Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 21, 2010

On Deadline: Is California high-speed rail the future or a slow-motion train wreck?

by Jay Thorwaldson

For a frenetically busy community, it seems that Palo Altans sometimes have too much time or their hands.

It is a rare week when someone could possibly do or attend everything being offered — or even keep up with writing about them so people know they're happening and can decide whether to attend, not attend or simply sigh regretfully.

This was the week of high-speed rail, with two public-invited city meetings (Tuesday and Thursday) on the "alternatives analysis" on the controversial project. In between, on Wednesday night, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission discussed the seemingly endless issue of what the rail plan would do to local communities.

On top of that comes a press announcement that the California High Speed Rail Authority, beleaguered by protesting residents and Midpeninsula cities, is seeking another $16.6 billion in federal funds for what has been estimated as a $43 billion project.

And on top of that came a visit to Palo Alto by Caltrain spokesman Mark Simon to let city officials know Caltrain wants a chunk of an earlier federal commitment of more than $16 billion.

The bigger significance of Simon's visit is that, for the first time, it seems that Caltrain is standing up for its own interests and future plans rather than hoping for a ride-along with the high-speed rail project. Up to now Caltrain has been remarkably quiet about its own future needs, which include a vision of electrifying Caltrain's aging fleet of trains — meaning they will be new trains, or at least new engines.

Simon said the "partnership" with the California High Speed Rail Authority still remains intact, even though he expects the authority to oppose Caltrain's suggested amendments to a law that designates the federal funds for high-speed rail.

There's a "backstory" here, I'm sure, to use a journalistic term, and I'm sure Simon, a longtime journalist and former Chronicle columnist, knows it.

Some readers have complained that they are tired of reading high-speed rail stories. They do seem to go on and on, sort of like rail tracks disappearing into the distance in a classic case of perspective, worthy of a first-grade art exercise.

Well, some of us journalists may be tired of chasing this story down the tracks to see if high-speed rail becomes a reality or whether this whole thing is a slow-motion train wreck.

But if it does happen, the impacts could be so severe on the communities if the wrong alternatives are chosen that the continuing "story" simply can't be ignored.

And there is a question: Will the seemingly minor split between Caltrain and the rail authority become a true divergence, further complicating what is currently deemed the nation's largest transportation project?

Of course, if the authority selects a deep-tunnel alternative, much of the Midpeninsula cities' and residents' opposition will fade away. But costs could be prohibitive.

Yet a shallow cut-and-cover trench could much more expensive considering the need to relocate water mains, underground telephone and electrical lines and storm drains — some of which may be so old that officials may be only vaguely aware of where they are. And it would be severely disruptive of homes and neighborhoods during years of construction.

In addition, there is concern about interfering with underground aquifers, sort of slow underground rivers.

And, as Palo Alto arborist Dave Dockter has warned, a cut-and-cover trench could well doom Palo Alto's "living landmark" and namesake, the El Palo Alto redwood tree, estimated at perhaps 2,000 years old. Dockter said an examination of the tree's root structure is a good example of the old tree's tenacity in terms of surviving. It's had a tough life. First, its Siamese twin fell over into the San Francisquito Creek many decades ago. Then the city walled the creek bank in concrete, curtailing root growth.

And there were the trains, initially spewing out coal or oil exhaust that coated the redwood needles, choking the tree from air and water (absorbed by the needles, unlike other evergreens). By the 1960s, the city had begun a major life-saving effort, as the tree had begun to truly resemble what now would be called a cell-phone tower.

Each year starting in the 1960s, the city would back up its then-new snorkel fire truck and use its hydraulic basket arm to lift a McClenahan's Tree Service climber into the lower branches. The climber would climb to the top as part of an annual "physical exam."

One year the climber found an infestation of airborne termites near the top, and had to operate.

The city installed a pipe up the tree with misting nozzles near the top in what George Hood, then the city arborist, called a "fool the redwood" plan — to make it think it was in the coastal fog belt with its brethren in the Coast Redwood clan.

As a young reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times, covering the annual physical became my annual assignment.

But Dockter says the tree is almost more interesting below ground than above. It has a unique root structure compared to the usual shallow-rooted redwoods. On the creek side, its roots hit the old concrete wall and then go straight down, reaching for the water table and the creek.

But on the west side, hemmed in the by the existing tracks, the roots have actually gone under the tracks and are reaching toward El Camino Real, Dockter explains.

That means a shallow trench would have to sever those roots, possibly killing the tree.

As I once suggested in an earlier column, the old tree does sort of resemble a cell-phone "tree tower." Perhaps, with some spray paint and false needles, it may have a new existence beaming Internet and cell-phone signals to passing high-speed trains.

Or is that not funny?

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.

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