Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 12, 2010

Tunnels still possible in Palo Alto, rail officials say

New 'alternatives analysis' will evaluate underground, elevated options for high-speed rail

by Gennady Sheyner

Underground tunnels, elevated tracks and even "stacked trains" running through Palo Alto are all options still on the table for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building a $42.6 billion high-speed-rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The agency also plans to consider a "hybrid" option that would end the high-speed train line in San Jose and allow passengers to switch to Caltrain for trips further north, rail officials said Tuesday.

Rail-authority officials summarized their progress on the design of the controversial system at a hearing in Palo Alto Tuesday afternoon. More than 150 people turned out for the meeting, many of them concerned and skeptical about the proposed line.

The meeting was scheduled to give the community a sneak peak at an "alternatives analysis" for the Bay Area segment of the 800-mile line. The document, which will include details about various design options for high-speed rail on the Peninsula, is currently scheduled for release March 4.

On Tuesday, Dominic Spaethling, a regional manager for the rail authority, said the agency's analysis is considering below-grade, at-grade and above-grade options for the system in the Palo Alto area. These include the popular but costly tunneling option and the locally reviled elevated-tracks option, which could involve a wall built along the Caltrain corridor.

Spaethling, who is in charge of the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment, said the width of the Caltrain right-of-way changes at different locations throughout Palo Alto. The authority's analysis is considering a range of design options to accommodate these widths, he said.

"There are spots in Palo Alto where the (right of way) is 100 feet and there are spots where it's 60 feet," Spaethling said. "We're looking at a variety of solutions that can accommodate these widths."

Tim Cobb, whose firm HNTB is performing engineering work for the Peninsula segment, said the alternatives analysis is also considering stacking train tracks in sets of two. This could entail keeping the two existing Caltrain tracks in their current alignment and building two new high-speed-rail tracks either above or below them. This appears to be a particularly viable option at areas where the right-of-ways are narrow, such as Churchill Avenue, rail officials said.

The design of the line became a hot topic in Palo Alto last year when residents learned that the system might entail a wall along the Caltrain tracks with trains running along its top. Rail officials didn't say Tuesday which of the alternatives is currently the most viable but emphasized that all remain possible.

Spaethling said the authority will also consider investigating what he called a "hybrid" model. This could entail having passengers switch from a high-speed train to Caltrain or having the high-speed trains proceed on existing Caltrain tracks at lower speeds.

These options will not be included in the new alternatives analysis, but would be considered in a later document, he said.

The authority is also planning to release a revised environmental review for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment in March or April, Spaethling said. The authority completed the report in 2008 but had to decertify it after a Sacramento Superior Court judge ordered revisions.

Palo Alto resident Nadia Naik, co-founder of the group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, encouraged attendees to review carefully both the alternatives analysis and the revised environmental report and to send comments to the authority.

She also suggested that the alternatives analysis may be premature, given that the environmental-impacts document supporting the analysis hasn't been officially approved.

"We're picking out curtains before the bank has approved the mortgage on our property," Naik said.

Earlier this week, a coalition of nonprofit groups threatened to bring a new lawsuit against the high-speed-rail project after learning that the Authority based its ridership forecasts on a model that didn't go through a peer review.

The findings were first reported by Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design based on a Jan. 29, 2010, memo from Cambridge Systematics, the rail agency's consultant.

However, rail officials said Wednesday that the memo with information about ridership projections contained a "typographical error" that made the model seem implausible.

The information included a wrong "frequency coefficient," a technical term used in determining ridership, rail authority Deputy Director Jeffrey Barker said Wednesday.

The rail authority also acknowledged that the model used to project ridership numbers never went through a peer review.

Spaethling and Cobb are scheduled to present the alternatives analysis for the Bay Area segment of the line at the March 4 meeting of the authority Board of Directors. Rail officials are also planning to hold public meetings on the new analysis in late March and early April.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Randy Deinhammer, a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 10, 2010 at 12:32 am

Come on people, you are not trying hard enough, while admittedly these options are expensive, they could be made MUCH more expensive! Consider a floating train, on the Bay! Or, for the really old curmudgeon types, consider slowing the train, as it goes through highly populated areas, this would add small amounts of travel time while vastly cutting installation costs! Nah, ignore that concept, far too practical!


