Almanac

Viewpoint - August 11, 2010

Guest opinion: A juggernaut heading our way

by Rich Cline

Last Thursday, after a five-hour California High Speed Rail Authority board meeting in San Francisco, which included dozens of comments from concerned citizens along the Peninsula and in Menlo Park, rail authority board member Rod Diridon looked out at the audience and proclaimed high-speed rail a virtual lock to come up the Peninsula. He did not address how it would come, or how it would be funded, but he said it was coming and that we residents had better get used to the idea.

The idea we need to get used to is this: A four-track-wide system will run through Menlo Park up the Caltrain right-of-way either at 45 feet above the ground or in an open trench just below grade. At the board meeting last week, a new report out on the Peninsula Rail Program, the local arm of the rail authority, projects a four-track system to be 80 feet wide, or the width of a six-lane freeway.

Today, there are sections along the Menlo Park Caltrain right-of-way that are only 65 feet or 75 feet wide. These areas, mostly north of the station, would require adjacent land use and we still have no answer as to how that extra land would be acquired by the authority. Needless to say, residents and business owners like Roger Reynolds Nursery have reason to be very concerned.

The proposed four-track station footprint also increases dramatically to 110 feet wide, which would locate passenger platforms where parking for our current Caltrain train station is located. The passenger platform on the east side of the station will be pushed out into one lane of Alma Street.

It is not difficult to visualize the dreadful impact of an 80-foot wide and 45-foot high track system running through the heart of our downtown community. It is also not hard to imagine the profound improvement if all trains were put below grade and every street crossing was separated from the tracks.

That would mean the end of cars and trains sharing intersections. We wouldn't see the trains. The horns and diesel engines would be eliminated and we would be able to connect our town hall and Burgess Park with our downtown and walk and bike more freely.

This is the great tension that high-speed rail brings to many communities like Menlo Park. Our city could possibly get grade separations for all of our four street crossings and the diesel trains and the horns are gone forever.

But Menlo Park could also be scarred forever if the rail authority was able to build it up high on the cheap. And many businesses and homes will be lost.

There are larger issues to be sure. Challenges around funding, ridership projections and route selections continue to haunt the rail authority. The potential job creation is another major factor debated locally and around the state.

But for now, we know what is coming and if you believe the rail authority, we are down to two alternatives: another freeway running through our community or the elimination of "the train" and all its noise and pollution forever.

It is time for Menlo Park to demand this train be put underground or put back on the shelf.

Rich Cline is mayor of Menlo Park and chairman of the Peninsula Cities Consortium, a group of five cities formed to comment on the rail issue.

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