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Palo Alto leaders propose putting Caltrain, HSR underground

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  • 9/26 Palo Alto Weekly
    Published Friday, September 26, 2008, by the Palo Alto Weekly Special report: Going underground Community leaders propose putting Caltrain tracks deep
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 26, 2008
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      Published Friday, September 26, 2008, by the Palo Alto Weekly

      Special report: Going underground

      Community leaders propose putting Caltrain tracks deep underground.
      Is the idea visionary -- or just plain crazy?

      By Jocelyn Dong
      Palo Alto Weekly Staff

      The disruption happens more than 55 times a day along Alma Street:
      Bells clang, crossing-guard arms lower, and people and cars grind
      to a halt as hundreds of tons of locomotive steel approach.

      The train thunders by, horn wailing, leaving wind and dust in its
      wake. Then life returns to normal.

      [BATN: How many hundreds of times a day does the average traffic
      light turn red, forcing people and cars to "grind to a halt" as
      harried drivers -- some of them distracted by kids, phones and other
      gizmos -- thunder by in their multi-ton single-occupancy cars and
      SUVs, leaving wind, dust and greenhouse gases in their wake? And
      life rarely "returns to normal" because incessant all-day heavy
      traffic *is* normal.]

      One day, all that could be history if an idea being floated by some
      Palo Alto leaders becomes reality.

      Call it visionary or call it far-fetched: They think the railroad
      could be put underground -- in tunnels 50 feet below the surface.

      If that were to happen, drivers might experience Alma as a grand
      boulevard in the European tradition rather than a commute corridor
      flanked on one side by railroad tracks and bushes.

      Where tracks now lie, bicyclists would glide on paths along a
      greenbelt, while office workers would look out their windows as
      commuters drive by.

      And in the tunnels underground, bullet trains would silently whisk
      their passengers to destinations along the Peninsula.

      No more street-traffic delays due to the rail system. No more
      train-on-car accidents. No more fatalities.

      To some, it may sound like a pipe dream. Even the main proponents --
      City Councilman John Barton, former Mayor Bern Beecham, architect
      Tony Carrasco and Interim Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie -- joke
      about whether they are crazy to even suggest such a thing.

      But underlying their wisecracks lies a common vision, one they say
      would have the power to unify -- even heal -- a city that's been
      divided by the railroad for more than a century.

      Until they're proven wrong, they're willing to explore the idea
      with anyone who will listen.

      And now, they say, is the time to do it, thanks to the rising
      possibility that a high-speed train route between Los Angeles and
      San Francisco could be added to the Peninsula corridor. On the
      November ballot, state Proposition 1A asks voters to approve the
      sale of bonds worth $9.95 billion to provide initial funding of
      high-speed rail.

      Due to state-budget impasse, its place on the ballot was not ensured
      until Aug. 26, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 3034, giving
      it the green light.

      If the proposition passes, plans for running high-speed rail through
      the Peninsula would pick up steam, with construction on parts of the
      line following after about two years of planning, according to Mehdi
      Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail

      A fully functional system would enable passengers to travel from
      San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours, operating at
      speeds of up to 220 mph, the Authority predicts.

      It could be the opportunity of a lifetime for Palo Alto, the
      community leaders say. With high-speed rail would come funding,
      and with funding -- the possibility to creatively, and radically,
      alter Palo Alto's cityscape.

      Building two tunnels (under Alma, they say) and placing the rail
      system there would free up acres of valuable land along the current
      4.25-mile right of way.

      The area now occupied by the University Avenue train station, for
      example, could become a dynamic gateway to downtown. The group
      envisions an oval "village green" surrounded by a hotel,
      community/arts center, visitors' center, retail, office space and

      Below ground, the train station and an intermodal transit hub would
      allow travelers to switch their mode of transportation quickly and

      Along the former rail route, lining Alma, the group pictures a 25-
      foot-wide park with grass, trees and pedestrian and bicycle paths.
      The strip park would run from Palo Alto's southern border all the
      way to its northern one, totaling about 8 acres, they estimate.

      Adjacent to the greenbelt, the rest of the land could be developed
      in stretches: as high-density townhomes, apartment buildings, shops
      and office space, they said.

      What excites them the most is the idea of removing what they call
      the railroad "barrier" between the east and west sides of the city,
      which now limits cross-town traffic to four intersections --
      Charleston Road, Meadow Drive, Churchill Avenue and Alma -- and four
      over/underpasses at San Antonio, Oregon Expressway, Embarcadero Road
      and University. (The city also has two bicycle/pedestrian tunnels,
      at California and Homer avenues.)

