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If high-speed trains are tunneled, what would we do with all that dirt?

Uploaded: Mar 19, 2009
The realities of high-speed rail arrived in Palo Alto and the Midpeninsula this year -- even though the first train is years away.

Neighbors along the designated route, the Caltrain corridor, suddenly realized that they could be confronted with elevated tracks that could be a vertical or steeply sloped wall that might swallow up some private residences for a wider right-of-way.

Some civic leaders are pushing to get the high-speed tracks buried deep underground, using modern tunneling technology.

As the Weekly scrambled to cover all the emerging concerns and political positions, a friend asked me an interesting question last week when we were discussing possible alternatives, including tunneling:

"What would you do with all that dirt?"

Now that's a fair question. I immediately quipped that perhaps we could create a second Coyote Hill in the foothills.

Then I recalled a second big story this week: How a predicted rise in sea level this century of about 3 to 4 1/2 feet could expose vast areas of the South Bay to tidal flooding when a high tide teams up with a major 100-year flood. Such an event is misnamed. It actually means a flood or storm that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. Given climate-change predictions, such an event could occur, say, every decade or so.

In Palo Alto, a flood could extend as far inland as Middlefield Road mostly south of Colorado Avenue, along with other parts of Palo Alto along Bayshore Freeway.

But if that storm and high tide teamed up with an overflow surge down volatile, fast-rising San Francisquito Creek, then homes in northern Palo Alto become at-risk. Upstream, a series of steep, short canyons with historic names quickly feed storm runoff into tributary creeks, meaning San Francisquito can rise from a trickle to overflow within hours.

As for the threat from the bay, I recently came across an old news story I wrote in 1975 about a report that cited subsidence and erosion of levees all around the South Bay, creating an increased flood risk -- even without a rise in sea level.

The report estimated it would cost about $95 million to bring the levees up to where they once were and shore them up. That was 1975 dollars, of course -- the levees aren't the only thing that has eroded.

That work, as urgent as it seemed, was never done, to my knowledge, although levees have been patched up here and there. Instead of following the in-and-out outer levees of the old salt ponds, the engineers decided they should take a much shorter route and build a concrete wall (6 feet high, if I recall correctly) in the landward side of the marshes.

Palo Alto's section of wall would mostly run right along East Bayshore Road. Residents who loved their baylands views and their easy access to the marshlands toward the bay were appalled, and the plan died a slow, sodden death.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," famed American poet Robert Frost penned nearly a century ago. But his 1914 poem, "Mending Wall," is about two neighbors who ritualistically meet to repair and rebuild a New England stone wall that rabbit hunters or others have pulled down in places. It includes the famous line, "Good fences make good neighbors," an old saw even then that his neighbor liked repeating.

It was the wall around the bay that killed the levee project more than 30 years ago. And the absence of that project now may threaten thousands of South Bay homes with serious flooding if the sea-level predictions actually occur, as seems increasingly likely according to scientists studying global warming.

So now we face the prospect of a new wall, one to elevate the rails through Palo Alto and neighboring communities.

A full range of possibilities will be studied as part of a comprehensive environmental impact review of the high-speed rail project, as approved by voters statewide last November.

But residents along the tracks in Palo Alto and some other Midpeninsula communities are convinced that a vertical-sided "Berlin Wall" will turn out to be the least costly and most politically attractive alternative.

Some Palo Alto civic leaders are arguing in favor of deep-tunneling the trains, even though that may be vastly more expensive. They say building 600 to 700 housing units along the right of way could offset most of the added cost.

But that's presuming all four tracks (two for the high-speed trains and two for existing Caltrain commute and freight operations) are buried -- which might not be the case at all.

Rod Diridon, a member of the High Speed Rail Authority board, said it might be too costly to tunnel all four tracks, so the Caltrain tracks might remain on the surface much as they are today. But folks should remember that this is a 100-year project, and costs should be amortized over that timeframe -- including perhaps some extra millions of dollars for a deep tunnel (if environmentally feasible).

