The California Assembly and Senate last week approved a portion of the voter- authorized High Speed Rail bonds. This legislation, after being signed by Governor Jerry Brown, will authorize the issuance of $4.6 billion of such State bonds.
These state bond funds and $3.3 billion of Federal funding will allow the State to build a 130-mile segment in the Central Valley as the initial phase of the 550-mile High Speed Rail project traversing the State of California.
This funding by the State was very controversial, with many parties advocating it should not be build at all because it is not needed or because the State can not afford it because it has too many other financial demands including education and welfare needs.
In spite of all the objections and lawsuits filed against the HSR Project, the Democratic controlled Legislature authorized the bond sale to finance the first 130-mile segment from the City of Madera, located north of Fresno, to Bakersfield. Many cities and parties will still try to prevent the construction from starting by filing lawsuits over the HSR EIR review or the HSR plan not being consistent with the original voter approved bond measure. But because of the continued control of the Legislature and the Governor’s Office by the Democrats who approved the issuance of the bonds, it is unlikely that such legal action will prevail.
So where do we go from here? As a resident of the San Francisco Mid-Peninsula I will address possible action of the cities of Atherton (my residence), Menlo Park and Palo Alto. $600 million was authorized in the HSR legislation to help fund the $1.3 billion electrification of the Caltrain commuter service on the Peninsula from San Francisco to San Jose. Certain agreements between Caltrain and the HSR Authority anticipated that the HSR trains would run on the same two tracks that the commuter trains run today in a so-called “blended system”.
As I understand it, after the train service is converted from today’s diesel trains to electric service, the Caltrain plan will allow both the new electric commuter trains and the HSR electric trains to use the same two tracks. Since the ultimate plan assumes both Caltrain and HSR trains will travel over 100 miles an hour, some kind of structural up-grade will be needed to each of the 50-plus street crossings between San Jose and San Francisco to meet Federal safety standards. If the trains stay at the present maximum speed of 79 miles per hour no structural upgrade will be necessary. But with HSR trains planned to run at 100 to 110 miles per hour on the Peninsula, quad-gates (use of four cross-arms instead of two) or complete grade separation at each street crossing will be required by Federal safety regulations. This is normally done by raising or lowering the street over or under the tracks, a very expensive proposition.
It is anticipated that once completed the HSR’s Plan will require seven trains an hour running on Caltrain tracks, while Caltrain’s plans anticipate only four such trains in its blended system. At a minimum this will require 8 of the 60 miles of tracks from San Francisco to San Jose to add one or two more tracks so the faster trains can bypass slower trains and meet the needs of both Caltrain and HSR schedules. This raises the more serious question of whether four tracks will ultimately be required for the entire 60 miles on the Peninsula.
Although Caltrain indicates that the two-track system, with the by-pass tracks added where needed, will not require the entire 60 miles to be four tracked, the HSR Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Peninsula still requires a study of four tracks for the entire 60-mile length of the Peninsula segment. Obviously this is the worst case scenario for Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto to be concerned with environmentally. A four track system will likely destroy the viability of these three cities, including many residential and business entities.
Suggestion to address the worst case scenario of four tracks on the Peninsula:
My suggestion would be to compare the total cost of elevated or depressed below-ground grade crossings versus the cost of building an open trench below ground for four tracks the entire length of Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto. This trench could be covered through the most congested portions of residential and downtown areas in the three cities. This cost difference between the two scenarios would put a cost box around the magnitude of solving the environmental problem for these three cities. The covered trenches or tunnels for the BART System from San Bruno, South San Francisco and Colma are examples of what has been done to accommodate similar concerns in those three cities. Once this cost difference is determined a negotiation between HSR, Caltrain and the three cities could be conducted to see if a solution as to who would pay for what could be developed that would allow the HSR trains to be “built right” and save the three cities from being destroyed environmentally when ultimately a four-track system is required for the entire length of the Peninsula.
Greg Conlon is on the Town of Atherton’s Rail Committee. He is a former California State Republican Party delegate and member of the San Mateo County Republican Central Committee.