Monday, January 19, 2009

HSR Deniers to California: Pay For Our Tunnel!

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

As the Peninsula scoping meetings begin this week local media is starting to take notice - which is a Good Thing, as public awareness of and involvement in HSR planning is a necessary prerequisite to project success. It also means the battle in the mid-Peninsula (is that what you all call it? correct my terminology, please) over a tunnel is starting to heat up. One of the leading HSR deniers, Martin Engel, is championing the cause of burying the HSR tracks in a tunnel through at least Menlo Park and Atherton, and potentially through neighboring cities as well should they be interested. Engel is circulating a letter, which he has helpfully posted in the comments to the Almanac News article I just linked, in which he asks the California High Speed Rail Authority to provide a tunnel at "no additional cost burden to localities" on top of the cost burden he claims is already imposed by Proposition 1A:

There can be no question that the CHSRA has an obligation to mitigate the negative impact of the train corridor development. That means not elevating the rail grade in any way, either by berm, retaining walls, or viaduct. Although there will be claims that tunneling is far too expensive and cannot be afforded by the rail authority, the fact is that not to do so will be far too expensive to the residents and cities adversely impacted by the elevated system. The harm and costs with elevated alternatives will be irreparable.

Whenever someone says "there can be no question" that's usually a sign that, in fact, there can be and usually ARE lots of questions. The CHSRA's mitigation obligations apply to NEPA and CEQA rules, not to Martin Engel's concept of urban design. Engel would need to demonstrate that grade elevation is an inherently and universally negative impact, and would need to show in particular the specific costs to residents and cities as a result of this. Instead all he has are assertions and claims, which of course are all he's ever had. Engel of course assumes that there will be no cost benefits to grade elevation - that the absence of diesel emissions and the safety improvements (no more trains hitting pedestrians or autos) will not bring significant savings.

Asking (or not even asking, but imposing upon) the residents of Atherton and Menlo Park to accept the horrendous and costly burden to be imposed by the rail authority is unacceptable. All of us in California, and in the United States, will already be required to make major financial contributions for the construction of this rail system through demands placed on our taxes. So will our children. This intrusive and deleterious imposition adds further injury to injury. We cannot accept it.

This would be Engel's "we have not yet begun to fight!" statement. The only financial burden that would be involved with HSR is if we don't build it - the cost of traffic, global warming, air pollution, and lost jobs that all would result from not having HSR. Engel includes this to argue that Menlo Park and Atherton are already paying for HSR, so it's not fair to ask them to pay for undergrounding, though it was quite fair for BART to insist it of Berkeley.

Engel finally gets to the point:

What are we saying is this:

1. No elevated structures on the Caltrain corridor through Atherton and Menlo Park.

2. No additional cost burden to localities for the construction.

3. Only acceptable solutions to involve below-grade-level alternatives.

4. Unambiguous negative impact of construction easements, shoofly tracks, business closings, eminent domain takings, and revenue loss for the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton due to property devaluation, to be clearly acknowledged in the EIS/EIR.

5. Acknowledgement of unambiguous negative impact of any elevated rail-supporting partitioning of Menlo Park and Atherton. Required plans for and commitment to construct definitive mitigation.

It is my hope that the residents of the Peninsula do not share this extremist and impractical position. By asking the CHSRA to pay for undergrounding, Engel is in fact asking for everyone else in California to subsidize his vision of what a city should look like. That East Oakland and Fresno and San Bernardino should not worry about education cuts and health care and jobs but direct money to a vanity tunnel through one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the entire state. I'm sure that's going to go over quite well with the voters.

We want HSR to be built the right way through the Peninsula, and believe that a grade elevated structure can be constructed in a way that complements the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton. We hope that the residents of those cities pursue those options, or find the money themselves to pay for a tunnel. We're not going to do it for them.


troymccluresf said...

Those are *not* cities. Those are suburbs.

Spokker said...

Whoooooooooooooosh. *sounds of air being split and and the screech pf steel wheels on steel rails*

Get used to it, Martin.

bossyman15 said...

Amtrak Conductor Introduces Biden in Wilmington.

Clem said...

Why not build the whole thing at grade? The property impacts would be greater around the sunken grade separations, but perhaps the whole Berlin Wall thing wouldn't need to happen.

It's a little known fact that there is already enough land (80 to 85 feet) to run four tracks at grade through Atherton.

In Menlo Park, the required eminent domain takings would be relatively minor.

The land situation is much more favorable to HSR than opponents claim.

Matthew Melzer said...

If the residents of Menlo Park or Atherton would like to tax themselves to put the railroad that helped build their towns underground, they should feel free. Berkeley did the same for BART. Any other solution is definitely a regressive tax on less affluent Californians.

Rafael said...

@ Clem -

I'd prefer to see an at-grade solution as well, the terrain in that segment of the route does not require leveling to support high speed service. The distance between El Camino Real and the tracks appears (just) large enough to support the construction of full underpasses with reasonable gradients at all existing grade crossings, incl. Ravenswood Ave (cp. 5th Ave further north on the Atherton/RC border).