Diridon, speaking to the Palo Alto Rotary Club Monday (March 16), said while he isn't allowed to express a personal opinion about any specific alternative (due to federal regulations relating to environmental studies on the project) he is able to make the case for the high-speed trains. He cited their huge environmental advantages, their spotless safety record worldwide, their comfort and the fact that they could whiz a traveler back and forth between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just over 2.5 hours, one way. [His PowerPoint presentation is at www.PaloAltoOnline.com/news/show_story.php?id=11639 .

Diridon also cited potential environmental risks to deep tunneling, such as possible interference with underground aquifer flows.

Getting from one place to another in the Bay Area -- and in California generally -- has been a source of contention since the great growth spurt of the 1950s. Growing up in pre-freeway Los Gatos, I recall Sundays when traffic would back up six miles on two-lane roads filtering through town as folks headed for a day at the beach in Santa Cruz. And that's not even counting the terrible air pollution that would completely obscure the mountains flanking Los Gatos many days a year.

But nowhere has the getting-around issue been more intense and contentious than in Palo Alto and the Midpeninsula, fueled by America's love affair with the car and a jobs-to-housing imbalance as high as 2.5-to-1 in Palo Alto that has pushed people further and further away from jobs to find homes.

But back to the gritty issue of where to put all that dirt from a deep tunnel.

OK, let's take the biggest view possible: Let's use that dirt to fix the bayside levees to protect homes and businesses around the bay, at long last.

As for the elevated-tracks "Berlin Wall" idea, let's see what Robert Frost might say:

"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence."

What is it worth to you?


Posted by An Engineer, a resident of ,
on Mar 19, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Is there any consideration of backfilling the huge Permanente quarry hole near Cupertino? It could take the HSR dirt and more.

Posted by wary traveler, a resident of ,
on Mar 19, 2009 at 6:40 pm

What to do with all the dirt? Load it on a freight car and haul it to the cities where elevated 75' wide walls are to be built. I keep wondering where they're going to get all the dirt for the proposed walls. This solves both.

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of ,
on Mar 19, 2009 at 9:53 pm

How to price a railroad tunnel:

Within cities, railroads belong underground, in tunnels. As we?ve said many times elsewhere, there are only two issues with tunneling; the technical engineering part and the costs. If they can build a 30-mile long high-speed train tunnel under the English Channel, this 7-miler will be a no-brainer.

What are we talking about? Two two-track, side-by-side tunnels, perhaps 50 ft. or so down, below all the utilities and San Francisquito Creek, beginning at 5th Ave. in Redwood City, and ending at San Antonio Road in Palo Alto. All stations, Atherton, Menlo Park and the two in Palo Alto, would remain at the surface, with escalator and elevator access to the platforms. We are about to learn a great deal more regarding what is involved and what the actual costs will be. Conversations are taking place with a leading construction company that has a track record of tunneling, including work on the Chunnel, Hatch Mott MacDonald.

What?s good about this? No tracks on the rail corridor, which becomes open space. Imagine what can be done with that, such as a Green Belt. No shoofly, temporary tracks for the 7 miles of below ground work. Except at each entry portal, no construction easements, and no eminent domain property takings. No grade separations. No fences. No noise.

Now about those exorbitant costs.

Say tunneling costs $100 an inch. Stay with me here (its only hypothetical). Say, also, that leaving the tracks at grade-level or up on a retained-fill wall, expanding the rail corridor by installing all four tracks, and building grade-separation underpasses, will cost $50. an inch, especially with our close-together, collective ten grade crossings from 5th Ave to San Antonio Rd.

Therefore, the tunneling actually costs only $50 an inch, since they are going to have to build something regardless. Next, for all other alternatives besides tunneling, they will need to build temporary tracks on a temporary rail corridor. It will be there for at least five years. That would cost, total, $10. an inch. Tunneling is now $40. an inch, not $100.

