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Comment: Menlo Park HSR foe on why tunneling is way to go (part 1)

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  • 3/18 Palo Alto Daily Post
    Published Thursday, March 18, 2010, by the Palo Alto Daily Post Guest Opinion, Part 1 of 2 Why tunneling is the way to go By Martin Engel The program-level
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 18, 2010
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      Published Thursday, March 18, 2010, by the Palo Alto Daily Post

      Guest Opinion, Part 1 of 2

      Why tunneling is the way to go

      By Martin Engel

      The program-level environmental impact report addressing the Caltrain corridor development and use by the California High-Speed Rail Authority failed to adequately acknowledge its adverse impact on the urban environment of the Peninsula.

      That failure exists again in the current revision of the report. To that end, I am providing an alternative alignment option intended to become the preferred alignment.

      These comments are limited to a three-city portion of the Bay Area segment of the high-speed rail project. It is, of course, possible to expand this alignment both north and south, depending upon the wishes of Redwood City and Mountain View.

      This alignment takes into account the needs of the four major stakeholders: the High-Speed Rail Authority, Caltrain, Union Pacific and the impacted communities of Atherton, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto.

      Basically, this alignment involves an eight-mile pair of two-track tunnels.

      The light at the end of the tunnel

      This is Part 1 of a two-part statement about tunneling the proposed high-speed train under the Caltrain corridor through Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto. The first part provides the context and general argument. The second part will describe in greater detail how this alternative would work.

      This alignment proposal is intended to achieve a win for each of the stakeholders, including our communities.

      The rail authority will be able to run the trains beneath the Caltrain corridor in their tunnel. Caltrain will be able to do the same in their tunnel. Hence, two tunnels. However, Union Pacific can have what they insist they need, that is, to be left without interference on the current at-grade tracks. And we in our three towns will no longer have to anticipate the adverse impacts of the high-speed train nor the increased frequency of Caltrain service. Both will be underground, out of sight.

      Union Pacific

      Union Pacific has made it clear they want to be left alone; they do not want to be put through tunnels. They have absolute authority to insist on non-interference with their current operations. They don't have to switch to electricity because they are profitable without it.

      As it happens, keeping freights out of tunnels solves a large number of problems for this particular alignment, including the enormous additional expense for a larger diameter tube, extensive venting and requiring longer 1% gradient slopes leading into both portals of the tunnel.

      Some people suggest that Union Pacific is holding out for a deal. I don't believe that. Others suggest that they should just go away. That won't happen. Some people want to put the freight underground as well. We have pointed out that this entails significant additional cost increases, and Union Pacific will likely reject it. Some have sought air rights for development on the corridor. Without the agreement of the [Caltrain] Joint Powers Board as well as Union Pacific, that can't happen.

      The cost issue

      As we have been told many times, the cost is the most pressing objection to full-bore tunneling and that alternative will be rejected out of hand by the rail authority, even if proposed by the consultants conducting engineering development and design. However, we have bargaining leverage we have not yet ramped up.

      The immediate reaction of most people is that tunneling is far more costly than any other alignment. However, when the offsets are fully accounted for, it is no longer the case that it remains "unaffordable." When adding in the necessary additional costs to a trenched, elevated or at-grade solution, those combined costs approximate full-bore tunneling costs.

      The rail authority never mentions what the costs will be if they don't tunnel, and upon whom those costs will fall. If they run through our three towns elevated, as is likely, what will be the costs to the cities from the construction impact? What about business closings and losses? What about property devaluations, both commercial and residential? Who eats those costs?

      There will be very expensive impacts on every city they go through and there has yet been no conversation about compensation for our communities. We have a legal sledgehammer in our toolbox and we will use it.

      Regardless of what tunneling costs are, they will amortize over the life of the rail system. People say tunnels are too expensive, but one can make a compelling case that the entire project is too expensive! One can also make a compelling case that tunneling is the cost of doing business for running trains through urban areas. It is used worldwide to move trains under rather than through major cities.

      Underground logic

      The rail authority argues that California's population will increase to 50 million by 2030. That suggests we can expect far higher population density and urbanization on the Peninsula. Running the trains underground is therefore in keeping with the best practices in urban development.

      So, this plan is intended to be a "win-win-win-win." Caltrain, the rail authority, Union Pacific and we, the communities of Atherton, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto, would all benefit, or at least, not be harmed. And the two major trains? Out of sight, out of mind.

      Martin Engel, a Menlo Park resident, is one of the most prominent critics of the High-Speed Rail Authority.

      E-mail: letters@...
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