Posted by Kathy Hamilton, a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 10, 2010 at 7:59 am

Options are always left in as long as they can, so that the people think they are considering them and then they will pull them out at the last minute and only include what is budgeted. Don't be fooled!

There is no way the HSRA will allow stopping service in San Jose and transfer to the newly electrified Cal Train to take the passengers the rest of the way. There were nearly 100 comments in the scoping document so they had plenty of time to include it in the Alternatives Analysis if they wanted to.

First of all, while there is a no build option, which Spaethling said, he says no one is exactly sure of the definition. Is that the entire system or just a segment. Next, not said at the meeting, there is a provision in AB3034 that forbids transfer to another train. It would take a new ballot measure to fix this since legislative changes are not permitted for AB 3034. So the board has two reasons not to study it.

And last these time requirements, that AB3034 says must perform- 30 minutes SF to SJ and 2 hours, 40 minutes for SF to LA, this just means that the train is capable of moving that fast, one express train will cover it. So you can't give the highest estimate of time for the electrified CalTrain and the lowest estimate for High Speed Rail (an express train) It's like comparing apples and oranges.


Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2010 at 10:20 am


Hi Randy Deinhammer...

LOL! We ALREADY have fast, "floating" train systems. They are called "airplanes." They are cheaper than trains...faster than trains...safer than trains...and are ALREADY available without having to spend $42.6 Billion of our tax dollars at a time that our State budget continues to remain in the red.

Of course, some have argued that we need these trains so that we are like other "forward-thinking countries" that ironically do not have the widespread transportation infrastructure that we (including all of us lower-middle class people) enjoy. Besides, I think that I would rather fly to LA. It is cheaper...faster...safer...and less expensive per ticket. I suspect that -- even if the HSR is built -- many people will agree.


Posted by Let ' Er Rip, a resident of another community
on Feb 10, 2010 at 10:24 am

Elevate 'em, stack 'em high and let 'er rip all through Palo Alto!! Let the passengers on board high speed wave hello to all those Palo ANIMBYs ("not in my back yard) as she rockets past 'em ...


Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 10, 2010 at 10:44 am

While Tunneling through South Palo Alto is shown as a possibility, the insiders indicate that the final plan is already in place to appease North Palo Alto with Tunneling and do an at-grade through the South, since the North has more economic and political clout.

This is not a conspiracy theory. It is a likelihood that the interests of South Palo Alto will be sacrificed.

Just look history. The City is obligated to build more high-density housing, and where does it all go? ... in the South (Ricky's Hyatt and others.)

For a small illustration, travel to the Churchill crossing and listen to the "Symphony-Like" crossing bell and then travel to Charleston or Meadow and listen to the clang of the bell that is more Garbage Truck-like.

People of South Palo Alto must speak up. We must have a unified solution that addresses all our needs, not a "Political Solution" that appeases 51% of the town so that the needs of the 49% are disregarded. We must demand a United Stand from our leaders that preserves the quality of the entire community. Otherwise we are participating in Economic and Social Bigotry.

Hoping for unified cooperation,

Citizen Gray (former City Council Candidate)


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 10, 2010 at 10:47 am

Terminating the HSR in San Jose and then transferring to local railways (BART, Light Rail or CalTrain) is something to seriously consider. If the egos of SF can get over the HSR stopping in SJ - the solution will work and will cost far less taxpayer dollars to implement.

And you can coordinate CalTrain schedules so that there are some Express trains (minimal stops on the Peninsula) that run off of the arrival times of the HSR.

The Chunnel train (technically) terminates in Paris - but the truth is that you have to transfer to local transit (either bus or Metro/subway) to get to the "destination" areas of Paris. People fly to airports and then transfer to local bus/train transit all over the world. Why can't we consider that type of paradigm for HSR in the Bay Area?

I'm a native San Franciscan - but the world does not start and/or end in SF.

Any way we can save tax dollars - then we should consider it.


Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 10, 2010 at 11:10 am

It seems our Bureacracy has locked us into following the letter of the Law, vs. allowing reasonable people to adopt workable solutions like the one detailed in the previous post.

My new word (and it is probably not new) is BureaCrazy. We should keep pushing for logic and reason, even if the history does not evidence much hope.

