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$30M windfall for rail crossings could put Palo Alto in a bind

As city wins federal and state grants, council members fret about meeting strict deadlines.

Palo Alto's effort to redesign its rail corridor received a boost over the summer when the city received more than $30 million in grants a gift that could add some urgency to the complex project.

According to Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi, the city learned in June that the Federal Railroad Administration has allocated $6 million for development of alternatives to separate the roadways from the train tracks at three crossings: Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road.

The following month, the city was notified that it had received a $23.8 million grant from the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) for the final design phase of the Churchill grade separation.

Under normal conditions, the windfall would be a cause for celebration rather than anxiety. There's been nothing normal, however, about Palo Alto's effort to develop rail redesign alternatives.

The project launched more than a decade ago and has featured three separate stakeholder committees, dozens of public hearings and a gradual winnowing down of more than three dozen alternatives into the five currently on the table.

It's been, in short, slow going.

The federal money may force it to pick up the pace. Kamhi said Wednesday, Aug. 23, that both grants come with deadlines. The FRA grant required the city to begin the engineering and environmental work on the three rail crossings in July, a timeline that was guided by the application that the city submitted nearly a year-and-a-half ago.

The city's timeline, however, has changed since then as citizens pitched new designs and council members commissioned additional studies, including ones focusing on things like geotechnical conditions and sea-level rise.

Palo Alto has also entered into an agreement with Caltrain under which the transit agency will review the city's grade-separation alternatives for feasibility and for compatibility with its own plans for four-track segments. That review, all council members agree, is necessary, but it will necessarily add time to the process of choosing alternatives.
Time may be in short supply. Kamhi said that for the city to meet its obligations, it would have to choose its preferred alternatives by April 2024. Even that would require the FRA to agree to a deadline extension, according to Kamhi.

In discussing the grants, members of the city's Rail Committee acknowledged that their winnings put them in a bit of a bind.
Members fretted about a potential scenario in which the city accepts the money but is unable to complete the plans by the deadline. In that case, it would not get reimbursed by the federal and state agency.

"We actually need to deliver in order to get reimbursed," Kamhi said. "If we get off the track and we don't deliver the project, potentially we're on the hook for the money."

Refusing the grant money isn't a great option either. Kamhi suggested that agencies don't look kindly on cities that apply for grants and then, after months had been spent on these applications, decline the funding.

"That said, it's a lot better than if we started to try to deliver the project and then fail," he said. "Then we really look bad, we don't get reimbursement and they take our funding and have to reallocate it to another project later on."

Council member Vicki Veenker referred to the prospect of losing the money and ending up with an unfinished product as a "double whammy."

"We're in this usual situation where we have this great news about getting these grants and we may have an inability to use them in a way that is good in the long run and avoids the double whammy effect," Veenker said,

Others shared her ambivalence. The council had already determined that its biggest priority is the two southernmost crossings Meadow and Charleston which are being evaluated in tandem.

But because the CalSTA grant is specifically for the Churchill crossing, the city would have to now prioritize design work for that crossing. Committee Chair Pat Burt argued that this is an important community decision, particularly given the fact that north Palo Alto already has several grade crossings while south Palo Alto has none.

"As of right now, it seems like what they want to do is to have us continue, pedal-to-the-metal and make as much progress as we can on moving forward both of these alternatives," Burt said. "The question is: Are we in any way boxing ourselves in by accepting the Churchill dollars?"

So far, the council has narrowed down its options for Meadow and Charleston to a trench, an underpass and a "hybrid" that includes raised tracks and lowered roads.

On Churchill, the council's preferred alternative is an underpass that lowers Churchill under the tracks and allows cars to turn on Alma Street. Its backup option if this one fails is closure of Churchill to cars.

Committee members noted at the Wednesday discussion that the grade separation project has at least in one respect become less urgent. For years, council members were worried about Caltrain sharply ramping up its service and creating massive congestion at the rail crossings because of the additional gate time.

The pandemic, which sharply reduced transit ridership, changed the calculus. Burt, who serves on the boards of directors at both Caltrain and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, said transit agencies all over the state are revising their ridership models.

"When Caltrain got federal dollars, they had to submit a service model to the feds based on six trains per hour. They're now needing to go back to feds to renegotiate that because they don't have the demand for that. And they're not alone this is transit agencies all facing similar things," Burt said.

Council member Ed Lauing suggested that the grant need not change the council's message to the community. The council, he noted, remains committed to grade separation at all three crossings. The only thing that may change is the prioritization of preliminary work.

Lauing called the council's grant-instigated conundrum the "ultimate irony."

"It's not as urgent anymore relative to the pandemic and so on, and yet it's more urgent for us to pick the alternatives," Lauing said.

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