High speed rail: myth vs. fact
(The following story by Will Oremus appeared on the San Jones Mercury News website on April 2, 2009.)
SAN JOSE, Calif. — As the realization has sunk in that a statewide high-speed rail line will soon reshape the Caltrain corridor, Peninsula residents have clamored for answers to what the tracks will look like and how their neighborhoods might be affected. California High Speed Rail Authority officials have reached out to the public with dozens of informational sessions, yet rumor and speculation continue to swirl around the project.
Part of the problem is that, as officials have said repeatedly, the rail authority has not yet decided just how this portion of the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system will be designed. In fact, with the environmental review process still in its early stages, they have not even decided what alternatives to study. However, some broad decisions were made in a less-detailed study finished in 2008. And within that study are some clues to what might lie in store.
Armed with project documents, the Daily News interviewed Dominic Spaethling, the rail authority's regional manager for the San Jose-to-San Francisco section, to get to the bottom of some of the thornier claims. Here is a brief look at which are myths, which are facts, and which are somewhere in between.
Claim: The default plan for the Peninsula is to run the high-speed tracks on an elevated platform, likely in the form of a "retained fill" design that some have likened to a 15-foot-high "Berlin Wall" dividing local neighborhoods.
Status: Mostly fact, with caveats.
Explanation: In its broad, initial study of the high-speed rail line's feasibility, the rail authority assumed that the tracks would alternate between underground, at-grade and elevated alignments at different points along the line. A diagram available on the authority's Web site shows the tracks going underground at points in northern San Jose and southern San Francisco, but above-ground in between. While some parts of the tracks would stay at ground level, the "retained fill" option was chosen for many intersections because that's what was used in Belmont and San Carlos, the sites of the most recent grade separations on the mid-Peninsula.
The big caveat is that the preliminary study was just that — preliminary. Spaethling described it as a "proof of concept" to show just one way that the marriage of high-speed rail and Caltrain could work. The next step is the project-level environmental study, which by law is required to evaluate all options put forward in the public scoping process that concludes Monday. That means the rail authority will look at underground as well as above-ground options in places such as Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and downtown San Mateo.
A second caveat is that the "Berlin Wall" analogy is exaggerated. The purpose of the retained fill is to lift the tracks over certain key cross streets, meaning it wouldn't be one continuous wall. Many in Belmont and San Carlos would likely dispute the idea that their cities are divided like East and West Berlin.
Claim: El Palo Alto, the historic redwood tree that gave Palo Alto its name, will almost certainly be fatally damaged or removed due to construction of the high-speed tracks just north of the downtown Palo Alto Caltrain station.
Status: Myth, hopefully.
Explanation: It's true that El Palo Alto stands perilously close to the Caltrain tracks, and the city's arborist has determined that any expansion in its direction, even underground, could doom it. But Spaethling said officials know it's there and will aim to avoid it. The authority's initial study showed trains running at-grade at the Palo Alto station and the San Francisquito Creek bridge, meaning construction there would be less intensive. Though nothing has been decided, Spaethling said the natural approach would be to build the tracks to the west of their current location — the opposite direction from the tree.
Claim: There is a chance that construction will force the authority to acquire private property, perhaps through eminent domain.
Explanation: The authority has been reluctant to discuss eminent domain, pointing out that it would be used only as a last resort. Gary Kennerly, regional manager for the San Jose-to-Merced section, said an initial review estimated 85 percent of the Caltrain corridor is wide enough to accommodate four tracks side-by-side. But that leaves portions where engineers may have to get creative.
Spaethling said they'd look at solutions such as stacking the Caltrain and high-speed tracks two-by-two before resorting to acquiring property. If they do have to acquire property, he added, they'd prefer friendly negotiations to the legal process of eminent domain. That said, no one is prepared to rule it out.
Claim: It's too late to push for the tracks to follow a different route; the decision to use the Caltrain corridor has already been made.
Status: Fact, pending court ruling.
Explanation: In 2008, after years of debate, the California High Speed Rail Authority approved a report that selected the Pacheco Pass alignment over the Altamont Pass option, meaning trains would reach San Francisco via the Peninsula rather than the East Bay. Included in the report were plans to use the Caltrain corridor rather than alternatives such as Highway 101 or Interstate 280. Officials said all the overpasses that cross the freeways presented an almost insurmountable design challenge.
Aside from those active in transit boards, Peninsula officials largely sat out the battle, which raged in San Jose and the East Bay. Several have said recently they weren't even aware of it.
The decision left several transit groups angry, arguing the East Bay alignment would have served more Bay Area riders. They, along with the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton, filed a lawsuit in August challenging the environmental report. Unless they prevail in Sacramento Superior Court, however, the Caltrain alignment is likely a done deal.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
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