Rail separations could relieve traffic woes

Reducing traffic congestion and improving safety on the Peninsula are two of the top reasons Caltrain should move ahead with plans to separate its train tracks from vehicles and pedestrians, according to a new study, officials said Monday.

But such a major project is costly and still a long way from coming to fruition, officials said.

So-called grade separations — in which a road is depressed below or bridged above the tracks, eliminating road-level crossings — are being considered for a handful of Peninsula cities, from Burlingame and Redwood City to Menlo Park and Atherton, according to the San Mateo County Grade Separation Footprint Planning Study, released last month. Similar projects are also in the works for San Bruno and San Mateo, said Jonah Weinberg, spokesman for Caltrain and its sister organization, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, which funded the study.

One intersection where submerging the street below the tracks could go a long way toward easing traffic congestion is at Broadway in Burlingame, the city’s only access point to U.S. Highway 101, said Syed Murtuza, Burlingame’s assistant public works director.

“The [Caltrain] crossing is just one block from the freeway, so there are traffic jams every time a train crosses [Broadway],” Murtuza said.

Separating the streets from the tracks, as has been done at Millbrae Avenue in Millbrae and Hillsdale Boulevard in San Mateo, also reduces the chances of vehicles and pedestrians being hit by a train, Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel said.

Local parents rallied for safety upgrades and fencing along Caltrain tracks after 13-year-old Fatih Kuc, a Burlingame resident, was hit and killed by a train when he was illegally walking along the tracks last April. A total of 16 people died on Caltrain tracks in 2006, the highest since 2000.

In Redwood City, where roads cross the tracks in a half-dozen locations, raising safety concerns, as many as five new grade separations could be built to resemble Chicago’s “L” train, said Susan Moeller, Redwood City redevelopment director.

While Caltrain isn’t opposed to separations, it doesn’t see them as integral to its operations, and the deficit-ridden agency can’t be counted on to pay for them, Weinberg said.

A major stumbling block to building the touted separations is the cost. At $82 million to $165 million, the Broadway Burlingame separation would be the least expensive, while others could run as high as $730 million, according to early estimates.

“The bottom line is that if we could afford it and achieve it, we’d want to separate every single crossing where there is a conflict between traffic and the train,” county Supervisor and Transportation Authority board member Rich Gordon said. The reality, however, is that completely separating the train from vehicles and pedestrians is a long way off, officials said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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