News - May 12, 2010

Atherton: High-speed-rail options get gruff response

by Renee Batti

It wasn't even two minutes into his planned half-hour presentation that Dominic Spaethling appeared to abandon all hope of reaching the 30-minute mark.

His job was to give Atherton residents and officials an overview of high-speed rail alternatives for laying tracks along the Caltrain right-of-way in and near Atherton. It was a very tough job.

Mr. Spaethling, a regional manager for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, was nearly shouted down from the podium during the May 4 informational meeting in Atherton's Holbrook-Palmer Park by residents who demanded hard facts about the rail authority's intentions for the local portion of the rail system, which will run from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The residents' shouting and catcalls were a clear sign that confidence in the rail authority's openness and willingness to abide by community wishes is minimal at best.

About 60 to 75 people from Atherton and nearby communities attended the meeting, and before the presentation began, they studied displays showing alternative methods of running the tracks through the Midpeninsula, which include an aerial viaduct, at-grade-level tracks along the existing Caltrain grade, a covered trench and tunnel, and a deep-bore tunnel.

The meeting was billed as a review of the rail authority's Preliminary Alternatives Analysis Report, which found that a four-track, grade-separated rail system shared by the high-speed train and Caltrain "is feasible and the preferred (high-speed train) alternative between San Francisco and San Jose on the Peninsula," according to a summary presented at the meeting.

A number of residents challenged the rail authority's assertion that the Caltrain right-of-way, rather than other routes such as along Interstate 280 or U.S. 101, is the best way for the high-speed trains to traverse the Peninsula.

As Mr. Spaethling attempted to explain the reasoning behind choosing the Caltrain route, one resident angrily demanded that the program presenters "treat us like adults and intelligent people. Tell us why the 101 is not being considered. Tell us why the Altamont Pass (between the Livermore and San Joaquin valleys) is not being considered."

Other routes, Mr. Spaethling responded, were ruled out due to constrained right-of-way and environmentally sensitive land, among other factors.

To the question about why the train couldn't stop in San Jose for riders to board Caltrain and continue to San Francisco, Mr. Spaethling noted that state Proposition 1-A, which in 2008 authorized the spending of $9 billion to launch the high-speed rail project, specified that the train would run from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Residents appeared to be unhappy with prospects of at-grade, aerial and shallow-trenched tracks running through their town. The cost of the deep-bore tunnel is projected at seven times the cost of at-grade tracks, according to the rail authority.

Juan de Leon, a resident of nearby North Fair Oaks, noted that the rail authority, in a presentation to his community, presented only one possibility for laying tracks in that portion of the Peninsula: at-grade.

Turning to the rest of the audience, Mr. de Leon said, "I'm here to ask for your help." He called the lack of options in the North Fair Oaks community, "where poor people live," a social justice issue.

Residents expressed concern about the amount of right-of-way the train would need, and about how the value of the properties would be calculated in reimbursing residents for taking their land. Mr. Spaethling said the rail authority will have "a much better idea of which properties will be affected" when the draft environmental impact report is completed in December.

Although there was no real enthusiasm by residents for any of the options presented, when asked for a hand-show of support, the deep-bore tunnel option won out. But another alternative of stacking high-speed rail and Caltrain tracks through a covered trench sparked some interest when Atherton resident Loren Gruner suggested creating a park-like covering that would include paths for bicyclists and pedestrians, connecting towns along the Peninsula.

Go to for the full Preliminary Alternatives Analysis Report and, under the Library tab, click on the San Francisco to San Jose link.

E-mail to be put on the project mailing list or to comment on the report.


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