Alternatively, HSR tracks could be stacked on top of Caltrain tracks on a narrow aerial alignment with quiet zone grade crossings for the at-grade tracks used by the slower trains. This option would avoid eminent domain altogether and minimize disruption to both road traffic and Caltrain operations during the construction period.

I'm not sure what either of these solutions - including their implications for downtown RC and downtown Palo Alto - would cost relative to the current proposal, but I'm willing to bet the delta is substantially smaller than it would be for a trench - let alone a tunnel - several miles in length.

CHSRA should disclose to the affected which possible solutions were considered, which were costed out and why it chose the elevated berm option.

That said, I do feel CHSRA should stick to its guns here and say that any costs over-and-above those of the cheapest alternative deemed to be acceptable under NEPA and CEQA have to be covered by sources other than the state of California or the federal government. There simply isn't any slack in the still only partially funded project budget to do anyone any special favors.

It's not as if CHSRA was running its tracks along a brand-new or long-abandoned right of way. On the contrary, the tracks were there before the town. If someone bought property immediately adjacent to the existing ROW, I'm afraid that's a matter of caveat emptor. If CHSRA were to cave to Martin Engel's demands, you can bet that many communities along the route would see that as a precedent and demand equal treatment.

The only exception to this hard line would be compliance with a court ruling based on e.g. environmental justice considerations. However, those normally apply to underprivileged neighborhoods, not to affluent communities.

Clem said...

@Rafael - the eminent domain action potentially necessary in Menlo Park is worth peanuts compared to building the solution you propose. Properly applied eminent domain proceedings are simply not a big deal, financially or legally. Samtrans did $180M worth of takings to build BART to Millbrae. In MP/Atherton, something like 95% of the necessary ROW is already available; getting the last 5% will be trivial. The agencies who will be doing it have already been there, done that.

Doing only a partial grade separation for what represents only 1/3rd of the overall traffic seems like a lost opportunity... even after HSR is built, commuter trains will far outnumber high speed trains.

It does boggle the mind that the same people who predicted and feared skyrocketing HSR costs are now advocating a solution that would have exactly that outcome. It makes you wonder: how deeply rooted are their principles of fiscal moderation?

nikko pigman said...

Wow, I just wanna punch this guy.

First they demand that the train be buried so they don't have to look at it (for their convenience). Then they say that they refuse to pay for it. Talk about being a spoiled brat.

Rafael said...

One more thing: in the context of disclosing its reasons for the embankment solution in Menlo Park/Atherton, CHSRA should also explain why it decided on a really expensive trench/tunnel/cut&fill solution between San Tomas Expressway and San Jose Diridon in Santa Clara county over the following alternatives:

a) construction at grade, exercising eminent domain to widen the Caltrain corridor in this section if need be

b) running the HSR tracks on an aerial structure immediately above the tracks used by Caltrain (and UPRR + Amtrak + ACE, south of De la Cruz Blvd)

There are a number of existing overpasses, especially the one for I-880, that may have precluded these alternatives.

The land of the old rail yard in Santa Clara was sold to VTA in 1994 to serve a maintenance facility for BART (not sure if they will sell the air rights, they ought to). According to this map, BART will run as a subway south of I-880 and at-grade north of it.

Please see CHSRA's Google map detailing the preferred implementation for the entire route and zoom in on San Jose. It would be very useful if CHSRA included a web link (tinyurl if not active) in the description text for each of the white circles representing the proposed stations.

Those links should lead to pages providing specific planning information for those stations plus links to similar information for the sections of track in-between. This should include something on the constraints,

It's time to make the nitty-gritty information available to the general public in a hyperlinked format. We're not living in the 20th century any more, giant PDF tomes are not conducive enough to secure buy-in from all of the stakeholders. Most people simply don't have the time to wade through them.

Rafael said...

@ Clem -

as I said, I'd prefer that all four rail tracks run at grade.

yeson1a said...

What might help is to have a video of the tracks showing the route thru this area and how it can be show as not some horror as the deniers portray but instead an improved ROW with nice looking underpases and landscaping. The company(NC3D)that produced all the CAHSR videos would be able to do some real sharp stuff to stop all these Horrible things happeing stories.

Spokker said...

Build it at grade with some nice landscaping and maybe even a bike path. No one who opposes this project has explained to me how these electric trains are any worse than the lumbering diesels plowing through the area now.

Brandon in San Diego said...

"Pay for our tunnel" ... I wonder where he got the idea?

Andre Peretti said...

