Palo Alto staff: tunnel HSR or switch back to Altamont Pass route
- Published Saturday, February 28, 2009, by Palo Alto Online
Palo Alto staff: Tunnel trains or change route
Staff report recommends tunneling or different route for $45 billion
By Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto Online Staff
High speed trains should either go underground or somewhere else --
such as the earlier rejected Altamont Pass route to the East Bay --
rather than through Palo Alto and up the Peninsula, the city staff is
The alternatives are among 29 recommendations in the first staff
report on the controversial high-speed rail (HSR) plan to link San
Francisco and Los Angeles with trains that would travel more than
100 miles per hour up the Peninsula and twice that speed in open San
Joaquin Valley areas.
A group of Palo Alto residents concerned about impacts of surface or
elevated trains plans to hold a march from Lytton Plaza to City Hall
at 6 p.m. Monday, prior to the 7 p.m. City Council meeting, where the
new staff report is to be discussed.
The city is preparing an official response to the California High
Speed Rail Authority as part of a "scoping study" for an environmental
impact report (EIR). The authority has extended the comment period
from March 6 to April 6 as to what should be included in the EIR.
Deep-tunneling the trains is already on the list for consideration in
the EIR, along with other alternatives, such as elevating the tracks
up the Peninsula. Voters approved the concept of the HSR last June
when they approved a $9.95 billion down payment on the 800-mile
system, estimated at $45 billion.
The authority last summer selected a route that would cross the Coast
Range by way of Pacheco Pass and then proceed up the Peninsula.
The 29 items in the report, which staff has been putting together
since December, include alternatives to reduce the need for an
additional right-of-way, the number of tracks and noise.
If the council accepts the staff recommendations, the scoping
comments would be sent to the rail authority for consideration.
The proposed scoping comments reflect most of the concerns recently
expressed by city residents who have attended city meetings on the
project in recent months to lobby for tunneling and demand that the
authority consider other locations for the tracks, according to the
The rail authority completed its program-level EIR last summer and
chose the Pacheco Pass as its preferred alternative.
A coalition that includes Menlo Park and Atherton has filed a lawsuit
against the rail authority, challenging that report and demanding that
the agency reconsider the possibility of using the Altamont Pass in
the East Bay.
While Palo Alto has not joined the lawsuit, the proposed scoping
comments indicate the city shares Menlo Park's and Atherton's
Many of the issues surfaced at a heated, heavily attended meeting
Thursday night, where residents asked that the rail authority
consider alternative routes and demanded that any high-speed rail
system running through Palo Alto be underground.
The preliminary scoping comments prepared by staff ask the authority
to "reopen the Central Valley to Bay Area Program EIR/EIS (the
federally mandated Environmental Impact Statement) to reconsider the
Altamont Pass alternative and I-280 or US-101 alignments for the
Pacheco Pass route to reduce impacts on Peninsula cities."
The rail authority eliminated U.S. Highway 101 and Interstate Highway
280 from consideration in the broader EIR it completed last year.
Building on 101 would prove too difficult and purchasing the needed
right-of-way would be too expensive, authority officials said.
Constructing on I-280 would also be problematic because of limited
right-of-way and potential for significant environmental impacts,
according to the authority's report.
"The considerable earthwork and retaining walls needed through Palo
Alto and Woodside would have potentially significant impacts to
nature preserves," the authority wrote, explaining why I-280 was
eliminated from consideration.
The Palo Alto staff report also strongly favors tunneling the high-
speed rail line, a concept previously endorsed by Deputy City Manager
Steve Emslie and Councilman John Barton, among others.
Rail authority officials have said they will be examining the tunnel
option along with other models, including elevated tracks, depressed
tracks and highway overpasses and underpasses.
At recent council and community meetings, residents lashed out
against the possibility of elevating the tracks, a scenario that
would require a 15-foot barrier to be constructed along the Caltrain
corridor. The staff report raises similar concerns and urges full
exploration of the tunneling option, which is expected to be less
disruptive but more expensive than elevating the tracks and other
"The above-grade and at-grade profiles raise significant concerns
about potential aesthetics and visual impacts, noise, land use,
right-of-way, loss of property values, circulation and construction
impacts of the HST (high-speed train) project. ... Undergrounding has
the potential to reduce or eliminate many of these impacts," the
The staff report recommends that the council establish a three-member
subcommittee to represent the city with other Peninsula cities and
It also suggests that the Palo Alto form a consortium with Peninsula
cities to "for the purpose of representing to the Authority the
united interests of Peninsula cities in the High Speed Train Project."
Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto has been leading a regional effort to
organize a coalition of officials from various cities who would share
information and collectively negotiate with the rail authority.
The City Council meeting Monday begins at 7 p.m., following the 6 p.m.