and our current community engagement process have all shown a preference for this approach. We need to get serious about how to underground the train and how to pay for it.

Lawsuit blocks Measure B funds

Mountain View Voice – by Mark Noack / August 30, 2017

Local transit projects delayed by legal challenge

Santa Clara County’s new Measure B sales tax has already collected tens of millions of dollars for a multitude of transportation upgrades, but that money is now embargoed from being spent.

An appellate lawsuit filed by Mountain View attorney Gary Wesley on behalf of Saratoga resident Cheriel Jensen is blocking the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority from spending any of the $6.5 billion in revenues expected to come from the new tax. For local communities, this means a series of crucial projects — such as plan for Caltrain grade separation and new bikeways — could be on hold for up to two years before the suit is resolved.

How to avoid a train wreck – doing grade separations right


Palo Alto Matters – Guest Commentary by Pat Burt / September 1, 2017

Former Mayor of Palo Alto

The city council is scheduled this Tuesday to decide on the process for designing railroad grade separations across Palo Alto, but the current plan for the decision-making runs a high risk of running the project off the tracks. While debate over “process” can make most folks eyes glaze over, how we come to agreement as a community on the design for this very complicated and expensive project is critical to its success.

Committee recommends no stakeholder group in rail redesign

Palo Alto Weekly – by Linda Taaffe / August 17, 2017

City staff directed to look at other options for public input

Palo Alto could move ahead with plans to transform its rail corridor without a formal community stakeholder group to provide feedback on the project if the City Council approves its Rail Committee’s recommendation, which runs counter to what the city’s Planning and Transportation Commission supported last week.

Push to redesign rail corridor tests ‘Palo Alto process’

Palo Alto Weekly – by Gennady Sheyner / August 9, 2017

Some planning commissioners fear new stakeholder group could slow city down in race for cash

As Palo Alto moves ahead with plans to transform the rail corridor, city officials are struggling to reconcile two seemingly competing goals: catching up to other communities in a race for Santa Clara County funds and engaging in the type of prolonged deliberative process that has long been synonymous with City Hall culture.