HSR may cut into Central
Rail Authority promises no 'Berlin Wall' in Mountain View
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 part of Central Expressway, according to a report released last week by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
Though a berm is being counted out for Mountain View, the trains still could zip along on an aerial viaduct, or in an underground tunnel or open trench, or at street level. According to the Rail Authority's "Preliminary Alternatives Analysis," any options for adding two additional tracks to the Caltrain right of way could mean the loss of up to two lanes of Central Expressway north of Rengstorff Avenue, unless the new pair of tracks is "stacked" above the others.
At a meeting in San Jose last Thursday, the Rail Authority board voted 7-1 to accept the Alternatives Analysis, with Quentin Kopp dissenting and Tom Umberg absent.
Mountain View officials did not have any comments about the report this week, saying they were still examining it. But at their regular meeting on Tuesday, some City Council members expressed concern that a decent high speed rail configuration for Mountain View could come with a high price tag.
Mayor Ronit Bryant said she recently learned that the Rail Authority is expecting $5 billion to $6 billion from California cities.
"It's not a rumor people are whispering to each other; I heard it loud and clear in a Rail Authority staff presentation," Bryant said. "I found it quite surprising given that local governments are cash-strapped right now." She added that the lack of detail about which city governments would have to pay, and for what, just added to the level of "anxiety" about a project in which there is already "so much to worry about."
The Rail Authority's report (available at www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov) 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 agency did not eliminate any option solely on cost, according to the report.
One paragraph in the report notes that "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 (two tracks over two 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."
A similar conflict with nearby roads exists between Whisman Road and the Sunnyvale Caltrain station, where the agency is only studying a grade-level option.
As to the elimination of the of berm alternative, the report states that "the berm option does not enhance connectivity and mobility as well as an aerial viaduct option or trench or tunnel option."
Highway routes out
The report says the Rail Authority has examined the possibility of running the high speed trains up Highway 101 or Highway 280 as an alternative to the Caltrain corridor. But according to the report, in order to run them 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 report says.
Other alternatives remain in place. The report confirmed that tunneling — one of six options the Rail Authority is studying — has been added "for further evaluation." 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 Rail 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.
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 Rail 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, 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.
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.
Palo Alto Weekly Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner contributed to this report.