Tim


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2010 at 11:18 am

Timothy Gray: Please provide a source for your comment that "the insiders indicate that the final plan is already in place to appease North Palo Alto with Tunneling and do an at-grade through the South, since the North has more economic and political clout."


Posted by Jim H., a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 10, 2010 at 11:39 am

Timothy Gray: While south PA might feel they get the short end of the stick, a state agency, such as CAHSR, doesn't give two cents between north or south PA. They have bigger things to focus on.

One thing that I found interesting is that, in a lot of these discussions, the pro-HSR people state that the tracks will be much safer with the grade separation that HSR is providing, yet they're not talking about complete grade separation. From what I see, Churchill will still have Caltrain at grade level.

From today's Daily News: "Officials did show the remaining options for the northern half of Palo Alto. One has Caltrain and high-speed rail sharing the current aboveground alignment through downtown, then splitting before Churchill Avenue, with the bullet trains running overhead and Caltrain continuing at street level. Another has Caltrain following its current path while the high-speed trains run underground, whether in a tunnel or trench.

By law, high-speed trains can't intersect with roads, meaning they'll have to go either up or down before they reach Churchill Avenue. Spaethling said that's a likely spot for a split alignment because the right-of-way is so narrow there.

Split alignments will also be considered at points where millions have already been spent to elevate Caltrain, including downtown Palo Alto, Belmont and San Carlos, he said."

CAHSR also claims they can't stop in SJ due to strict time constraints in Measure A that was voted on. Were there any cost constraints? Profit constraints? Will CA end up paying for any and all cost overruns? Makes no sense.

With all of the changes, this isn't what was voted on. It's time to put it back on the ballot with better information.


Posted by Tom Jordan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2010 at 11:44 am

If you want a good indication of the type of "cooperation and interaction" that HSR is providing the public, in yesterday's session in the Council Chambers, billed as an informational meeting to inform the public, I asked two questions of the HSR reps:
1) What is the width of the existing right of way from the north border of Palo Alto to the south border and what width is required by HSR to run four tracks at grade level? 2) Does the existing Business Plan issued by HSR include construction money to build the options (grade level, elevated. covered ditch and tunneling) that HSR is presenting or was it prepared on the basis of the least costly configuration with HSR planning for local jurisdictions (ie Palo Alto) to pay for the more expensive options? The HSR reps then talked for several minutes, but avoided any answer to either question. Mayor Burt then followed up by commenting that surely HSR has the information answering the first question and there is no reason for it to be withheld. More words from HSR, but no answer. Perhaps those who blog here attacking and name calling those of us trying to achieve a proper result, would like to deal with facts for a change --- although that does require some thinking --- and answer my questions, including why does HSR not answer them.


Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Tunnels seems like the best ideas to me. free up the land, make it hard to get onto the tracks, help the traffic situation, the noise situation, etc.

What's not to like about a tunnel?


Posted by Toady, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Tunnel or no tunnel, this pig should be shot.

HSR is a stupid idea in a state that doesn't have the money to do the basic things.


Posted by Toady, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Tunnel or no tunnel, this pig should be shot.

HSR is a stupid idea in a state that doesn't have the money to do the basic things.


Posted by Jean, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 10, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Yes, transitioning to Caltrain in San Jose and coming up the peninsula makes the most sense in this economic climate (which won't be changing anytime soon).


Posted by RK, a resident of another community
on Feb 10, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Terminating HSR in SJ makes the most sense, then have people hop onto a new, improved, and electrified CalTrain up the Peninsula into SF.

Most HSR systems around the world feed into other rail services and public transportation for people to get to their final destinations.

I've taken the bullet train in Japan, and I've had to do the same (regular rail and subway to a station with bullet train stops).

HSR should be built to feed riders from one metropolitan region to another. CHSRA says this is what they want to do, but it's really not the case. If this was really so, they would not market the advantages of shorten travel time between SF and SJ, LA and Anaheim, and etc, all of which is what commuter rail services should be used for.

But something like this would make too much sense.

There's no way California HSR will ever be built right if their focus is not correct to begin with. Sadly, a lot of that has to do with the current leadership of the CHSRA.

I really hope that CHSRA does not kill off the "hybrid option" and takes it into serious consideration.


Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 10, 2010 at 4:45 pm

The HSR Authority plans show two options for use of a tunnel.

