As Palo Altans continue to define their love-hate relationship with the high-speed-rail project, residents and city officials are increasingly looking to deep-underground tunnels as a possible solution.
On Tuesday night, city officials and dozens of concerned residents voiced concerns and vented frustrations about the project at a packed, two-hour community meeting with officials from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the 800-mile rail line between San Francisco and San Diego.
Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie told the residents that the authority "has confirmed with us that they're obligated and will study the tunneling option through the Peninsula."
Residents voiced two clear messages: They want a bigger say in the design process and they would much rather have a rail line that zips through tunnels than one that whooshes past over their heads on raised tracks, which some city officials are calling a "Berlin Wall" dividing Palo Alto.
It would be "the difference between blight and Park Avenue," Judith Wasserman, a member of the Palo Alto Architectural Review Board, said of the tunnel-versus-elevated tracks alternative.
"If somehow the High-Speed Rail Authority decides to put it above ground anyway, is there recourse or do we all just have to lie down on the tracks?" Wasserman asked the crowd gathered in a Palo Alto Unified School District conference room at 25 Churchill Ave.
Others were less blunt but equally vociferous in opposing an above-ground design. Because the system must be grade separated, the new tracks would have to be elevated 16 feet above existing streets or speed through the less disruptive but more costly tunnels several dozen feet underground.
With the engineering for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the project just getting started, it's not clear which option the rail authority will choose. Despite a completion target of 2030, key decisions will need to be made in the near future about the ultimate design of the system, officials have said.
It's also not clear whether Palo Alto or Redwood City will get a station, for which Redwood City officials are reportedly already lobbying.
But Tuesday night's discussion focused primarily on track designs, with city officials and residents urging the authority to explore all options before making a decision that will significantly, and forever, change Palo Alto.
"I see this as a transformative project," Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto said. "It's going to be transformative in a potentially negative way or a positive way."
"It's up to us to shape this into as much of a positive as possible."
Like most residents in the crowd, Kishimoto supports the high-speed rail project. Like most, she is also frustrated with how little of a say the city has had in the design process thus far.
Last month, Kishimoto teamed up with leaders of other Peninsula cities to form an ad hoc group that shares information and discusses common concerns about high-speed rail. The group has met three times, most recently on Feb. 13, and members are considering signing a Memorandum of Understanding that would allow them to collectively negotiate with the rail authority.
The group is asking the rail authority to inject urban-design elements into its plans and to consider integrating the service with Caltrain.
Meanwhile, Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie said staff is working on a report on the high-speed rail project, which the City Council is scheduled to discuss March 2.
On Tuesday, Emslie joined many others in preaching the benefits of tunnels. He said many major transportation projects around the world are utilizing state-of-the-art technology to create below-grade separations.
"Obviously, cost is a major consideration," Emslie said. "But the high-speed-rail authority has confirmed with us that they're obligated and will study the tunneling option through the Peninsula."
The authority announced earlier Tuesday that it has extended its deadline for comments about the scope of its Environmental Impact Report. After city leaders requested more time, the agency pushed the deadline forward 30 days, to April 6.
But residents continued to express frustration with the communication between the authority and the community.
Some charged the authority with not doing enough to publicize its meetings. Others asked city officials to devote more resources to spreading the word about the proposed system, which would whisk passengers up and down the Peninsula at up to 125 miles per hour. Speeds in the open stretches through the San Joaquin Valley would reach up to 220 miles per hour.
Tuesday night's meeting was organized by a group of Southgate residents, who have emerged in the past month as the project's most vocal and persistent critics.
The rail authority plans to complete construction of the $45 billion project by 2030. The project was approved by voters statewide as Proposition 1A last November, called the "Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century." The measure allocated $9.95 billion to cover about half the cost of core elements of the system, with the other half to be covered by federal grants, with future funding to follow over the years.
Proposition 1A was approved by 52.7 percent of 12.7 million voters, a nearly 74 percent turnout for the Nov. 4 presidential election.
The authority has scheduled another meeting in Palo Alto on Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Mitchell Park Community Center, 3800 Middlefield Road.