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Calif. High-Speed Rail Authority unveils track plans

(The following story by Mike Rosenberg appeared on the San Mateo County Times website on August 5, 2010.)

SAN JOSE, Calif. It became clearer Thursday that the state's high-speed train will run above ground in the Peninsula and South Bay -- including on so-called "Berlin Walls" that some cities fear will divide their communities and demolish homes and businesses.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, at a packed board meeting in San Francisco, unveiled its most detailed engineering plan yet for the section of the $43 billion rail line that will run along the Caltrain tracks on the way to Southern California.

Some of the cities along the line will receive aboveground tracks, either next to the existing Caltrain tracks or on structures similar to freeway overpasses. These cities include South San Francisco, San Bruno, Belmont, San Carlos, Redwood City and San Jose.

sition and blight some communities fear the tracks will create. Those include Burlingame and San Mateo and cities from Atherton to Santa Clara.

The final two cities -- Millbrae and San Francisco -- will receive a combination of above- and below-ground tracks.

There are essentially three types of tracks the train will run on through the Bay Area.

One is a raised structure that must be at least 18 feet tall and that some cities have compared with an 80-foot-wide freeway. The second option, typically the cheapest, is to simply add two high-speed rail tracks next to the existing Caltrain rails. The final option, which the riled Peninsula cities prefer but which is also the most expensive, is to bury the tracks in an underground trench open to the surface.

From the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco to Diridon station in San Jose, the tracks will rise and drop to meet various engineering and community needs.

For cities that still have two options, the most likely choice appears to be the aboveground tracks.

The state has a $5.1 billion budget for the San Francisco-to-San Jose section of the project after it allocates $1 billion to the new Transbay Terminal.

It would be cheapest, at about $5 billion, to build all aboveground rails, according to a Bay Area News Group analysis of rail authority cost estimates released Thursday.

It would cost more than $1 billion extra, meanwhile, to run the trains through trenches in the communities that want them, the figures show.

For example, it would cost $664 million to run the four tracks through a trench in Menlo Park and Atherton, which have sued the rail authority and are among the most vocal critics of raised tracks. The state could chop more than half off that amount and spend $244 million to build the tracks aboveground through the 2.7-mile stretch between wealthy properties.

San Mateo Councilman David Lim, whose city wants a trench through the northern half, asked the board to "reject the urge to go with the lowest common denominator."

"Without a trench system, you would destroy a lot of the vitality and character of our downtown San Mateo area," Lim said in an interview. "The support for the project among residents goes down precipitously if you take away the trench option."

Exacerbating the cost issue is the fact that the rail authority still needs to raise three-fourths of the money it has budgeted for the high-speed system.

Project officials will continue to study the trench idea and are not yet sure whether they can afford to build underground, local project manager Bob Doty said. The rail authority board will likely select the alignment next year.

"Not everybody is getting what they want," Doty said. "But we're getting bloody close."

Michael Brownrigg, a councilman in Burlingame, another city that wants a trench, said he suspects some officials have already made up their minds.

"There are some who believe that they need to save every nickel they can because this is going to be more expensive and who don't care that much about the Peninsula," he said.

Meanwhile, some other cities that will not have underground tracks studied said they were flabbergasted.

"I don't know why anyone got the idea that we wanted to continue with an aerial alignment," said Christine Wozniak, mayor of Belmont, which is opposed to the project if the tracks are raised.

Redwood City Councilwoman Barbara Pierce said her city was "very upset" the trench option was removed in her city.

In San Francisco, the high-speed rail tracks will run underground, while the Caltrain tracks will stay where they are.

Millbrae will have one high-speed rail track run underground into its station, while the second bullet-train track will be added alongside the Caltrain line.

Finally, it is also possible that the two high-speed rail tracks will be buried in a tunnel in Santa Clara as they approach the high-speed rail stop in San Jose.

Construction on the project is expected to begin in 2012 and trains would start running by 2020.

Friday, August 6, 2010

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