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Editorial: Scary surface-level HSR, Caltrain becoming unthinkable

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  • 2/27 Palo Alto Weekly
    Published Friday, February 27, 2009, by the Palo Alto Weekly Editorial Palo Alto surface rail becoming unthinkable Increase in local Baby Bullet trains, plus
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 27, 2009
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      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.
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