One starts in the North and ends after San Antonio, and the other scenario offered in the document presented by the HSR Authority is to Underground through the North, and then come back to grade after Fry's Electronics or thereabouts, leaving only South Palo Alto to suffer the injustice of this barrier.

I am advocating that if we can tunnel, we need to do it for the whole town. We are in this together, and we need a solution for the entire town.

Thanks,

Tim Gray


Posted by Rajiv, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Feb 10, 2010 at 5:52 pm

I was at the event. Most of the comments were long time residents against moving ahead. People's homes will be affected and it is natural to want to prevent dislocation and change. However, the HSR proposition was approved by a majority of Palo Alto voters. The route through Palo Alto was posted on the ballot. While people are discussing a hybrid alternative or tunnel as the solution, it is unlikely for the following reasons:

- The notion of switching trains in San Jose would not be that appealing. It would not be as easy as jumping from one to another. In many cases, you'd have to take your luggage, get tickets, and then reboard. It's doable yes, but would increase the time to get to LA making flights more attractive.
- Speed: people discussed the route taking an additional 10 minutes. That assumes no stops from SF to SJ. So as many times as there would be HSR trains, there would have to be super Baby Bullets. Maybe this can work with crossing track during the middle of the day, but unlikely during rush hour.
- Cost: tunnels are very expensive. It's a great idea, but who would bear the 7x greater cost for a 4 track tunnel? Then there's getting new rail cars to fit the shorter tunnel. Finally, diesel freight trains would need all sorts of ventilation. It would have to be something like multiple Big Dig ventilation buildings in Boston. Those are 8 storeys high.

HSR will provide benefits in terms of reduced needs for expanding 101 and 280, reduced flight traffic at SFO, and greater green benefits of easier travel throughout a growing state. This will produce great regional competitive advantages as few states in the US would have anything close. Even better would be to push Palo Alto as the mid Peninsula stop. It would increase business in our town and make it easier to get to Stanford. Instead of fighting something already decided, we should find a way to do it in the least intrusive way possible.

Let's find a way to make it work!


Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2010 at 8:01 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Thank you Tim Gray! I voted for you for city council and am so sorry you didn't win. Next time.

For tunneling to be feasible, I think the freight trains will have to be paid off. The cost and additional dangers of making a tunnel work for a diesel freight train make it almost impossible - all for 2 trains a day (today). Most freight trains go up the east bay to Oakland.

If I read the article correctly, it says that the HSR needs 100 ft of right of way IN ADDITION TO THE CALTRAIN right of way - or a minimum of 60 ft. Most of the existing right of way seems to be 100 feet although it often drops to 80. How much does Caltrain need? What is the total of the two? The amount of land they would need to buy would be far more than I thought. And what would happen with Alma, with no shoulder and not enough drains. It has flooding issues today.

I live on Alma across from the train - and voted against the bond, after reading the proposal in detail. Across from me there is 100 ft of right of way but just south of me it drops to 90 ft to accommodate a building abutting the tracks on the other side. I look forward to seeing where they think they will be buying land.

Tunneling is the only thing that makes sense. It can be funded by selling the current right of way. When you add in the cost of the amount of land that would have to be purchased, I think it has to make sense, as long as you can send all freight through the east bay. If they propose a tunnel only in North Palo Alto, there will be an outcry they will not believe from those of us in South Palo Alto - and for that matter in Mountain View.

This whole thing is so crazy. And tell me why they need a whole different expensive administration for HSR? Why isn't it under Caltrain which actually has experience running railroads? I personally see the high speed rail authority as a cushy retirement job for politicians.

Marie


Posted by Toady, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Rajiv, your talking points need updating.

There's no way that HSR will relieve 101 and 280. HSR IS NOT A LOCAL SOLUTION. Anyone claiming that is blowing smoke. No one is going to take HSR instead of commuting up and down the peninsula.

We will still need to expand 101 and 280 unless the money from HSR is diverted to solving the local transit problem.

Oh, and Rajiv, if you're advocating a PA stop of the piggy choo-choo, how are you going to get people to that station? I'm sure Crescent Park residents would love to invite even more traffic along University Avenue. And where will the big parking lot for this station will be?

Without solving the local transit problem, we will have this mess.


Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Hi Rajiv...