      "It will heal Palo Alto and connect so many neighborhoods to other
      uses," Carrasco said. He co-chaired the 1990s Dream Team Citizens
      Advisory Committee, which explored the possibility of transforming
      the University Avenue train station area into a major entryway into
      the community.

      "We talk about 'walkable' and 'bikeable,'" Carrasco said of Palo
      Alto's long-term goals, which he said the undergrounding plan would
      advance. "This does so much to be able to get across from business
      areas to residential areas," he said.

      The California Avenue shopping district, for example, could be
      quickly accessed by cars without them looping around via Oregon
      Expressway's underpass.

      Barton, who is also an architect, said the benefits could be

      "Imagine if Colorado Avenue could come through. Suddenly the new
      police station [planned for Park Boulevard] is that much closer to
      a whole section of Palo Alto," he said.

      Removing the tracks "would take four quadrants of Palo Alto and
      make it two," he added.

      The idea could also raise a lot of money, the group contends. By
      selling or leasing "air rights" -- rights to build on the land,
      without acquiring the land itself -- the Peninsula Corridor Joint
      Powers Board in theory might garner enough funding to pay for the
      added cost of undergrounding. The board owns the right of way and
      manages Caltrain.

      "If you go along with our estimates, we get to about a half billion
      dollars of land value, which hopefully is the marginal difference in
      cost between what high-speed rail would pay for above-grade [rail]
      and the cost of undergrounding," Carrasco said.

      To get those estimates, the men determined what kinds of buildings
      the community and developers might want on the 44 acres of land --
      varying from moderate-income apartments to live/work units to
      offices and retail shops.

      All told, they calculated more than 660 homes and 814,000 square
      feet of office and retail space could be built, placing the land
      at a value of $464 million.

      "The basics of what we know is there's a reasonable value in the
      land in air rights, and it's going to cost a lot to do tunneling,"
      Beecham said.

      "If somebody's going to come out anyway and lay out the tracks [for
      high-speed rail] and put a lot of investment in ... then you can
      say, 'We've got another, smaller pool of money that might make it
      worthwhile enough to go underground rather than do this.'

      "We don't know if it's going to work. ... But [the estimates] are
      adequate to show there's meat on the bones," Beecham said. "It is

      The idea of burying the railroad and selling air rights may seem
      unusual, but it's hardly inventing the wheel.

      In fact, it was key to the monumental transformation of Grand
      Central Terminal in New York in the early 1900s.

      At that time, city and state officials prohibited steam engines in
      Manhattan, following a 1902 crash that killed 15 people, according
      to the PBS documentary, "Grand Central," which Barton cited as one
      inspiration for the Palo Alto idea.

      So New York Central Railroad's chief engineer decided to switch to
      electrified engines. Not only that, he determined they should run
      underground and the land above them could be sold to developers.

      He called the concept "taking wealth from the air," and it was
      the first time the notion of "air rights" had been proposed, the
      documentary states. The idea helped the railroad company successfully
      finance the project, estimated at $70 million, avoiding the need for
      public funding.

      Today, Grand Central spans 48 acres and contains 103 retail shops,
      occupying 130,000 square feet.

      Closer to home, the San Francisco Transbay Joint Powers Authority is
      attempting a similar project, which will replace the city's current
      Transbay Terminal along Mission Street with a new station, extend
      the Caltrain line underground to the new transit center, and build
      a new neighborhood of 3,400 homes, 60,000 square feet of shops and
      1.2 million square feet of other commercial space.

      Sale of that land is expected to bring in more than $200 million,
      according to the Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

      The idea of a city advocating for undergrounding rather than
      accepting ground-level or above-ground tracks also has precedent,
      Barton said.

      In the early 1960s, BART planned to build a line on elevated tracks
      through the heart of Berkeley's downtown.

      "BART was supposed to run down Shattuck, and folks in Berkeley said,
      'Hell, no.' And they won," Barton said.

      The city eventually used a sales tax to finance the undergrounding.

      From an engineering standpoint, other elements of the Palo Alto idea
      -- tunnels and high-speed rail -- also have plenty of predecessors,
      the group members said.

      Civil engineers note that tunneling is constantly improving.

