As their neighbors to the north spend waste their time and taxpayer money on lawsuits, Palo Alto has chosen a more sensible yet visionary reaction to high speed rail. An article in the Palo Alto Weekly explains how the city is looking to Prop 1A as an opportunity to reshape and improve the rail corridor that splits Palo Alto:
The disruption happens more than 55 times a day along Alma Street: Bells clang, crossing-guard arms lower, and people and cars grind to a halt as hundreds of tons of locomotive steel approach.
The train thunders by, horn wailing, leaving wind and dust in its wake. Then life returns to normal.
One day, all that could be history if an idea being floated by some Palo Alto leaders becomes reality.
Call it visionary or call it far-fetched: They think the railroad could be put underground — in tunnels 50 feet below the surface.
If that were to happen, drivers might experience Alma as a grand boulevard in the European tradition rather than a commute corridor flanked on one side by railroad tracks and bushes.
Where tracks now lie, bicyclists would glide on paths along a greenbelt, while office workers would look out their windows as commuters drive by.
And in the tunnels underground, bullet trains would silently whisk their passengers to destinations along the Peninsula.
No more street-traffic delays due to the rail system. No more train-on-car accidents. No more fatalities.
Atherton and Menlo Park would have Californians believe that HSR will destroy their communities, but Palo Alto points out how it will help make these communities more livable. No more accidents, no more diesel emissions, no need for a wailing horn. And if Atherton and Menlo Park wish to follow Palo Alto's model, a tunnel could provide either a lovely boulevard or an opportunity for new development.
How would Palo Alto pay for this? The Palo Alto Weekly article explains it like this:
The idea could also raise a lot of money, the group contends. By selling or leasing "air rights" — rights to build on the land, without acquiring the land itself — the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board in theory might garner enough funding to pay for the added cost of undergrounding. The board owns the right of way and manages Caltrain.
"If you go along with our estimates, we get to about a half billion dollars of land value, which hopefully is the marginal difference in cost between what high-speed rail would pay for above-grade [rail] and the cost of undergrounding," Carrasco said.
The article goes on to reference Grand Central Terminal in NYC and BART through downtown Berkeley as examples of how undergrounding rail can provide financial and developmental benefits. Berkeley did wind up having to use redevelopment money and a sales tax to pay for the costs. Obviously Palo Alto residents will have to debate the details of this proposal and determine what's best for them.
Already some of the comments on the article are getting into these details. Some argue that this isn't a good use of government money in a recession, but those are the same folks who probably would have thought the Golden Gate Bridge and SF-Oakland Bay Bridge shouldn't have been built during the Depression. Californians need to start thinking about how to produce economic recovery, how to create jobs and new investment opportunities. High speed rail and Prop 1A provide those to not just Palo Alto, but to downtown San Francisco, Mountain View, San José, Fresno, Bakersfield, downtown LA, and Anaheim - and ultimately to the state as a whole.
Even if Palo Alto residents decide they can't or won't pay for undergrounding, at least they're thinking positively and constructively about their community's future. Trains have been part of Palo Alto for the city's entire history, they are the reason it exists. Passenger rail is now an obvious and necessary part of our state's future and we ought to be thinking about how we can make it work effectively and affordably. Prop 1A will provide just that kind of train service, and Palo Alto should be lauded for showing us how it can improve communities, as well as our economy, environment, and mobility.