Then, deduct eminent domain takings, not necessary for tunneling. Another $10. deducted or, $30. per inch for tunneling. If the rail authority refuses, and we sue to get tunneling and win, that will cost them both lost time and more money. If they were sensible, they could save that to put toward the cost of tunneling.

So, now we have to come up with the extra $30. per inch. How can we do that?

Well, as you know, the deal between Caltrain and HSR is that HSR provides the cash for grade separations and electrification and Caltrain provides the rail corridor itself; OUR rail corridor. We want HSR to pay lease fees/rent to use our corridor. It?s their HS train, not ours. Why should we, with our corridor, subsidize a Public/Private Partnership. We taxpayers are already going to be paying through the nose for this thing!

They have no place else to go. They refuse to go any other route. OK, then they will have to pay rent for the privilege of using our corridor. (After all, they say they are going to make lots of money.) That should cover the rest of the tunnel costs.

And, wait, there?s more. On or above ground construction and then running 200+ trains a day will have major deleterious impact on our towns, both in the residential and downtown areas. Those costs will be enormous and can be calculated. There?s a lawsuit waiting to happen. But, if they tunnel, it would be a win-win. They get their zippy train route and we lose the trains and tracks from the corridor. And, no lawsuits. We?re all friends.

As I?ve said before, they may find, after they pencil this out, that tunneling will be a bargain.

About what Rod Diridon says, don't get me started.

Posted by Jody, a resident of ,
on Mar 19, 2009 at 10:13 pm

I would worry that soil around this old railroad line may contain high levels of arsenic and other toxic chemicals.

Posted by Clem, a resident of ,
on Mar 19, 2009 at 11:59 pm

What to do with all that dirt? The better question is what to do with all those houses that would be impacted in far worse ways during construction than if the elevated solution was built.

Cut-and-cover tunneling (which is the cheapest method and used whenever possible) opens a gash in the earth that is 10 to 15 ft wider than the tracks it will contain, to accommodate thick vertical walls that support the tunnel roof and soil on top.

Martin's vision of invisible tunnel boring machines quietly laboring deep underground is quite illusory. If you ask for a tunnel, they will build a tunnel in the cheapest and most fiscally responsible way. That is likely to be a temporary, partial condemnation of adjacent properties and the use of cut-and-cover rather than a bored tunnel-- although it may be possible to encroach on Alma rather than Southgate.

The devil is in the details, I suppose.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of ,
on Mar 20, 2009 at 10:56 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Google Alameda Corridor, then Google Earth Alameda Corridor. This recent construction shows how it can be done. [This is in Long Beach, the Alameda is the street it parallels.] To big construction, this project is a piece of cake. Think of a vertical shoo-fly. A pity I'm not a Civil Engineer - this could be fun.

Posted by resident, a resident of ,
on Mar 20, 2009 at 10:58 am

Who cares about the dirt. What about the displaced people?

Posted by Clem, a resident of ,
on Mar 20, 2009 at 12:19 pm

@Walter, the Alameda Corridor cost $2.4 billion. To big construction, this is a piece of pork, not cake.

It would be far cheaper to sieze every piece of property within 100 feet of the tracks throughout the entire length of Palo Alto, on both sides. 4 miles x 200 feet x $4 million/acre = $400M ... chump change! Plant some screening trees, build a bike path, landscaping and water features, et voila!

I'm not advocating such an absurd solution, but it shows how much more absurd your solution is than mine! Trenching or tunneling does not meet any reasonable threshold of affordability. Martin's figure of $100/inch is missing a couple of zeros... try $10K per inch.

Hatch Mott MacDonald ought to know a thing or two about tunnel costs; they are on the team building the (nosebleed expensive and unfunded!) downtown extension of Caltrain/HSR to San Francisco's Transbay Terminal. Kudos for picking talent with such intimate local knowledge.

Posted by Easy Answer, a resident of ,
on Mar 20, 2009 at 3:43 pm

"What would we do with all that dirt?" The answer to that question is easy. With rising sea levels all the dirt will be needed to reinforce and heighten our levy system both in the Delta and the Bay.

