High speed trains should either go underground or somewhere else -- such as the earlier rejected Altamont Pass route to the East Bay -- rather than through Palo Alto and up the Peninsula, the city staff is recommending.
The alternatives are among 29 recommendations in the first staff report on the controversial high-speed rail (HSR) plan to link San Francisco and Los Angeles with trains that would travel more than 100 miles per hour up the Peninsula and twice that speed in open San Joaquin Valley areas.
A group of Palo Alto residents concerned about impacts of surface or elevated trains plans to hold a march from Lytton Plaza to City Hall at 6 p.m. Monday, prior to the 7 p.m. City Council meeting, where the new staff report is to be discussed.
The city is preparing an official response to the California High Speed Rail Authority as part of a "scoping study" for an environmental impact report (EIR). The authority has extended the comment period from March 6 to April 6 as to what should be included in the EIR.
Deep-tunneling the trains is already on the list for consideration in the EIR, along with other alternatives, such as elevating the tracks up the Peninsula. Voters approved the concept of the HSR last June when they approved a $9.95 billion down payment on the 800-mile system, estimated at $45 billion.
The authority last summer selected a route that would cross the Coast Range by way of Pacheco Pass and then proceed up the Peninsula.
The 29 items in the report, which staff has been putting together since December, include alternatives to reduce the need for an additional right-of-way, the number of tracks and noise.
If the council accepts the staff recommendations, the scoping comments would be sent to the rail authority for consideration.
The proposed scoping comments reflect most of the concerns recently expressed by city residents who have attended city meetings on the project in recent months to lobby for tunneling and demand that the authority consider other locations for the tracks, according to the report.
The rail authority completed its program-level EIR last summer and chose the Pacheco Pass as its preferred alternative.
A coalition that includes Menlo Park and Atherton has filed a lawsuit against the rail authority, challenging that report and demanding that the agency reconsider the possibility of using the Altamont Pass in the East Bay.
While Palo Alto has not joined the lawsuit, the proposed scoping comments indicate the city shares Menlo Park's and Atherton's concerns.
Many of the issues surfaced at a heated, heavily attended meeting Thursday night, where residents asked that the rail authority consider alternative routes and demanded that any high-speed rail system running through Palo Alto be underground.
The preliminary scoping comments prepared by staff ask the authority to "reopen the Central Valley to Bay Area Program EIR/EIS (the federally mandated Environmental Impact Statement) to reconsider the Altamont Pass alternative and I-280 or US-101 alignments for the Pacheco Pass route to reduce impacts on Peninsula cities."
The rail authority eliminated U.S. Highway 101 and Interstate Highway 280 from consideration in the broader EIR it completed last year.
Building on 101 would prove too difficult and purchasing the needed right-of-way would be too expensive, authority officials said. Constructing on I-280 would also be problematic because of limited right-of-way and potential for significant environmental impacts, according to the authority's report.
"The considerable earthwork and retaining walls needed through Palo Alto and Woodside would have potentially significant impacts to nature preserves," the authority wrote, explaining why I-280 was eliminated from consideration.
The Palo Alto staff report also strongly favors tunneling the high-speed rail line, a concept previously endorsed by Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie and Councilman John Barton, among others.
Rail authority officials have said they will be examining the tunnel option along with other models, including elevated tracks, depressed tracks and highway overpasses and underpasses.
At recent council and community meetings, residents lashed out against the possibility of elevating the tracks, a scenario that would require a 15-foot barrier to be constructed along the Caltrain corridor. The staff report raises similar concerns and urges full exploration of the tunneling option, which is expected to be less disruptive but more expensive than elevating the tracks and other alternatives.
"The above-grade and at-grade profiles raise significant concerns about potential aesthetics and visual impacts, noise, land use, right-of-way, loss of property values, circulation and construction impacts of the HST (high-speed train) project. … Undergrounding has the potential to reduce or eliminate many of these impacts," the report states.
The staff report recommends that the council establish a three-member subcommittee to represent the city with other Peninsula cities and regional agencies.
It also suggests that the Palo Alto form a consortium with Peninsula cities to "for the purpose of representing to the Authority the united interests of Peninsula cities in the High Speed Train Project."
Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto has been leading a regional effort to organize a coalition of officials from various cities who would share information and collectively negotiate with the rail authority.
The City Council meeting Monday begins at 7 p.m., following the 6 p.m. residents' March.