California's planned high-speed-rail system could significantly narrow Alma Street in several sections of Palo Alto and cause some residents near the Caltrain Corridor to give up their homes, according to a report released last week by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
The rail authority is in the midst of narrowing down its design options for the controversial rail system, which will most likely include a four-track-wide path between San Francisco and San Jose. Caltrain service would run on the outside two tracks and the new high-speed trains on the inside two.
At the Aug. 5 meeting of the rail authority, the agency's chief engineer on the Peninsula segment said the four-track alignment was selected because it would leave a smaller footprint than the previously considered "stacked" design, which called for two sets of tracks, with one on top of the other.
Robert Doty, director of the Peninsula Rail Program, a partnership of Caltrain and the rail authority, said the agency has considerably narrowed its right-of-way requirement for the Peninsula segment since its earliest estimates. It now believes the four tracks could be squeezed into an 80-foot corridor through much of the corridor. It previously estimated about 120 feet.
The specific width of the right-of-way needed throughout Palo Alto would fluctuate depending on whether the rail authority chooses to run the new rail system at street level, through an open trench, or along aerial viaducts. (The authority has dropped the tunneling option, for which some Palo Alto officials have advocated for the past three years.)
But even with the system's narrower right-of-way requirement, Palo Alto drivers and homeowners should expect major changes, the alternatives analysis indicates. Alma Street, which runs next to the Caltrain tracks, would lose either one or two lanes in most sections of Palo Alto. In the particularly dense and well-traveled area between Embarcadero Road and Churchill Avenue, Alma would lose two lanes under either of the two design options still on the table, according to the alternatives analysis. (see rendering)
The new alternatives analysis also determines that the rail system would force Alma to lose one lane between the city's border with Menlo Park and Embarcadero. The thoroughfare would also lose one or two traffic lanes between Churchill and East Meadow Drive.
The authority's engineers nevertheless determined that traffic conditions would improve in Palo Alto because the trains would no longer run at street level at Churchill and East Meadow. Caltrain currently runs at ground level along the entire length of Alma, and city officials have long dreamed of a "grade-separated" system that would put the trains underground.
Either of the two design options under consideration would also entail the "displacement of properties" along the right-of-way, according to the new report. Between Embarcadero and Churchill, the entire right-of-way is narrower than 90 feet, less than the 96 feet needed for an open trench. Furthermore, the rail authority would need between 103 feet and 120 feet of space during construction of the new rail system, depending on which design option it ultimately chooses.
Properties could be affected south of Churchill, where 55 percent of the right-of-way is less than 90 feet wide. A right-of-way map shows that the width between the rear of properties in the Southgate neighborhood and Alma is 75 feet.
The supplemental alternatives analysis, which the authority released on Aug. 5, zeroes in on the two most likely options for the rail system: above ground and open trench.
The first of these options relies largely on street level and elevated tracks. Under this alternative, trains would be at-grade level when they arrive from Menlo Park to Palo Alto and then glide along an aerial viaduct between Homer Avenue and Churchill, since the narrowness of the right-of-way makes an at-grade system less feasible. Trains would then return to street level as they approach the California Avenue train station and remain in this configuration until East Meadow, at which time they would switch back to aerial viaducts.
According to the new report, the rail authority hopes to use aerial viaducts instead of at-grade tracks in certain sections of Palo Alto because the elevated structures would require a right-of-way of 79 feet, while the street-level and open-trench alternatives would require about 96 feet. Staff engineers had determined that running the trains at-grade from Embarcadero to Churchill and from East Meadow to the Adobe Creek would require "substantial displacement impacts due to right-of-way acquisition requirements."
The second design option, which relies heavily on open trenches, is more in line with Palo Alto residents' desire for an underground system, but would cost significantly more to construct and require a wider right-of-way, according to engineer estimates. Under this alignment, Caltrain and high-speed trains would both run through an open trench as they pass from Atherton and Menlo Park and enter Palo Alto. The trains could remain below ground level as they pass through Palo Alto and enter Mountain View, or they could rise to street level near the California Avenue train station and rise onto an aerial viaduct just before East Meadow.
The Palo Alto City Council discussed the latest report from the rail authority at a special meeting on Aug. 5 and is scheduled to continue the discussion on Sept. 13. At last week's meeting, several council members voiced frustration about the rail authority's elimination of the covered-trench and tunnel options, for which Midpeninsula communities have long lobbied.
Rail authority engineers had concluded in the new report that both tunneling options are "impractical" because of high costs and complications relating to ventilation, ground conditions and safety features. According to the alternatives analysis, a covered trench in the subsection between Churchill and East Meadow would cost $692 million to construct and a deep tunnel $438 million. An at-grade and an open trench in this section of the Caltrain corridor would cost $46 million and $263 million, respectively. None of the estimates would include the costs of purchasing properties to expand the right of way.
The covered-trench option has been particularly popular in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton because it would have enabled both Caltrain and high-speed rail to run underground, in a shallow trench. The deep tunnel option was considered only for the new high-speed trains.
Sara Armstrong, co-founder of the high-speed-rail watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), said the new report gives communities along the Peninsula plenty of reasons for concern. Cities such as Redwood City and Belmont, for example, have no underground options on the table, according to the new report.
In Palo Alto, there's still some room for optimism, Armstrong said, particularly if the agency continues to pursue the open-trench alternative. This design's inclusion in the latest study suggests that the authority has heard some of the city's concerns, she said.
"The city has again and again indicated that it wants a below-grade solution," Armstrong said.
Despite the high costs, members of the Palo Alto City Council agreed last week that the authority should continue to look at all the underground options. Councilman Greg Scharff called the covered-trench option "the best option for Palo Alto and the one we should be focusing on."
Councilwoman Karen Holman called the rail authority's decision to eliminate the two most popular tunneling options a "bit of an absurdity" and suggested that the council formally ask the agency to further study these designs.
"I think we need to stand up and make that statement loud and clear," Holman said.
See attached photo (above left) for depiction of the rail-alignment options.