Published Friday, February 27, 2009, by the Palo Alto Weekly
Palo Alto surface rail becoming unthinkable
Increase in local "Baby Bullet" trains, plus state high-speed trains,
local commute and freight trains will create terrible cumulative
impact on residents
When all the trains envisioned to run up and down the Peninsula
railroad tracks are added up, by the 2020s they will have an
unthinkably terrible impact on the lives of residents in a broad
swath on either side of the right of way.
They will be minutes apart, and likely have to be elevated for grade-
separation safety on either a high sloped mound (as in Belmont) or a
vertical "Chinese wall"-type structure. But by being raised 10 or 15
feet the trains will spread the sound further on both sides as well.
To avoid "taking" hundreds of houses in Palo Alto and other
communities, the walls would likely need to be vertical, creating
perhaps the world's longest graffiti wall, or a school-art mural
project that could last for generations.
The trains themselves would be minutes apart on four tracks, sometimes
two going by a once. And that's not counting the years of disruption
during construction of the rail system and undercrossings.
Residents of the Southgate neighborhood have awakened to the
potential nightmare and are trying to shake others awake. Some
residents of Menlo Park and Atherton awoke last fall.
But the statewide voter mandate behind the high-speed rail project,
approved last June as state Proposition 1A, creating the California
High Speed Rail Authority, is powerful and means it is unlikely that
HSR, as it is called, can be derailed at this stage. The $45 billion,
800-mile system has a target completion date of 2030, which seems a
long way off -- except that construction will begin much sooner
through Peninsula communities and itself be a major disruption.
Some Palo Altans are pushing hard to get the whole system tunneled
dozens of feet underground, but that's costly. Backers of that notion
(principally City Councilman John Barton, former Councilman Bern
Beecham and architect/developer Tony Carrasco of Palo Alto) say
building about 600 housing units in clusters along the newly opened
right-of-way, mixed with huge spaces for linear parks, bike/pedestrian
paths and landscaping, would offset much or all of the added cost. In
any case, the costs would be amortized over the expected life of the
tunnel, perhaps pushing a century. With deep tunneling, a giant boring
machine would work away quietly, creating a concrete-lined tunnel
behind it. Existing trains and tracks would be virtually undisturbed
during the construction process, as would be the neighbors.
Palo Alto Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto also has convened a group
of council members from neighboring cities to create a discussion/
lobbying group. It does make real sense to create a combined front
in the Midpeninsula, which could make a difference in the outcome
of the process.
Comments are currently being solicited as to what a full environmental
impact report should include within its scope, and officials say
tunneling the trains already is an alternative to be evaluated. There
are numerous technical, financial and other questions that need
answering, not least of which is proximity to the San Andreas Fault.
The High Speed Rail Authority has extended its deadline for "scoping"
comments from March 6 to April 6 at the request of Palo Alto and
other cities for more time for residents to consider the matter.
Palo Altans, in addition, need to decide whether they want the
HSR trains to stop in Palo Alto -- a logical stop due to Stanford,
Stanford hospitals, the shopping centers and the city's priority to
encourage visitors to spend money in town. The alternative, Redwood
City, is reportedly actively lobbying for the stop.
Another alternative might be to simply end the HSR trains at a
terminal in Santa Clara or San Jose and have passengers bound to
or from San Francisco use the expanded Baby Bullets express-train
system on the Peninsula. But a huge appeal of Proposition 1A was
the direct SF-to-LA link.
It is far too soon to draw fixed conclusions as to what should be
done. There are far more questions than answers.
But it is not too soon to send a strong, clear message to HSR and
regional transportation planners that a surface-level system is
unacceptable and that there has to be a better way to run a railroad,
high speed or otherwise.