      "We have tunnels all over the world that have been around for 150
      years," said the Rail Authority's Morshed, a civil engineer who has
      planned and implemented transportation projects for 34 years and
      worked on state policies and laws.

      "They're not any more dangerous than above-grade or at-grade
      [tracks]. It's a matter of engineering."

      Eleven countries already have high-speed rail systems, according
      to the Rail Authority.

      Japan's ultra-fast rail network, the Shinkansen, uses tunnels that
      stretch for 16 miles or more. The system has run for nearly 45 years
      and carried some 7 billion passengers. It has survived numerous
      earthquakes, derailing only once, and hasn't had a single fatality
      due to rail collisions or natural disasters, engineers note.

      The United States also has a high-speed line, Amtrak's Acela Express,
      which travels between Washington, D.C., and Boston. But it runs more
      slowly, up to 150 mph, than foreign high-speed trains, which can top
      220 mph.

      There are, naturally, many "ifs" on which the undergrounding idea is

      * If Proposition 1A, or a succeeding measure, passes;

      * If high-speed rail comes to the Peninsula as currently proposed;

      * If the tunneling costs pencil out;

      * If all the agencies involved -- Caltrain, the Rail Authority,
      Union Pacific (which operates freight trains), other local transit
      agencies, the City of Palo Alto and potentially neighboring cities
      -- buy into the plan.

      But there's no merit in waiting for absolute certainty before
      floating the undergrounding notion, Beecham said.

      "It's a long-term concept, and you're in it for the long term," he
      said. "There's no value in us starting and stopping in a herky-jerky
      fashion, saying, 'Oops, this week, bad news in Sacramento.'"

      Even given the uncertainty, the group members are galvanized by
      at least two factors: timing and an alternative they fear could
      be worse for Palo Alto than ground-level tracks -- elevated ones.

      They believe they face a short time-span within which to act. Even as
      Rail Authority planning gathers momentum, with a potential completion
      date in 2030, Caltrain is proceeding with its proposal to convert its
      system from diesel engines to electric. Its goal is to finish the
      electrification of the system by 2014, according to Caltrain.

      "We have a short window to jump at this, short meaning five to six
      years, before Caltrain and the High-Speed Rail Authority start
      talking to each other on what their plan would look like," Carrasco

      "Once their plans get too concrete, our chance is gone," Beecham

      What the group finds even more motivating is the possibility that
      high-speed rail might run through Palo Alto not at ground level but

      The Rail Authority anticipates it would add two tracks to the
      Peninsula right of way, which currently has two, Morshed said. It
      also recommends elevating those tracks.

      If the Palo Alto leaders feel current ground-level train tracks are
      problematic, elevated berms (or "grade separations") would be even
      worse, they said.

      "Berms really don't work in these urban situations. With four tracks,
      it's not a berm; it's a structure," Carrasco said, calling concrete
      berms "ugly as sin."

      Some cities along the Peninsula, such as San Carlos, already have
      grade-separated tracks, directing cars under the tracks either
      at street level or via an underpass. But the ones up north have
      businesses adjacent, Carrasco said. Palo Alto's right of way abuts
      numerous homes.

      Those homes closest to the tracks might even be in danger of
      disappearing, according to Barton. If it's determined that a four-
      track berm could require a wider strip than currently exists on the
      right of way, the state could use eminent domain to purchase the

      "I couldn't imagine a four-track with a berm wouldn't require buying
      up all the properties on the train-track side of Park Boulevard,"
      Barton said.

      For its part, the High-Speed Rail Authority believes that grade
      separations would be an improvement over ground-level crossings.
      Elevated crossings would eliminate the noise from train horns and
      warning bells because the railroad would no longer intersect with
      traffic, the Authority's May 2008 program environmental study states.

      The visual barrier would be no greater than currently exists,
      according to the document. Rather than being deleterious, grade
      separations "would have a beneficial effect on community cohesion
      by improving circulation between neighborhood areas."

      To be sure, the undergrounding idea, with all of its ramifications,
      has a long distance to travel before it becomes a reality, if it
      ever does.

      Other agencies will play a key role, the men said. So far, the groups
      are open to discussing the concept.

      From where he sits in Sacramento, Morshed views all ideas as
      possible -- so long as they make sense financially and practically.

      "Whatever we do there, life has to go on at that site," Morshed
      said, referring to the construction phase. "People have to do their
      business; cars have to cross. We need to be considering all those

      Tunneling, he said, "might be a very viable solution" -- if the
      numbers support it.

