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Can Suburban Downtowns Co-Exist With High-Speed Rail?

These days, the California High-Speed Rail Authority might as well be called the Political Traction Company. After winning voter approval of a $9.9 billion bond in November, the authority seemed to become a favorite of the Obama administration, which is eager to fund high-speed rail construction. In addition, some Central Valley communities � such as Fresno and Bakersfield, where stations are set to be built � are eager to see the project advance.

Nevertheless, cities along the Peninsula of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are asking questions about the project. Two cities have already sued to force environmental review of an agreement between the authority and Caltrain. The objecting cities complain that a fast-moving train traveling on elevated tracks would be extremely disruptive to adjacent residential neighborhoods and downtown districts. The cities of Menlo Park, Atherton, Palo Alto, Belmont and Burlingame have formed a coalition that regularly meets to plot strategy on the rail project.

Other cities along the probable route from San Jose to San Francisco, however, are receptive to the project and even to hosting a station. The rail authority insists that the project is still in its review stage and that no final decision on the line will be made until an environmental impact report is completed, possibly in late 2010.

Trains have traversed the Peninsula since the 19th Century, and a number of the region's cities grew up around train stations. Nowadays, Caltrain operates a popular commuter train service � including several "baby bullets" with express service � between San Francisco and Gilroy. In some cities, train tracks run primarily through industrial areas. In others, tracks abut the back yards of homes and slide through busy downtowns. In April, the High-Speed Rail Authority signed a memorandum of understanding with Caltrain for the right to use the Caltrain right-of-way.

A city's concern about the rail project "depends on [its] geography," explained Steve Emslie, deputy city manager for Palo Alto. In his city, train tracks "go right through the middle of the city. It's all residential."

A high-speed train traveling 125 mph up and down the Peninsula would have to be separated from all crossings � in contrast to Caltrain, which has mostly at-grade crossings. Cities along the proposed route envision the new train running on tracks elevated 20 feet to 40 feet and built on platforms or embankments. The structures, they worry, would create an imposing and potentially noisy barrier. The cities also fear the rail authority will add several tracks to the two in existence, widening the right-of-way. They are pressing the authority to build the route in a tunnel or covered trench to prevent disruptions.

"As the preferred vertical alignment," Atherton Mayor Jerry Carlson wrote to the authority, "Atherton strongly favors undergrounding of tracks and electric power conduits in a tunnel or trench with cross streets at grade level. Other vertical alternatives have far greater adverse impacts with cannot be adequately mitigated." Among the negative effects cited by Carlson were visual blight, loss of heritage trees, noise and depressed property values.

In late April, Atherton and Menlo Park sued over the MOU signed by Caltrain and the High-Speed Rail Authority, a suit that Palo Alto supports. The cities argue that an environmental impact report should have been completed before the two entities signed the agreement.

The authority, however, says it's too early for anyone to draw conclusions or file lawsuits.

The rail authority completed a program EIR for the overall system in 2005, and in 2008 chose Pacheo Pass (near San Luis Reservoir) instead of Altamont Pass for the connection between the Bay Area and the Central Valley. The authority is now working on a program-level EIR for the route between San Jose and San Francisco, said authority spokeswoman Kris Deutschman. Scoping sessions were conducted earlier this year for the tiered EIR.

"This is at least an 18-month process," Deutschman said. "The uproar among a couple of cities has been a misunderstanding on their part."

Advisory committees with city and other stakeholder representatives will meet regularly during the environmental review process, ensuring that locals have a voice in the project, she added. No decisions have been made regarding a tunnel versus a platform structure, the number of tracks required or the location of Peninsula stations, Deutschman said.

One high-speed rail station could be in Millbrae, which already has a giant multi-modal transit station for Caltrain, BART, a San Francisco airport shuttle and San Mateo County buses. Millbrae has encouraged extensive residential and mixed-use development in the vicinity of the transit hub, and thus far has voiced no objection to the high-speed rail plan.

Farther south, a station is likely to be built in either Redwood City or Palo Alto. Both cities have Caltrain stations in their downtowns, and Redwood City has pursued a downtown revitalization strategy based largely on transit-oriented development. Redwood City has not taken a position on the high-speed rail project.

"We don't have all the information yet," Redwood City Mayor Roseanne Faust told the San Francisco Chronicle. "How could we possibly make that kind of decision?"

Palo Alto also lacks all the information, but officials there are more circumspect. The city is working to gather and analyze as much information as possible, Emslie said.

"If money were no object and we had magic wands, we would like to see this thing in a tunnel," Emslie said. The city is trying to learn just how much tunneling would add to the rail project's cost and physical feasibility. It's an alternative the rail authority also is studying.

A station in Palo Also is worrisome, Emslie added, because it would likely add six to eight tracks right in the middle of town. "We're also not enamored of the traffic it would generate. These things really function as a mini-airport," he said.

A decision on the details of the San Jose-to-San Francisco route is unlikely before late 2010, and construction of any part of the system remains uncertain. The first phase, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, is expected to cost $33 billion to construct. Last year's Proposition 1A provided $9.9 billion, and the authority is asking the federal government to provide $3 billion to $4 billion from the federal stimulus and at least $12 billion in future grants. The authority also is counting on local and regional funding, and about $7 billion in private equity.

Resources:
California High-Speed Rail Authority: www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov.
City of Atherton: www.ci.atherton.ca.us.
City of Palo Alto high-speed rail page: www.cityofpaloalto.org/depts/pln/news/details.asp?NewsID=1223&TargetID=87

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