The present tracks and four main crossings would be opened up to become a mix of open areas, bicycle paths, park spaces and some housing developments. Sale of the housing units, most likely condominiums, at Palo Alto prices might even offset most or all of the cost differential of tunneling, they believe, or hope.
The local "Big Four" visionaries are City Councilman John Barton, former Councilman and Mayor Bern Beecham, longtime Palo Alto architect Tony Carrasco and Steve Emslie, interim deputy city manager and director of planning for Palo Alto.
They have no guesstimate of the overall cost of creating two parallel tunnels with two tracks in each direction, perhaps 50 to 60 feet underground, for the 4.5-mile stretch in Palo Alto. But they believe the added cost for tunneling could be $500 million or more. If other cities join in the tunnel project, costs per mile would drop.
They acknowledge major problems, one of which is what to do with the diesel-powered freight trains that run mostly at night up the Peninsula, operated by Union Pacific, which isn't crazy about the tunneling idea.
We also see an explosive impact on the local community debate over the impacts of adding more housing in the corridor. Depending on scale and design, there could be serious concerns about creating a visual barrier to residents east of the Alma Street/Caltrain corridor.
But for big-picture thinking, this proposal is about as colossal a long-term vision as has been floated for awhile, and we expect the process of discussing it will be more like a roller-coaster ride than a Caltrain commute.
Yet the visionaries warn that there may be a narrow window of just several years before decisions start getting made that could preclude the tunneling — or alternative trenching to build and later cover-over the tracks — from being even a possibility.
Funding also is questionable, with both the state budget and national economy in chaos. But this is a long-term vision — perhaps times and priorities will change.
Yet the tunneling idea seems more realistic in terms of local acceptance when one considers the alternatives, as outlined in detail in the Weekly's cover story today.
First, Caltrain is already implementing "Baby Bullet" trains to speed commuters up and down the Peninsula, and has experienced a ridership surge related to the faster commute. It plans to add more trains, perhaps doubling today's commuter-train frequency.
That in itself will further disrupt the existing track crossings at Meadow Drive, Charleston Road, Churchill Avenue and Alma Street, with more train horns and noise affecting residents.
Second, the state has designated the Peninsula as the preferred route for its planned high-speed-rail (HSR) system that would whisk commuters from Los Angeles to San Francisco initially.
Palo Alto and Redwood City are alternative sites for a single Peninsula stop.
HSR trains would speed up to 220 miles per hour between stations, but would go more slowly, perhaps 100 miles per hour, up the Peninsula if the tracks remain on the surface, with grade separations replacing surface crossings.
Another alternative, elevating the tracks, would also be expensive and would impact local residents both visually and with noise, while not creating open areas or removing the longtime community barrier of the tracks.
There is opposition to HSR, including both Menlo Park and Atherton, which are considering lawsuits. The HSR plan is before voters statewide Nov. 4 as Proposition 1a, along with the Santa Clara County Measure B, a 1/8-cent sales tax increase that would help fund BART operations if and when BART is extended into San Jose and Santa Clara.
Both these and other proposals are primarily for the next generation, just as our generation has inherited projects dreamed up many decades or even a century ago. We have a long way to go to see what becomes real, or possible, and to debate the desirability of different alternatives and visions. The tunneling idea adds one more vision to the mix.