In fact, with global warming and rising sea level much more dirt than will be extracted from a tunnel will be needed just to shore up the levy system throughout California.

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of ,
on Mar 20, 2009 at 6:06 pm


I can wait for Rafael's doubtlessly thoughtful and detailed discussion of tunneling. However I hope that he (and you) can see this from another point of view, since different perspectives are always beneficial. One point I wish to raise is: what is the cost for not building the tunnel? What will be the cost to the three cities with expanded corridor development and use? Would you argue that there are none? That there will be no impact on those cities or the residents, or the businesses? Not during the five years of construction, and forever thereafter? I cannot believe that. I believe that there will be major property devaluations, business losses, and costs to the cities. Who should pay for those? You cannot claim that whatever solution the rail authority selects, it will not have major deleterious environmental impact upon our cities.

Listening to Diridon, you can easily get the impression that it is our duty to subsidize his project, whatever that takes. And subsidize it we will. With state taxes to pay off the bonds if and when they sell, with federal taxes which we, and our children and their children will pay for many generations.

Many of your colleagues are quick to argue that we should make whatever sacrifices are necessary for the sake of the train. Do you believe that? Frankly, I?m getting less interested in the emotional and content-free accusations, name calling, etc. from people who neither reside in our three cities or live in proximity to the corridor. As the old cliché has it, their ox is not getting gored. Our friend Cruickshank is far too glib in his obsessive, black-and-white zealotry.

So, why is it so implausible to ask for a tunnel? It turns out that San Mateo County has paid over $500 million dollars to Caltrain to purchase the rail corridor. It is, in a very real sense, OUR corridor. If the CHSRA wants to use this corridor for their train, they will need to lease that property from us. Those lease fees can amortize the tunnel costs over time. Indeed, since the rail authority has made it clear they will go nowhere else than on the Caltrain corridor, that puts us in a strong bargaining position for such a lease deal.
Of course, lawyers will have to sort this all out, and I could just be whistling in the dark.

Also, as I have suggested elsewhere, there are cost offsets that should feed into the equation when talking about tunneling costs. All of which is to say, I think it?s too simpleminded and dismissive to say ?too expensive? and let it go at that. I?m sure that this will be the rail authority EIS/EIR argument. However, CEQA rules state that the environmentally best, not least expensive, alternative must be chosen.

Before I give up the tunneling dream, I need to hear much more cogent and detailed arguments against this alternative alignment.

Beyond saying that civil engineers can solve any problem with enough money, I can't say more about the technical issues without far more learning about tunneling.

And thanks for providing substance on various blogs, including your own, to otherwise juvenile comments on this critical subject.


Posted by Spokker, a resident of ,
on Mar 21, 2009 at 12:39 pm

"Frankly, I�m getting less interested in the emotional and content-free accusations, name calling, etc. from people who neither reside in our three cities or live in proximity to the corridor."

Those who live in your three cities or live in proximity to the corridor have hurled insults just as juvenile.

Posted by Our friend Cruickshank, a resident of ,
on Mar 21, 2009 at 3:30 pm

I've never opposed a tunnel and if the Peninsula can find a way to pay for one, be my guest. But Martin Engel is wrong to suggest that the only issue here is whether or not to "gore" the ox of a very, very small number of people on the Peninsula (and to my knowledge hardly anyone will actually lose their home over this), but whether that small group of people will succeed in goring the ox of the entire state, which now depends on building HSR to solve a range of problems.

Palo Alto residents have a responsibility to the state as a whole to ensure this project gets built. And certainly they have a responsibility to themselves to help build it in a way they feel is right for their community. As long as they are able to meet both responsibilities I am a happy camper.

Posted by An Observer, a resident of ,
on Mar 21, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Cruikshank, you should be a comedian.

"Palo Alto residents have a responsibility to the state as a whole to ensure this project gets built."