      At this stage, the Authority is about to hire an engineering firm
      to work on project plans. It expects to hold community meetings in
      the future to gain input on its proposals, Morshed said.

      Caltrain's Rail Transportation Director Bob Doty has already met
      with the Palo Alto group, noting that they mostly wanted to get a
      reality check on the idea.

      He said he pointed out factors they should be considering, including
      the fact that the railroad will still need to be operating during
      the construction of any new rail line.

      "My business has always been about creating the expectations. You
      have to be realistic about what it's going to take," he said. "It's
      not a trivial undertaking."

      Besides the need for the railroad to stay operational, tunneling
      requires a span in which to get underground -- possibly a mile on
      either side of the fully submerged tunnel, Doty said.

      But just because there are complexities, "it doesn't mean you should
      give up," he said. "You want new ideas. ... We offered to talk with
      them in the future as it starts to focus in."

      The Palo Alto leaders acknowledged they could be working on the
      railroad plan for years, until it either is proven impossible or
      it comes to pass.

      In the meantime, they said, they are undaunted by the complexity.
      The outcome would be worth it to them.

      "This is a dream, of course, but wouldn't it be great to say, 'We
      got rid of the train. And we got sales tax [from new stores]. And
      we got a better boulevard. And we solved some housing issues'?"
      Barton asked rhetorically.

      "And we made it a better city," Carrasco added.

      "It may not happen in my lifetime, but that's OK."


      Tunnel or trench?
      There's more than one way to put a railroad underground

      Not everyone who wants the railroad to go underground envisions a

      Arthur Keller, a Palo Alto planning commissioner, favors trenches.

      Using a technique known as "cut and cover" and starting at surface
      level, a trench is dug, tracks laid inside, other equipment
      installed, and then the trench is covered. Keller believes the
      trenches could either be dug under Alma Street or under the current
      railroad right of way.

      If several cities buy into the idea, the trench could start as far
      south as Mary Avenue in Sunnyvale, he said.

      "One advantage is you don't have to put in the grade separations,"
      said Keller, who has enjoyed high-speed rail in France and Japan.

      He shuns tunneling.

      "I don't see why you would want to do that. The cost is prohibitive,"
      Keller said. "Think of the cost of tunneling for BART. This is worse
      than BART in terms of tunneling costs."

      Like other community leaders, Keller views air rights as key to
      funding the undergrounding. He is likewise concerned about the
      possible increased disruption to traffic as more -- and faster --
      trains run through Palo Alto.

      "As Caltrain increases the number of trains going by ... it
      decreases the time for the cross traffic going along East Meadow.
      It's especially problematic, going to Paly on Churchill," Keller
      said. "You could have three trains going by at one time. You could
      be waiting there 10 minutes -- or at least it feels like 10 minutes."

      A project to electrify the Caltrain system aims to double the number
      of passenger trains per hour, from six to 12, according to Bob Doty,
      Caltrain's director of rail transportation.

      There would be challenges to trenching, of course. Keller
      acknowledged the Oregon Expressway underpass would have to be
      reconstructed, and underground public utilities would need to be

      Also, either Alma or the current railroad right of way would be
      torn up during construction. If its the right of way, then the
      train system would have to be relocated -- yet still be
      operational, Keller acknowledged.

      That conflict between train and auto traffic flow -- and the
      everyday life of residents -- is one reason some cities and
      agencies are now preferring tunneling to trenching, civil
      engineers say.

      Historically, tunneling has been more costly than other methods,
      said Victor Romero, principal for Jacobs Associates in San
      Francisco, a civil-engineering consulting firm.

      But the costs of buying property and loss of business during
      construction of trenches and other qualitative downsides have
      started to add up.

      "These [tunneling] projects initially have higher capital
      construction costs than above-ground or cut-and-cover, but in
      the long term there's the biggest benefit," he said.

      Costs aside, however, trenching is possible, even at key junctions
      such as San Francisquito Creek, Romero said. There, the trench
      would likely go under the creek.

      Trenches can also be stacked on top of one another and can go down
      to depths of 80 or 90 feet, he said.

      Keller believes trenches could work, even if the construction phase
      could be difficult.

      "It's like living through three years of hell for decades and decades
      after of peace and quiet," he said.

      "It's unifying ... and in terms of the benefit of not having to get
      rid of homes for the right of way, you're doing something nice for
      the city."


