Should high-speed rail come to Mountain View, it will not sit atop a massive Berlin Wall, as some rail opponents have feared. But it may mean the loss of two lanes on Central Expressway, according to a report released Thursday by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
Though a berm may not happen, the 125-mph trains still could zip along on an aerial viaduct, in an underground tunnel, through an open trench or at street level, according to the report.
The Authority's report, a "preliminary alternatives analysis", identifies ways that the 48 miles of tracks between San Jose and San Francisco could be configured. It also eliminates options it deemed unfeasible due to factors such as geology, various cities' regulations, negative effects on traffic, the need to protect natural resources and more.
Some methods will be significantly costlier than others. In Mountain View, the Rail Authority reports a cost of $155 million for at grade tracks, $344 million for an aerial viaduct, $615 million for an open trench and $1.4 billion for a covered trench. Yet the Rail Authority did not eliminate any option solely on cost, according to the report.
The report also notes that the width of at grade and below grade alternatives may require a loss of two lanes on Central Expressway north of Rengstorff Avenue. An option for an aerial platform is narrower, but would require that San Antonio Road overpass be removed and the road rebuilt at grade level across the Caltrain right of way.
Between San Antonio Road and Castro Street, the report notes that "the berm option does not enhance connectivity and mobility as well as an aerial viaduct option or trench or tunnel option. The aerial viaduct, at grade, and open trench options may result in the loss of two traffic lanes on Central Expressway north of Rengstorff Avenue. A stacked configuration (2 tracks over 2 tracks) could minimize right-of-way requirements and possible relocation of the VTA (light rail). The aerial viaduct option requires converting the San Antonio Road and Shoreline Boulevard overpasses to at grade configurations."
Between Whisman Road and the Sunnyvale Caltrain station, the report points out a similar problem. "The aerial viaduct, at grade, and open trench options may result in loss of one to two traffic lanes on Central Expressway or Evelyn Avenue. A stacked configuration (2 tracks over 2 tracks) could minimize right-of-way requirements."
The report says the Rail Authority has examined the possibility of running the high speed trains up Highway 101 and Highway 280 as an alternative to the Caltrain corridor. But in order to run the high speed trains in a relatively straight line, tracks would have to run over sensitive wildlife habitat, either wetlands east of Highway 101 or near Crystal Springs reservoir along Highway 280. Wetlands would also be prone to "liquifaction" in an earthquake.
The overall rail line, which would stretch from Los Angeles to San Francisco, received voters' approval for $9.95 billion in funding in November 2008.
Since then, rancorous debate and considerable grass-roots activism has occurred in some peninsula cities, along with city-organized lawsuits and lobbying. Opponents, some protesting the rail line altogether and others advocating for a plan that will not harm residents' quality of life, have questioned the state agency's processes, calculations and receptivity to public input.
But holding fast to its prior plans, the Authority states that its analysis "reconfirms that four-track, grade-separated, shared Caltrain and High-Speed Train system is feasible and the preferred ... alternative between San Francisco and San Jose on the Peninsula."
Furthermore, it asserts the costs for building the system are consistent with prior estimates, including those found in the 2009 Business Plan, which was released in December.
The agency did state that it has heeded community wishes, however, which have been vocally expressed over the past year and a half, especially in peninsula cities to the north. The report promises that berms -- solid walls that would extend at least 10 feet into the air -- will be sparsely used in commercial or residential areas "where they would significantly reduce connectivity and mobility or where there is strong local opposition to this type of structure."
The agency removed high berms from consideration altogether from Redwood City to San Jose, though shorter berms may be used to connect aerial and underground or at-grade portions.
The report confirmed that tunneling -- an expensive method advocated by Palo Alto officials as early as 2008 -- has been added "for further evaluation."
Using underground tunnels is only one of six options the Authority is studying. The other five include berms; aerial viaducts, which are concrete structures supported by columns, usually 10 feet or taller; at-grade tracks that run at or near ground level; open trenches, which are below-ground-level troughs; and covered trenches/tunnels, which are partly covered troughs that allow ground-level roads or buildings to exist above the rail line.
The Authority warned that the most costly of alternatives may not be feasible. If every segment of the line was built with the most expensive method, the cost for the whole route could be four to five times more expensive than what has been estimated.
"Such high cost alternatives would be impractical," the report stated.
The alternatives will now be analyzed with greater scrutiny for their potential environmental impacts and engineering feasibility. That environmental impact study is expected to be completed by December 2010.
In addition to analyzing design options, the state agency also confirmed that it is still considering whether to build one, and possibly more than one, mid-Peninsula station. If so, Palo Alto, Mountain View and Redwood City are all possibilities.
The Rail Authority held a board meeting in San Jose Thursday to review the analysis and receive public input.
Palo Alto City Councilman Larry Klein attended and warned that an elevated train track would be detrimental to Palo Alto.
"I'm here to speak first to the old aphorism from Tip O'Neill: All politics is local," he said.
"I think all transportation projects are also done to be local. By that I mean of course, this isn't a project that goes from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It also goes through many communities along the way.
"My message to you is -- please engage us all in this process," he said.
"These are actual people, actual economies that will be affected by the routes that you choose as members of High-Speed Rail Authority.
"Let me close by invoking another aphorism: Do no harm."
The California High-Speed rail Authority board voted 7-1 to accept the Alternatives Analysis, with Quentin Kopp dissenting and Vice Chair Tom Umberg absent. Kopp said that he wanted to see more discussion on options for the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco.
Palo Alto Weekly Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner contributed to this report.