Oh, is that right? Well prop 1A passed with the supermajority of a whopping 51%, and that was BEFORE the California budget woes were known, and peninsula voters knew you were going to ruin the entire SF peninsula due to the deliberately opaque wording on the ballot.

I'd say Diridon owes this state and APOLOGY and has a responsibility to back out of this boondoggle immediately.

Posted by Spokker, a resident of ,
on Mar 21, 2009 at 10:08 pm

"Well prop 1A passed with the supermajority of a whopping 51%"

It passed with 52.6% of the vote. If you were going to round the figure you should have rounded it to 53%. But it's not like opponents to actually fire up Google and type in "Prop 1A", click the first link that pops up, and see what the vote actually was.

And maybe you could do some research and find out it was the Bay Area who was practically responsible for getting this thing passed. Every single precinct in Menlo Park voted yes except for one. You don't have to think hard to figure out which precinct that was.

"and that was BEFORE the California budget woes were known"

California's budget woes were known well before the election. After all, when has California NOT been in a crisis?

"I'd say Diridon owes this state and APOLOGY and has a responsibility to back out of this boondoggle immediately."

The state should kiss Diridon's feet for his passion and vision for high speed rail and California's sustainable future.

Okay, not even I can say that with a straight face, but I don't think he owes anyone an apology.

Posted by An Observer, a resident of ,
on Mar 22, 2009 at 9:49 am

~~~it was the Bay Area who was practically responsible for getting this thing passed.~~~

EXACTLY MY POINT. The bay area was responsible for passing this, which is why Diridon deliberately manipulated the proposition so that the true impacts of this thing were not known to get it through. Well, now the impacts are known so who supports this thing now? Not enough people. If this ever gets built I will eat my hat.

Seriously high speed rail must have paid all these councilpeople hush money or something, because for those that WERE concerned about noise and blight, any questions to govt was dismissed with "its going to be quieter than what we have now", with no reference to the embankment/wall, 12 trains an hour, etc.

Posted by Spokker, a resident of ,
on Mar 22, 2009 at 1:01 pm

"Well, now the impacts are known so who supports this thing now? Not enough people."

And you came to this conclusion after seeing a few meetings where 150 people showed up ranting and raving?

People didn't know the impacts before the election? What, did voters assume they were going to send one 40 MPH train through the peninsula every day? The route decision was made way before the election. Even Alameda County voted yes on 1A after the controversy over Altamont vs. Pacheco. It's clear that high speed rail is desired in California, and especially the Bay Area, despite what a vocal minority has to say.

Posted by Andrew Bogan, a resident of ,
on Mar 23, 2009 at 10:45 am

As the wide majority of support for Prop 1A in Palo Alto showed in November, there are very large numbers of Palo Altans who strongly support HSR on the Caltrain corridor, and many of us live a few blocks from the tracks. Most of us don't have enough free time to regularly post in favor of HSR on the blogs or here on Palo Alto Online. Although I have found myself more involved in recent weeks than I would have anticipated, since I was upset by the narrow-minded and uninformed NIMBY outbursts of some of my neighbors at recent community meetings. Palo Alto's pro-HSR majority's silence should not be interpreted as a lack of support for the project.

Posted by Chris, a resident of ,
on Mar 26, 2009 at 9:11 am

Palo Alto wants to put a tunnel 10 miles from the very active San Andreas fault! I believe the downtown area is at a 10% risk of Liquefaction that is expensive engineering. I guess you have forgotten the 1989 quake.
WOW what great ideal what a bunch of NIBY's

Posted by Dr. Gary Gechlik, a resident of ,
on Jan 24, 2010 at 5:05 pm

I thought this was a great article. I regularly read the New York Times and this really was far superior to their commentary. I happen to love the work of Robert Frost.

From Mending Wall:

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

I love this poem, because Frost was really quietly saying that good neighbors make good neighbors. This is what we need to focus upon, the quality of our neighborhood.

If we are going to have high speed rail, we have to look for a solution that satisfies everyone in our community. I am sure if we work through the issues we can find a very good solution over time.

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