With plans accelerating for the Bay Area segment of California's high-speed rail line, Palo Alto officials this week called for a more inclusive process in designing the train system and renewed their calls for rail officials to "grade separate" the new bullet trains from crossing traffic.
That is one of the main points that the city plans to make as it prepares its comments on the California High Speed Rail Authority's forthcoming Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Peninsula segment. This week, rail authority officials have been visiting Peninsula communities to solicit comments about the scope of the environmental analysis, a document that the rail authority hopes to complete by the end of next year.
On Wednesday morning, the agency made a stop in Palo Alto, where its Northern California Regional Director Ben Tripousis provided an update to the City's Council Rail Committee about the new document and solicited the committee's comments about what issues the authority should look at in the 51-mile stretch between San Francisco and San Jose. For the four council members on the committee, grade separation (moving the tracks either under or over crossing streets) was far and away the biggest cause of concern.
Under the current plan, high-speed rail plans to move ahead with rail separation in the Central Valley but not on the Peninsula. Rather, the Peninsula segment calls for high-speed rail to share tracks with Caltrain in what's known as the "blended system." Because the high-speed trains in the blended system would reach maximum speeds of 110 mph, the rail authority is not required by Federal Railroad Administration regulations to pursue grade separation. The requirement is only in place where speeds are 125 mph or above, Tripousis said.
Rather than physically separate the rail corridor from the crossing streets, the rail authority plans to pursue less dramatic and less expensive safety measures: new perimeter fencing and four-quadrant gates at all grade crossings.
While these measures are expected to limit the ability of cars to get on the tracks, Palo Alto officials are concerned that they will also create massive congestion at the four locations where the train tracks meet the streets.
Caltrain's plan to electrify its train system and increase the number of trains could further exacerbate the problem. The combination of six Caltrain trains and four high-speed trains running in each direction during the peak hour means that a train will be passing through every three minutes, creating traffic delays as the gates close and reopen to cars.
Mayor Pat Burt, who sits on the Rail Committee, questioned the rail authority's decision to pursue grade separation in the Central Valley and not on the Peninsula, given the level of congestion that already exists in Palo Alto and neighboring communities.
"This speaks to a pretty fundamental disconnect in our eyes between the plan to put high-speed rail on a blended system on the Peninsula and the absence of an actual plan and funding for grade separation," Burt said.
His colleagues concurred, with Councilman Tom DuBois saying that grade separation is "critical to us."
"The economic impacts of how it splits the town with these trains every three minutes is significant," DuBois said.
Councilman Marc Berman, who chairs the Rail Committee, also pointed to the large number of cars that cross the corridor and the impact that having quad gates could have on local traffic.
"How is that a tenable situation for a community?" Berman asked.
Tripousis said the rail authority will be exploring the impact of quad gates during the environmental analysis.
"Where we see impacts that are untenable, we will look at local solutions, which may involve grade separations," he said.
The committee wasn't entirely satisfied with the response. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff said that it doesn't take an EIR to realize that if a train is coming every three minutes and cars can't cross, it would have a significant effect on the community.
"I don't think an environmental review has to show that," Scharff said. "It's obvious. It's clearly an issue."
But Tripousis noted that there are 42 grade crossings between San Francisco and San Jose and that grade separation would cost somewhere in the area of $3 billion to $5 billion. The agency, he said, has reached out to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for participation and leadership on a study that would develop a program for "achieving grade separation over time."
Though the blended system that the new EIR will evaluate isn't nearly as controversial as the four-track alternative that the rail authority initially hoped to construct, the Wednesday discussion highlighted the high level of skepticism and opposition that the project continues to generate on the Peninsula.
While officials from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and other Peninsula communities have been wrestling with the implications of high-speed rail since late 2008, when California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles system, the project took on new urgency in February of this year.
That's when the rail authority released its new business plan, which proposed launching construction of the system between Central Valley and San Jose. Prior plans had limited the first leg of the $64 billion system to the Central Valley.
Adding to the committee's skepticism is the rail authority's pivot away from the "context sensitive solution" (CSS) process that was originally envisioned for the Peninsula segment -- an extensive community-drive process that is commonly used for highway construction.
In January, Palo Alto submitted a letter to both Caltrain and the High Speed Rail Authority urging them to make CSS "a part of all phases of program delivery, including long range planning, programming, environmental studies, design, construction, operations and maintenance."
Such a process would not be possible, however, under the rail authority's current timeline, which calls for completing the process by the end of 2017. Tripousis stressed that the rail authority is committed to working with various committees made up of community stakeholders. But the Rail Committee argued that this is not enough, and urged the rail authority to make the process more inclusive, even if the timeline has to be further stretched.
Berman urged Tripousis to conduct a "thorough CSS process" with more opportunity for more community engagement. That way residents along the line can feel like partners in the project, rather than foes, he said.
"If I'm a third-party investor and I see a 50-mile stretch of the project with a lot of the communities very angry and looking to block it at every step of the way, I'm probably not very interested, and I'm much more concerned about the timeline and investing in the project," Berman said.
According to the rail authority's "notice of preparation," the analysis for the San Francisco-to-San Jose portion of the line will identify site-specific environmental impacts from construction, operation and maintenance of the project; mitigation measures to address these impacts and "appropriate design practices to avoid and minimize potential significant environmental impacts."
The notice states that the Peninsula segment will include at least one set of passing tracks (with a location yet to be determined), one terminal storage maintenance facility, track improvements to support higher speeds, and improvements to existing stations to support high-speed rail.
Under the current plan, the new trains would stop at the 4th and King streets station in San Francisco (ultimately, it would go to the Transbay Terminal, which is currently under construction), at the Millbrae station and at the Diridon station in San Jose.
The rail authority will be collecting comments about the scope of the EIR until June 10. Comments can be sent to email@example.com or mailed to Mark A. McLoughlin, Attn: San Francisco to San Jose Project Section, California High-Speed Rail Authority, 100 Paseo De San Antonio, Suite 206, San Jose, CA 95113.