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City split on options for rail height
October 16, 2012, 05:00 AM By Heather Murtagh Daily Journal Staff

Chris Hernandez While Burlingame officials and residents have advocated lowering the Caltrain line, or even tunneling it, the City Council is split on whether the city should explore funding for grade separation at the Broadway crossing.

The Burlingame City Council isn’t necessarily convinced raising train tracks at Broadway is the way to go, but it supports seeking funds to make some changes at the crossing.

Now that Caltrain has funds for a multi-year modernization project to electrify the train tracks, Mayor Jerry Deal wanted to take the pulse of the council about grade separation specifically at Broadway. The time may have come, Deal said, to accept that the city’s expensive preference of a lower rail line might not be an option and weigh in on other alternatives. Separating the rail line from the road helps alleviate local traffic and is thought to be safer. Traditionally, grade separations entail elevated tracks but a costlier option is lowering the tracks.

At a meeting last night, there seemed to be some struggle with elevated tracks. Ultimately, the city isn’t tied to any preference it indicates at this point, said City Manager Jim Nantell. With that in mind, the council voted 3-1, with Vice Mayor Ann Keighran dissenting and Councilwoman Cathy Baylock absent, to seek funding for grade separation but leave the possible design open.

"I think at some point we need to realize it’s not going to happen,” Deal said in terms of the expensive trenching and underground preference of the city.

Deal was open to raising tracks at the Broadway exchange. Councilman Michael Brownrigg agreed but wanted to engage the public in design if it gets to that point.

Councilwoman Terry Nagel believes the city could seek funds from a variety of other areas to pay for the more expensive options. Also, she advocated for working with the city of San Mateo which has also expressed an interest in trenching tracks through downtown. Putting the dream aside, Nagel was open to the option of elevating tracks and depressing the street.

Keighran expressed frustration with the conversation.

"I agree we need the grade separation. There’s no question about that. But I don’t know where they will get the funding to do it even if we want to do it,” she said, adding that raising tracks could be a future drawback when advocating for depressed tracks during downtown for high-speed rail upgrades in the future.

Although not in attendance, Baylock emailed her opinion on the topic. She wrote the city should maintain its stand for trenched tracks.

Six options are suggested to start the conversation. They range from keeping the rail at-grade and creating a street overcrossing for $114 million to a depressed rail with the street remaining at-grade for $500 million, according to a staff report by Public Works Director Syed Murtuza. Those numbers are from a 2009 study by the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, the agency that allocates Measure A money.

Measure A, a half-cent sales tax that funds transportation projects in San Mateo County, offers $225 million to grade separation projects throughout the county over the 25-year program, he wrote.

"There’s no guarantee if we asked for grade separation that we’ll get one. But it’s fairly certain if we don’t, we won’t,” said Murtuza.

Longtime resident Jeff Londer said he doesn’t want the rail to be raised at all. He preferred lowering or even tunneling the tracks. However, Londer understood money may not be available to make that happen yet suggested the city continue to advocate for below-grade tracks.

Burlingame has six at-grade railroad crossings — Broadway, Oak Grove Avenue, North Lane, Howard Avenue, Bayswater Avenue and Peninsula Avenue. Although each is affected in some way, Murtuza wrote that Broadway has the worst problems due to the high volume of traffic in the area.

Recently, Caltrain started a multi-year modernization project to electrify its tracks, allowing it to run more trains when the project is completed in 2019. The state released $40 million in September in Proposition 1A bond money to kick-start the project, estimated to cost about $1.5 billion when complete. The project currently is set to include electrification without changing the grade separations which could worsen the situation at Broadway, Murtuza wrote.

In other business, the council introduced an ordinance eliminating the limit on the number of restaurants in the Burlingame Avenue area. Since 1985, Burlingame has had a restriction on the number of food establishments around Burlingame Avenue. In recent years, the council has allowed for additional restaurants to open when there was demand. Most recently, a request was made in June.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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