Editorial: Wakeup call on high-speed rail | August 11, 2010 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Viewpoint - August 11, 2010

Editorial: Wakeup call on high-speed rail

Peninsula cities appear to have little hope of overturning preliminary engineering plans that show the California high-speed rail project will run most of its trains on aerial viaducts or berms or in open trenches through Menlo Park and Atherton.

These options, made public last week at a San Francisco meeting, remove deep tunnels and covered trenches from consideration, despite their popularity with most Peninsula cities. And although running trains at-grade was not ruled out, no provision was made in the staff report for grade separations that would have to accompany that option.

The rail authority said it would require an additional $1 billion to build the covered trench design on the Midpeninsula section of the rail corridor. Any hope of burying the tracks in a completely underground tunnel was unceremoniously swept off the table when the authority released its most detailed drawings yet of how they expect the San Francisco to San Jose segment to be built.

Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline came away from the meeting saying that the rail authority had not "played by the rules" when it released its report just minutes before the meeting, violating a promise made earlier to post such reports on the Web five days prior to a meeting. The board unanimously approved the report at the Aug. 5 meeting with little discussion.

Now Mr. Cline, who chairs the Peninsula Cities Consortium that was organized to take on high-speed-rail issues, says he will focus on the open-trench option. At this point, it is likely that other consortium members — Atherton, Palo Alto, Belmont and Burlingame — also would favor the below-grade rather than overhead tracks, he said.

For Mr. Cline, there is little choice. "It's in our best interests to start taking on the challenge to say aerial won't work in Menlo Park. I think it's safe to say that the majority of the council would want below-grade tracks," he told the Almanac last week.

At this point, it is not clear when the rail authority will make a final decision on trenching vs. the elevated berm or viaduct design. Mr. Cline's nightmare would be a four-track, 80-foot-wide system running through the Midpeninsula on a 45-foot-high berm or viaduct.

The width of the right-of-way is also a concern for residents or businesses along some sections where the rail right-of-way narrows to as little as 65 feet, 15 feet shy of the 80-foot minimum called for by the staff report.

The authority's decision to rule out deep tunnels was not a surprise to many residents who live or work along the Caltrain corridor. The expense of such work would likely add billions of dollars in cost to the project. But, once again, the authority badly fumbled how the report was made public, choosing to ignore its previous promise to release its reports five days before a meeting.

At the very least, the authority's staff should have shared in advance their cost calculations and other supporting documents about the tunneling decision with the Peninsula cities. It would not have cost another cent and it would have given local officials time to share the disappointing news with their constituents.

Now the authority board members have apparently been advised to not speak publicly on the Peninsula, due to the high emotions displayed by residents who are virulently opposed to the rail project. That approach is more likely to have the opposite effect, bringing more Peninsula residents together to fight the project at the state and federal levels just as the authority is scrambling to line up more financing so it can move ahead.


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