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By Jay Thorwaldson

Tunneling the trains is not a new vision

Uploaded: Sep 30, 2008

The "mini Big Four" Palo Alto city leaders proposing to tunnel the Caltrain tracks deep underground to make room for parks, bike lanes and condos were a bit surprised to hear they weren't the first to think up the idea.

There have been earlier proposals to underground the tracks, most recently a serious effort by the late Joe Carleton in 2000.

Carleton, a longtime Palo Altan active in community and social issues, outlined his idea to me for more than an hour shortly after I became editor of the Weekly in mid-2000 -- before he became ill with cancer and died in October. His idea died with him.

And in 1967, Martin Gorfinkel ran for City Council on the platform, so to speak, of "Trench the Tracks." In 1976, Gorfinkel founded LARC Computing, a development and consulting firm, and has long been active in Democratic and progressive political organizations.

Trenching is still an alternative to deep tunneling, but with far more impact during construction. The trenches can be covered over.

But, then as now, the idea of burying the tracks caused people to roll their eyes and shake their heads about where the funds would come from.

The latest vision emanates from City Councilman John Barton, former Councilman and Mayor Bern Beecham, Palo Alto-based architect Tony Carrasco and Planning Director Steve Emslie, currently the interim deputy city manager. They are proposing (as covered in detail in last Friday's cover story, Sept. 26) that tunneling be explored as an alternative to major surface rebuilding of the tracks up the Peninsula.

They warn that growing frequency of local and "Baby Bullet" express trains will be increasingly intrusive on nearby residents and on east-west movement across the tracks, long considered a barrier dividing neighborhoods.

To make impacts worse, the Peninsula has been chosen as the route of the future High Speed Rail (HSR) connection between Southern California and San Francisco. Trains would speed up the valley at up to 220 miles per hour, then slow to about 100 or so going up the Peninsula. That's still pretty fast. It's the HSR system -- up for voter approval on Nov. 4 as Proposition 1A -- that could provide the core funding to make the tunneling concept feasible, its backers believe.

Even with grade separations or elevated tracks -- either by a big berm as further north or by elevated tracks, as with sections of BART -- the impact of more and faster trains will be significant on the Peninsula communities.

They hope their "tunnel the tracks" vision will spread to adjacent communities north and south to help spread the overhead fixed costs of tunneling, such as building a huge tunneling machine, and thus reduce the per-mile costs through Palo Alto.

There are parallels between the current vision and Carleton's ideas.

Carleton was a gentle gadfly to city officials and pushed for things he felt were important to improving life for people in Palo Alto and beyond. In the early 1970s, he picked up on a five-part series I wrote for the Palo Alto Times on how poorly trained many ambulance crews were, and lobbied the city into creating the life-saving paramedics program in the Fire Department. This became a model and impetus for other cities in the county.

Carleton also helped arrange the donation of a fire truck and paramedics van to Oaxaca, Mexico, a sister city, and coordinated transport to get them down there.

Burying the tracks, he said, would open up east-west access by removing the barrier that predated most of Palo Alto's neighborhoods, when the town was largely open spaces with oak trees. Below-ground tracks would provide space for open, landscaped areas, a long strip park, he said.

And, he said, it would provide room for housing -- places to live for people who couldn't compete in the housing market, which even in 2000 was one of the highest in the nation. Palo Alto recently was rated the fourth highest housing market nationally.

That's pretty much what the current proponents of tunneling have in mind, with one substantive difference: Joe saw housing as primarily filling a social need, whereas today's tunneling advocates see sale of maybe 660 condos as a source of funds. The sales could raise perhaps between $450 million and $500 million, possibly enough to cover the extra cost compared to surface construction, whatever that cost might be.

Yet despite the dearth of reliable cost estimates for tunneling, absence of any design configurations or even rudimentary engineering work, the subject has already stirred up an intense and increasingly polarized debate on the online Town Square forum, www.PaloAltoOnline.com. Who needs facts to be confused by, anyway?

And the figurative or literal eye-rolling is still around: One Palo Alto neighborhood leader, after listening intently to a brief outline of the concept, sat quietly a moment before offering his two-word appraisal:

"They're insane."