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.

The County Measure B tax last fall provided hundreds of millions of dollars to Palo Alto, creating the foundation for funding rail crossings to separate the projected large increase in trains from the growing number of cars, bikes and pedestrians who need to cross the tracks safely and without gridlock. This will be a massive undertaking, expected to be the largest and most expensive in Palo Alto history. Because of our narrow Caltrain right-of-way, along with adjacent homes and Alma St abutting the tracks, the project faces exceptional design challenges and construction impacts. Every alternative has major challenges and huge cost impacts. Ultimately, the electorate is likely to be called on to support the design and provide large local supplemental funding.

“Process” is so boring – why does CSS matter?  

At first glance, the projects seem like simple engineering issues. High-level design alternatives have been identified; aerial viaduct, berm, at-grade (road goes over or under the tracks), trench, or tunnel. However, each alternative has big consequences and trade-offs. Conventional underpasses or overpasses requires the taking of ~80 residences. An elevated berm creates a physical wall separating two halves of the community and a trench or tunnel would likely require very large local funding.

In 2010, when the City of Palo Alto was dealing with the implications of the High-Speed Rail Project, Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) was adopted by the city council as the “best practice” the city would use to design the Caltrain corridor.

Before CSS was developed, transportation engineers throughout the U.S. designed highways only to have local backlash when the designs did not reflect the full range of community values and issues. Over confident plans to shortcut the process, today described as “DAD” or “Design, Attack, Defend”, ultimately added time and expense or doomed the projects.

CSS was developed as the “best practice” alternative. It is a collaborative, interdisciplinary, and holistic approach involving all stakeholders, including community members, technical experts, elected officials, agencies and interest groups. It balances project needs with community values and considers trade-offs in decision-making. The process is focused and effective with a defined schedule for completion.

CSS combines broad public engagement and input which feeds into an empowered multi-stakeholder group. The stakeholders are typically advised by self-organized interest groups (i.e. neighborhood committees working with their representatives, businesses advising Stanford Research Park). The stakeholder group is responsible for doing the tough collaborative problem solving and then making recommendations to the City Council, who makes the final decision. CSS has a long and widely recognized history of achieving success on contentious projects where consensus was thought unlikely.

What is being proposed?

The staff proposal, at the encouragement of the mayor and now supported by the Rail Committee, borrows the term “CSS” to describe a hollowed-out process by lacking the backbone of an empowered multi-stakeholder group. The proposed public participation strategies (website, social media, newsletters, community workshops) are mostly one-way information tools seeking periodic “feedback” to the staff. Trying to use large public meetings to dive into the details of complex issues is not effective, but it is critical to have both the broad public and citizen representatives deeply engaged. An empowered stakeholder group, dedicated to helping staff develop a consensus decision that represents the community’s concerns, is the right answer.

Staff proposes for staff to lead the problem definition, design and funding recommendations, which then would periodically be reviewed and approved by the council Rail Committee. The Rail Committee also proposed that residents and other stakeholders could be added to the Technical Advisory Committee (and now an additional staff recommended “Focus Group”) which would periodically “advise” staff, but have not have any responsibility or authority for the central element of reconciling competing needs and coming up with design recommendations.

Instead, the council needs to direct staff to create a CSS multi-stakeholder group, including resident representatives. The group would be supported by staff and consultants and responsible for recommending a consensus-based preferred alternative to the city council.

Why shouldn’t staff and the council just drive the process?

Staffs and consultants are comfortable with evaluating alternatives based on quantitative measures of capacity, safety, design standard compliance, and minimization of direct impacts. But they are generally less comfortable with reconcile alternatives based on community values such as “quality of life”, “multi-model use” “aesthetic values” or “community cohesion.”

Ultimately, a poor process risks building resentment and entrenching perspectives. Community mistrust may build up and stall the entire process for years. If that occurs, Palo Alto risks missing out on accessing funding from Measure B or other resources that become available while our traffic flow becomes a crisis.

The Palo Alto grade separations project will be the largest, most complex and contentious transportation project ever, even exceeding the challenges and divisions of the Oregon Expressway battle which split the city physically and politically. Using CSS best practices, centered around a dedicated stakeholder group, is critical to expediently developing the best design alternative and producing the community support for the design and funding. Proceeding with a process that is labeled CSS in name, but fails to include dedicated stakeholders as its backbone, is a rejection of the City Council’s long commitment to use CSS as the best way to achieve empowered community collaboration and a successful outcome.

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