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Calif. High Speed Rail Authority shops alternatives through San Jose

(The following story by John Woolfolk appeared on the San Jose Mercury News website on October 13, 2009.)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — State officials looking to shoot 220-mph bullet trains through densely populated neighborhoods in San Jose — with the least resistance from residents — are shopping four alternatives to the original route along existing Caltrain tracks.

The California High Speed Rail Authority's preliminary proposal was to run the trains along the existing tracks from downtown's Diridon Station south toward the Tamien Station. But that route runs through the Gardner and North Willow Glen neighborhoods, where residents fear the increased rail traffic and accompanying noise. Neighbors also fear they could be forced to sell property adjacent to the tracks to accompany the new trains.

Willow Glen resident Larry Ames said the original proposal "would be very destructive to the northern Willow Glen area," where homes are right alongside the tracks. With high-speed rail eventually expected to run trains every 3 minutes, he said, "that would be maddeningly noisy."

The $45 billion bullet-train project, supported by bonds that state voters approved last year with Proposition 1A, is projected to run trains from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes, beginning in 2020. The alternative routes will be evaluated as part of an environmental review expected to be completed in 2011.

One possible alternative suggested by the city is a narrower high-speed rail footprint with three rather than four tracks to accommodate express trains.

But the rail authority last week also unveiled four other alternatives suggested by residents and local officials that would ease neighborhood concerns — though likely at a much steeper price.

"This is what we heard from you, this is what we've come up for the alternatives," said Gary Kennerly, the rail authority's regional manager for the San Jose-to-Merced section of the high-speed line. "The next step is to take these alternatives and evaluate them."

While trains following the existing tracks would run at or above ground level, three of the new alternatives would put a significant part of the line underground between Tamien and Diridon. An underground line is favored by many residents in the North Willow Glen and Gardner neighborhoods and would allow the trains to run a straighter, faster route.

But Kennerly said the tracks would have to be bored 110 feet underground to avoid a proposed BART line and other obstacles. It is not even certain such a route is feasible from an engineering standpoint, and the cost is expected to be huge.

"If we can determine it's actually constructible, we can then start putting a price to it," Kennerly said. "I would expect it to be quite a high premium."

Another possibility is running elevated tracks along Interstate 280 and Highway 87 between Diridon and Tamien. Such a route would have even more of an "S" curve than the original proposal, slowing the trains. But it would be cheaper and easier than tunneling.

Ames had suggested such a route and was pleased to see it included.

"They're listening to the whole community," he said, "and that's what I'm glad to hear."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

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