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 said the rail authority has assured city officials that it will consider the option of installing tunnels for high-speed trains on the Peninsula. But local officials have been floating the idea of building underground tunnels for months, with Emslie, Councilman John Barton and former mayor Bern Beecham among the leading proponents of the underground alternative (for an in-depth look at the tunnel discussion, see Weekly's Sept. 26, 2008, edition).
On Tuesday, 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's 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. It's also not clear whether Palo Alto or Redwood City will get a station, for which Redwood City officials are reportedly already lobbying.
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."