If things go as planned, California's $45 billion high-speed-rail system would stretch through Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton on four tracks, with Caltrain sharing the tracks and cars crossing the rail corridor above or below the rails.
But if the project's funding dries up, city officials could find themselves stuck with the existing two-track rail system, though used by many more trains that would be powered by electricity.
The scenario is depicted in a revised grant application the California High-Speed Rail Authority submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration earlier this month. The rail authority had received a $2.25 billion award from the federal government in January. In the new document, the authority redefines the scope of its planned work on the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the voter-approved rail line, which has become increasingly controversial on the Peninsula.
Rail authority officials characterize the revision in the federal-grant application as only a contingency plan, which the agency put together to meet an application requirement. The Federal Rail Administration requires federal money to be spent on a project with "operational independence," which means the grant money would be put to good use even if the ambitious 800-mile rail project were not to proceed as planned.
The revised application is thus meant to reassure the administration that even of the worst-case scenario were to happen and funding were to dry up, the grant money would improve the existing train infrastructure and enhance Caltrain service, rail authority Deputy Director Jeff Barker told the Weekly.
"It's a fail-safe," Barker said. "The FRA wants to know that even if we don't build the system, this money wouldn't be wasted."
The rail authority states that the proposed Peninsula project "will grade separate most portions of the line, and reduce rail and road exposure to accidents at grade crossings." But "most of the line" apparently doesn't include the Midpeninsula, which would continue to have two tracks at street level.
The revised scope gives top priority to building a four-track, grade-separated system between San Francisco and Redwood City. The second phase includes building a four-track aerial structure between Mountain View and San Jose.
The third phase would focus on the Midpeninsula, but because this phase isn't part of the rail authority's revised application, the document offers few details other than: "Existing two tracks will be shared in sections south of Redwood Junction to Mountain View."
Barker said the rail authority fully expects to build a four-track system in the Peninsula, as described in the agency's environmental-impact report for the line. But with funding for the $45 billion line far from certain, Palo Alto officials fear that this "fail-safe" contingency plan could ultimately become reality, leaving the Midpeninsula burdened with traffic congestion, a busier Caltrain corridor, and street-level trains for the foreseeable future.
Mayor Pat Burt and Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie both said recently they were concerned about the possibility the rail authority would build other segments of the rail line first and move on to the Midpeninsula section later.
Burt mentioned this grim scenario at Tuesday's meeting of the City Council High-Speed Rail Committee when he referred to the possibility of the rail authority taking the "phasing" approach for the Midpeninsula -- an approach he said would leave the city with the existing two tracks. He said this could impact the city's traffic, safety and emergency response and called it one of the most critical questions facing the Midpeninsula cities.
Rob Braulik, Palo Alto's project manager for high-speed rail, said the city has "serious concerns" about the proposal in the grant application, even if the design in the proposal is far from certain.
"We could be stuck with an at-grade, two-track system along our corridor for many, many years," Braulik told the Weekly. "Who knows when they'll get the funding to do some of the other alternatives?"
The rail authority currently has $3.3 billion for construction of the rail line, which currently has an estimated price tag of about $45 billion. Though California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the rail line in November 2008, proceeds from this bond money have to be approved on an annual basis by the state Legislature and must be matched by other funding sources.
If the rail authority adopts the "phasing" plan, the only major improvement Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto would see is an electrified Caltrain corridor, which would enable more trains to pass through the Midpeninsula. The rail authority estimates that Caltrain service will increase from 90 daily one-way trains between San Francisco and San Jose today to 162 trains in 2025.
But even this "improvement" could have a negative impact on Palo Alto and its Midpeninsula neighbors. The electrification project would require Caltrain and the rail authority to install overhead catenary system along the corridor, Braulik said. This system could be more than 20 feet tall and would create a major visual barrier throughout Palo Alto, he said.
Barker said the rail authority worked with Caltrain to come up with a plan in the Federal Rail Administration application that would be most beneficial to the system. He also said the revisions in the application don't fully reflect the rail authority's plans. The authority plans to send out a letter to cities and other stakeholders to clarify this information, he said.
"When it comes to what we would actually build on the high-speed-rail system -- that's being described in the environmental-review process that we're still nailing down," Barker said. "The application for federal funds in no way prejudices that process."