The sleek, blue train zips on elevated tracks over Churchill Avenue, soaring high above passing cars, traffic lights, meandering bicyclists and the occasional pedestrian.
The image may not materialize for more than a decade. It may, in fact, never materialize. But it has been on the minds of hundreds of Palo Alto residents, who have been revolting in recent months against the prospect of elevated tracks running through the city and splitting it in half.
But architect James McFall, who lives in the Southgate neighborhood, did more than imagine this prospect: He drew it up. In recent weeks, McFall has been displaying a video of the proposed system at meetings of the City Council, the Planning and Transportation Commission and the Historic Resources Board, generally to enthusiastic response.
In the past week, the renderings found a new home on Youtube.com.
McFall said he has been approached by other Southgate residents who were concerned about the impacts of the new rail system, which the California High-Speed Rail Authority hopes to start constructing in 2011. The rail line would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles and go through the Peninsula, along the Caltrain corridor.
"As I started thinking about the impacts of high-speed rail on Palo Alto, I could find very little information and certainly no visuals of that," McFall told the planning commission on March 18.
Keeping in mind that the picture is often worth a thousand words, McFall took the track dimensions and designs from the rail authority's program-level Environmental Impact Report, spoke to the agency's consultants and used the information to reproduce the system in a setting familiar to just about all concerned residents: the area around Palo Alto High School.
His presentation has been well-received by the various boards, though at least one commissioner stressed that it's not possible to create an exact reproduction of what the train would look like in Palo Alto because the designs haven't yet been finalized.
The elevated-tracks option is just one of several designs the rail authority is considering (other alternatives include tunnels and open trenches) and the final design won't be known until rail officials complete an environmental review focusing on the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the line.
Daniel Garber, chairman of the Planning and Transportation Commission, noted that even if the elevated-tracks option is chosen, it would probably involve some mitigation from the city and the rail agency. The presentation offered by McFall does not include any possible features that could ultimately be adopted to minimize the visual impacts of the structure.
"This is one of any number of possible ways that the elevated train could be elevated," Garber said. "It's conjecture if this will actually be what we end up with if this approach of an elevated train was pursued by the agency."
But Karen Holman, another member of the planning commission, had a different take. The presentation, Holman noted, is based on information provided by the rail authority and should not be discounted.
"While this may not be exactly what would happen, this is what has been mostly described by the authority as an outcome," Holman said. "I'd hate to see us minimize the import of this."
To view the video by McFall Architecture, click on this link.