      Challenges ahead

      Undergrounding the trains in Palo Alto won't be easy or cheap, and
      there are many potential roadblocks, Palo Alto leaders John Barton,
      Bern Beecham, Tony Carrasco and Steve Emslie acknowledge.

      Here are a few of the challenges:


      Cost estimates vary widely for boring two tunnels, each of which
      would contain two tracks. But costs can exceed thousands of dollars
      per square foot, Victor Romero, principal for Jacobs Associates in
      San Francisco, a civil-engineering consulting firm, said of tunneling

      One of the most expensive fixed costs is the boring machine, Beecham
      said, noting that it is so difficult to remove from the ground that
      generally the huge machine is left in the tunnel following the job.

      A number of factors influence the cost, Romero said. A tunnel in
      an urban environment would have much higher costs than suburban
      tunneling. Soil conditions determine degree of difficulty and
      therefore costs.

      On the other hand, the longer the tunnel, the more economy-of-scale
      is a factor, he said of fixed-costs involved.

      Romero's firm -- whose work includes the seismic upgrade of the
      Claremont Tunnel in Berkeley and design of the to-be-constructed
      fourth Caldecott Tunnel in Oakland -- prices jobs by each element:
      labor, equipment, materials and other identifiable costs, plus

      "We never estimate per mile," he said, emphasizing that the cost
      of two different projects of similar length could vary greatly.

      As for the length of time it takes to construct a tunnel, that, too,
      varies, Romero said. But it follows general stages: preparation of
      the site, including protecting adjacent buildings, which could take
      a half a year; the boring itself, including putting in the tunnel's
      structural lining, which could take up to a year or more; installing
      tracks, safety systems, ventilation and signals, which could take an
      additional couple of years; and finally building the station, which
      comes with its own challenges.

      "The station takes longer to build than the tunnel," Romero said.

      Legal action

      Menlo Park and Atherton have both joined environmental groups in
      suing the California High Speed Rail Authority over its environmental
      study, completed in May.

      Local officials have protested the potential impact on businesses
      and residents if the route runs through the Peninsula, as presently

      Legal action could derail high-speed train plans, or at least keep
      them tied up in the courts for years.

      On the other hand, the idea of tunneling could also sway some high-
      speed-rail opponents.

      "It's pretty hypothetical, but certainly, putting all the tracks in
      a tunnel ... and being able to use the right of way for bike lanes
      and parkland would definitely bear a serious look," Menlo Park
      Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson, a civil engineer, said of the concept.

      "It would have to be dramatically dense development" on the land to
      pay for the project, though, she said.

      And there would need to be sufficient trust among all of the
      agencies. The worst-case scenario would be if the Rail Authority
      were to agree to the undergrounding then revert to above-ground
      plans if funding proved insufficient, she said.

      Diesel in tunnels

      Putting electricity-powered passenger rail lines in a tunnel is
      one thing; running diesel-fueled freight trains through is another.

      The problem: fumes.

      In addition to Caltrain's passenger service, Union Pacific sends
      about five to seven freight trains through the corridor a day,
      according to Zoe Richmond, the director of corporate relations and
      media for Union Pacific.

      If the idea of undergrounding the railroad is to eliminate the
      current ground-level tracks, Union Pacific would have to operate
      in the tunnel, too.

      Romero, of Jacobs Associates, noted that freight trains generally
      don't run in underground tunnels except for short distances.

      "You see a bit of it on the East Coast, the Capitol Corridor," he
      said. "We tend not to run diesel underground."

      But Carrasco is hopeful that it might be possible to install a
      ventilation system that would suck the fumes out of the tunnel.

      Richmond said Union Pacific has trains that run through tunnels in
      the Sierra Nevada on the Sacramento-to-Reno stretch. Holes have
      been drilled in the mountainous terrain for ventilation. But engine
      operators also carry breathing apparatus, akin to what scuba divers
      use, in case of emergency.

      Electrifying the freight trains is not yet feasible, Richmond said.

      "That's definitely a challenge. So far the [electrification]
      technology isn't viable when it comes to freight trains," she said.
      Freight trains are heavier and require more power. In addition, she
      said, Union Pacific would need to electrify its whole system -- a
      massive undertaking.

      "The challenge is you can't just pick one area to electrify," she
      said. [BATN: Nonsense. You just need to switch locomotives, as is
      done in Europe -- which has a mix of electrified and diesel-only
      freight lines.]
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