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By Sean Howell
When it comes to deciding how high-speed trains will shoot up the Peninsula, officials in Atherton and Menlo Park have pretty much one request: put them underground, and out of sight.
Their first preference, of course, is that the trains not come through their communities at all. The cities have joined a pending lawsuit to contest the project, contending that the High-Speed Rail Authority's decision to shoot the trains along the Caltrain corridor - rather than through Altamont Pass in the East Bay - was premature.
But if trains must come up the Peninsula, local officials and residents would like to see them run in a tunnel or trench, rather than at ground level or along a raised berm. Both communities are in the process of drafting letters to the rail authority, outlining the environmental considerations that should be taken into account as the project moves through the planning phases.
In its letter, the town of Atherton outlines the possibility of a trench that would begin at Fifth Avenue in Redwood City and terminate at San Francisquito Creek in Palo Alto, sending the train below ground level as it passes through Atherton and Menlo Park. The trench would be open-air for most of the route, but could be covered in some areas, Atherton officials say - such as near Atherton's park and town offices, or by Menlo Park's entire downtown area.
The project, with an estimated total price tag of $40 billion, promises to bring commuters from Los Angeles to San Francisco in roughly two and a half hours. High-speed trains could be zooming up the Peninsula at 125 miles per hour as early as 2014.
Atherton and Menlo Park officials argue that routing the rail line through a trench or a tunnel would reduce noise, and would keep out of sight the trains and the electrical lines that will be installed to guide them. (The lines are similar to those that conduct San Francisco's buses.)
In Atherton's letter, Public Works Director Duncan Jones makes the case that fewer trees would need to be torn out if the trains run below ground level, because the canopy wouldn't have to be cleared to make way for the high electrical lines. "An amazing number of trees need to be removed in electrification projects," said Mr. Jones, refuting the rail authority's suggestion that it might be able to avoid removing any trees.
In its letter, Menlo Park notes that a trench or tunnel would make it easer for cyclists and pedestrians, as well as wildlife, to cross the tracks. City officials maintain that a raised alignment would divide the city.
Digging a trench or a tunnel is widely assumed to be more expensive than building a berm, but Atherton and Menlo Park officials both argue that that might not be the case - especially because raising and widening the tracks might require the purchase of additional property, a costly proposition on the Peninsula. The potential loss in value to nearby properties, and the potential financial losses to local businesses during construction, should also be factored into any cost estimate, local officials argue.
And the state would have to purchase "air rights" along the corridor if it the rail authority opts to raise the tracks, Menlo Park officials note.
Rail officials have highlighted the benefits to local communities of grade separations, which would allow streets to pass over or under the rail line at local intersections. The grade separations would ease congestion, and trains wouldn't have to announce their arrival with a whistle, officials say.
But in its letter, Menlo Park wonders whether grade separations and additional tracks would also mean that the rail line would be used for freight.
• The California High-Speed Rail Authority will hold an informational meeting Wednesday, March 4, on the San Francisco to San Jose leg of the high-speed rail project. The meeting will run from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Redwood Room of the Veterans Memorial Center at 1455 Madison Ave. in Redwood City.
• People have until April 6 to submit comment on the environmental considerations that should be taken into account in planning the local leg of the high-speed rail project. Comments can be submitted via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org (with the subject line "San Francisco to San Jose HST"). Comments can be mailed to: Dan Leavitt, Deputy Director, ATTN: San Francisco to San Jose HST Project, EIR/EIS, California High-Speed Rail Authority, 925 L St., Suite 1425, Sacramento, CA 95814.
• The project's Web site is www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov.