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Sunnyvale Underpasses Move Forward

Mary Avenue would be depressed under both Evenlyn Avenu and the Caltrain tracks, with a “jug handle” connecting Mary and Evelyn avenues. Image: City of Sunnyvale

Constructing underpasses under the Caltrain tracks at both Mary Avenue and Sunnyvale Avenue as proposed by city staff received a generally positive review by the Sunnyvale City Council on Tuesday October 17, with the public and business community in particular in support of closing Sunnyvale to motorized traffic and constructing a bike/ped underpass.

City planners recommend ruling out any grade separation option that raises or lowers the level of the tracks, since doing so would require the construction of a shoofly, or alternate railroad tracks. For the Mary Avenue crossing, this shoofly would restrict Evelyn Avenue to a single travel lane during construction, while at Sunnyvale Avenue, the shoofly would close Hendy Avenue entirely. Without raising or lower the tracks, the options left are overpasses or underpasses.

Even so, the City Council and several members of the public spoke rather passionately in support of continuing to study the trench option, which would bury the Caltrain tracks in a trench or tunnel underneath Mary and Sunnyvale avenues. Sunnyvale Interim Public Works Director Craig Mobeck reported that he had received an email from Caltrain in opposition to lowering the tracks below grade.

“There’s a huge additional public benefit [of the trench option] that’s not addressed here, and that’s to provide a nice new large park, and a surface trail,” said Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) Vice Chair Timothy Oey. “Coming up with new land is extremely expensive in this area.”

“I understand the interest in keeping the depressed rail options on the table, but I really have a hard time seeing them being viable,” said Vice Mayor Gustav Larsson. “They’re not just a little bit more expensive, they are tremendously more expensive.”

City staff have estimated the various underpass options to cost $100 – $250 million each, while trenching Caltrain under Mary or Sunnyvale avenues would cost $600 – $700 million each. Sunnyvale is competing against Palo Alto and Mountain View for a total of $700 million available for Caltrain grade separations in the 2016 Measure B.

This option to bury Sunnyvale Avenue under the Caltrain tracks and Hendy and Evelyn avenues is still on the table although opposed by the business community. Image: City of Sunnyvale

The City Council directed staff to include the trench option for more detailed study, along with the recommended underpasses. City staff’s preferred option is to reconstruct Mary Avenue with an underpass under both Evelyn Avenue and the Caltrain tracks, and to reconnect Mary and Evelyn with a short “jug handle” road. Sunnyvale Avenue would be depressed under Evelyn, the tracks, and Hendy Avenue, in a tunnel underpass rather similar to Palo Alto’s Oregon Expressway. Another option, seemingly favored by the public but not by the City Council, would close Sunnyvale Avenue to motorized traffic at the Caltrain crossing, and construct a bike/ped-only undercrossing tunnel.

“I find myself questioning the wisdom of the bike-pedestrian undercrossing [for Sunnyvale Avenue],” said City Council member Jim Griffith. “Because if we’re coming into this saying ‘we need to do something because trains are going to reduce traffic by 50 percent through the street, so we’re going to implement a solution that reduces it to 100 percent. That kind of baffles me a little bit.”

City Council member Larry Klein expressed support for the pedestrian/bicycle undercrossing option, but demanded daily traffic volume data for Sunnyvale Avenue. “Have we evaluated the full traffic impact on Sunnyvale Avenue, if we closed it make it only peds and bikes, how that affects the traffic flows on Mathilda and Fair Oaks?” asked Klein.

“Closing Sunnyvale [Avenue], such an intriguing possibility!” exclaimed City Council member Michael Goldman. “Boy if you guys want to increase bike traffic and commutes, there you go! It’s the ultimate traffic calming method, and Sunnyvale downtown becomes much more of a pedestrian-friendly bike-centric place.”

“With the little bit of traffic we have on Sunnyvale Avenue, and for the greatly reduced cost, the bike-ped undercrossing seems to make the most sense to me for what would be best for Sunnyvale,” said BPAC Chair John Cordes. “$25 million versus $125 million? It’s not even in the same ballpark.”

“We oppose the drive-through tunnel [for Sunnyvale Avenue],” said Sunnyvale Downtown Association Executive Director Mike Johnson. “We would be open to the rail depression, or the bike and pedestrian underpass, but the [vehicular underpass] option would be disruptive for the Downtown Association and the Business Improvement District.”

“It is alarming to me to have an at-grade rail intersection that close to an elementary school,” said resident Richard Mellinger of the Sunnyvale Avenue rail crossing. “Building a bicycle-pedestrian underpass would be a really exciting innovation. It would really help to pitch us as a modern 21st century community.”

Sunnyvale staff hope to have a grade-separation option chosen by the City Council by Spring 2018, and plan to collect public input on the Mary and Sunnyvale avenue grade separation projects at one more community meeting and one meeting of the BPAC before then.