I don't think that it is fair to paint opponents of the proposed HSR as "long time residents against moving ahead." I think that they simply don't think that this is the direction that we need to go.

There used to be an old saying in Spanish that translates into something like this: "Before you go around 'tearing down walls,' make sure to determine why the walls were set up in the first place. There might be a lion standing behind it."

Personally, I haven't seen a single reason why our area (or our state) even NEEDS a HSR. Our nation's infrastructure is better and more readily assessable than most of those "forward thinking nations" (*cough cough) that implement those. Is the need so great whereas to force taxpayers of California to pay for it? The HSR will be more costly to build, more expensive to ride, less safe and slower than air travel.

Our state's budget is a "red ink" mess...and we are already taxed more than people from other states can even believe (and we have so little to show for it). I agree that there are much more pressing needs. California schools and roads are in help. However, we want to spend billions and billions of our tax dollars (at a time when our state can't even balance it's own budget) to build a novelty that will help only a select group of travelers?

I'm not a "long time resident" of Palo Alto...and I am definitely not afraid of "moving ahead." In fact, I am relatively young and newly married. I just don't know if this is where we should be spending money right now. There just seems to be so many more pressing needs right now. In fact, I haven't seen a good argument that would convince me of a need to build a high speed rail in the first place.

As for the "economic sense" of it all: Unless the cost of those tickets is LESS than the cost of air fare, bus fare or car fare -- why would anyone decide to ride?


Posted by dreamin, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 11, 2010 at 12:09 am

Just think of what we would get from tunneling, if all the trains could go underground... A huge corridor of land. Palo Alto wouldn't be bisected by tracks anymore. It could be a bike boulevard. I'm dreaming, I know.

I don't think it makes sense to run HSR up the peninsula, regardless.


Posted by Anon, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 11, 2010 at 12:01 pm

A combination of tunnels and open below-grade options should be considered for the entire urban corridor. As has been demonstrated many times, elevated rights-of-way, whether for elevated trains or freeways, are noisy, and become magnets for crime, and therefore become urban dividers that limit pedestrians and bicycles. The Peninsula already has the SP/CalTrain (mostly street level) divider, but, this project could be an opportunity to make things better, rather than much worse.


Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Palo Alto
on Feb 11, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Paul Losch is a registered user.

Has there been a single positive finding/development about this turkey of an HSR since the voters were bamboozled into voting for the bond measure with limited and mis-leading information in 2008? I haven't seen any.

People ask legitimate questions about the true cost/benefit analysis that this project would (not!) provide.

People have legitimate concerns about how built out communities, which have had rail service for almost 100 years to San Francisco, will gain advantage with this leviathan ruining peoples homes, lives, and for little incremental time saving advantage to the supposed travelers coming from LA to SF--done right the current CalTrain gets people from SJ to SF in only a few minutes more than HSR purports to do between those two venues. Nothing but blather from these HSR folks in response at the most recent meeting earlier this week in Palo Alto City Hall.

Quentin and Ron seem to have such hubris about this thing that they strike me as more like Carnival showmen who con you out of your dollar than responsible officials trying to spend the tax payers
money wisely. They have blinders on, they are so obsessed with getting this deal done that they are incapable of objectively hearing a perspective that differs from theirs, let alone brings up legitiamte concerns.

The more this thing gets poked, the more it leaks. HSR as proposed is a fundamentally flawed concept in this part of the world, and the voters of this State should be working toward getting another ballot on the next election that basically will say: "You know what? We voters made a bad decision, based on limited information. Now that we know more, this HSR proposal is a good decision. Let's cut our losses and move on."

Happens in business all the time. Try something, it doesn't make sense after trying, so you kill it before it sucks up more resources for the same losing result at a larger order of magnitude. Management decisions.

That's what we have here.


Posted by jb, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 11, 2010 at 4:39 pm

I heard a speaker on high speed rail comment that it has worked best in places that had well developed public transit in place already. Then passengers could be dropped off to use the local public transit. Stopping in SJ would be the local version of such a system. But with our current public transit, it could take as long to go from SJ to SF as it took to get to San Jose from Los Angeles!

Within the last two or three weeks I have heard that the French high-speed rail has declared some sort of fiscal emergency and limited some of its routes or runs. How do we know that in 75 years there will be any reason to ride high-speed between these two cities?


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