Source: By Will Oremus,
Daily News Staff Writer
State high-speed rail officials should give just as much study to running their tracks underground as above-ground, Palo Alto officials said Wednesday. But they noted that both alignments come with problems.
The city's planning and transportation commission signed off on a letter to the California High Speed Rail Authority that urges a close look at the planned Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line's impact on the residential neighborhoods it might divide. If approved by the city council, it will stand as the city's official input as the authority prepares a required environmental report that will set the stage for final decisions about the tracks' design.
The letter makes it clear the city will not be satisfied with a report that justifies elevated tracks along the Caltrain corridor while glossing over the pros and cons of alternatives. Among those alternatives are not only a rail tunnel but a plan that would cut off high-speed service in San Jose, forcing riders to transfer to Caltrain to reach San Francisco.
Though the majority of Palo Alto voters backed the rail plan on the November ballot, it came as news to many that the trains might need to run atop a 20-foot-high concrete platform to avoid dangerous conflicts with cross streets. Word of a "Berlin Wall" dividing the city and of people losing their yards and homes to eminent domain have sparked a local backlash against the project in recent months.
Many in the city still support the train in concept but are grasping for ways to fit it into a narrow rail corridor that bisects quiet neighborhoods. The first paragraph of the city's draft letter asks that the study "provide a complete analysis of all linear rail corridor elevation options, including at-grade, elevated or depressed including open trench and tunneling."
It goes on, "All options, particularly the tunneling option, should be evaluated to the same level of detail as the elevated track proposal."
That doesn't mean the city considers a tunnel a miracle solution, however. Planning Commissioner Samir Tuma asked that city staff remove the clause "particularly the tunneling option," saying that it's not yet clear that would be the best alternative to raised tracks.
Most opposition to a tunnel so far has focused on the cost, which is presumed to be astronomical. But Commissioner Karen Holman agreed it may not be the answer even if the city can afford it. She said she often tells members of the public, "Don't fall in love with the below-grade scenario. There are all manner of potential impacts to that, and many are the same as above-grade."
Specifically, Holman said, construction of a tunnel or trench could disrupt the lives of those who live nearby and require the state to take people's property. Beyond that, it could pose problems related to underground water, including a toxic plume and an aquifer that serves as an emergency drinking-water supply.
Given that, Commissioner Daniel Garber wondered if the city should ask for more study of keeping the tracks at ground level. That would likely require closure of several cross streets, however, a possibility other commissioners were not interested in considering.
The overriding sentiment was captured by Commissioner Arthur Keller near the end of the four-hour-long session. "There is no completely satisfactory solution to this," he said. "All of the alternatives will have drawbacks. The question is which of the drawbacks are better than others, which of the drawbacks we can live with. And the ones can we live with, the ones Caltrain can live with and the ones high-speed rail can live with might not all be the same."
The Palo Alto City Council is scheduled to discuss and finalize the letter at a meeting on March 30. The high-speed rail authority's environmental study is legally required to address all official comments received before April 6.