I hope Californian deniers won't send an intern to Aix-en-Provence to be taught how to prevent HSR from ever being built.
A look at the French HSR map, will show you one city is notably absent: Nice, the 2nd French tourist destination. Currently, the Paris-Nice TGV reaches Marseille (469 miles) in 3 hours and then takes 2h35 for the remaining 141 miles. Hardly high speed by any standards. How is that possible in a country which pioneered HSR?
After the completion of the Paris-Marseille LGV, a spur to Nice, by-passing Aix and Marseille, was to have followed, putting Nice at 3h30from Paris. Thanks to a virulent environmentalist lobby, this project is practically dead. RFF (French national rail) has modified the design 100 times, allowing for the passage of every hare, lizard and beetle, but the environmentalists' answer is always NO. They have managed to win the support of all southern mayors, except Nice's. Aix's mayor (an ex-lawyer) declared last month: "I promise this ecological catastrophe will not happen and I will file as many lawsuits as it takes".
Have all big city mayors suddenly become hardcore environmentalists? In fact the green campaign helps them hide their real motives: they don't want their stations to be by-passed.
Meanwhile Nice's airport (2nd international airport after Paris) is bursting at the seams. Its owners would gladly see the Paris air shuttle vacate some slots which could be affected to much more profitable international flights.
So, by their alleged defense of the environment, the greens are in fact supporting an environmental insanity: short-haul flights.

Rafael said...

@ spokker -

there isn't enough room in the ROW for landscaping and a bike path in Menlo Park and Atherton. Same thing in the LOSSAN corridor.

Eight foot sound wall berms that support vegetation might be a possible way to go if the rails are kept at grade level. The attractive green side would face the abutting properties, reducing visual clutter and sound impacts. However, property owners might have to agree to formal landscaping easements.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunatey, HSR funding WILL require going back to these local tax payers/property owners, and the more unpalatable the HSR plan is to the peninsula communities, the less likliehood of sneaking next round of funding through voters. Much more detail will be on the table.

It looks like Obama's spending packages hold 1-2B tops for rail. Where does that leave CHSR? - hat in hand to tax paying voters Im afraid...

HSR supporters might want to consider which side their bread will be (or won't be) buttered on, and what that might mean for the smartest way to design this route.

timote said...

Anonymous @ 12:08-

1. You make as if it is a FACT that the currently allocated money is insufficient for the first phase - that California itself will need to come up with more money. We do not know that, I would argue that there is quite a bit more evidence against that view point with the election and with the California representatives being onboard for this project. The CHSRA does NOT need all of it's money upfront, and what the future holds for high-speed rail funding at the federal level is very much still TBD - it is quite early in the project, really. Let's see what comes of Kerry's bill etc. You could turn out to be correct, but it is certainly not as straight-forward as what you imply.

2. There are already VERY SIGNIFICANT benefits in this plan to those communities. Grade separation and quieter electric trains/line electrification are very positive developments (not to mention the HSR itself, which they can of course use as anyone else can).

If we bend over backwards for these NIMBY's (Google Engel, it's pretty obvious that this is literally in his backyard), that will effectively kill this project. Outright. There will be a very bad precedent for tunneling in ALL urban areas (remainder of SF peninsula, south bay, LA, Orange County, you name it) and communities in the Central Valley will also vie to solve all their railroad issues with one silver bullet. That will be the death-knell for HSR, which is of course the goal of these NIMBY's - their benefit, the rest of the state's loss (and the environment's and the nation's and...).

I'm all for discussing things out and being as accommodating as possible, but this is naked NIMBY-ism and worse.

In this light, what in your opinion "the smartest way to design this route"? If your opinion is underground, that's fine, but CHSRA is not obligated to fix previously existing issues, only to mitigate any that they create. In that light, the communities can pay for undergrounding themselves if that is their analysis. CHSRA should under no circumstances do it for them.

mike said...

Anonymous - CHSRA won't even be able to spend $1 billion in the coming fiscal year - the project just isn't at that point yet. There's no reason to believe at this point that the Feds won't make significant contributions.

If, however, CHSRA does ever return to the California voters, it will not matter if a handful of NIMBYs living adjacent to the tracks vote against the bond. These people were already voting against it anyway, and to a first approximation they comprise 0% of the state's population. It will be much more damaging to CHSRA's credibility with the voters if CHSRA has frittered away billions of taxpayer money on totally unnecessary tunnels up and down the Peninsula.

CComMack said...

I'm disappointed in some of the lines taken by the above commenters; we shouldn't prefer an at-grade solution a priori, because the railroad does present a marginal negative impact to its neighbors, with respect to noise, safety, and geographic discontinuity. Moreover, being in a tunnel is marginally superior for the railroad; it prevents accidents caused by trespassing or fouling of the tracks and/or catenary, and prevents slippery rail conditions in the fall. (You do have fall in the Bay Area, right? I'm an Easterner, and can never remember what the climate does over there.)

However, and this is the point I think both sides are having trouble communicating, I (and most others here) do not see these small advantages of tunnelling as being worth the vast additional cost to *us*, as Federal or State taxpayers; it would be an unconscionable givaway of billions of dollars better spent elsewhere (like expanding the system to Sacramento, San Diego, and Las Vegas). So, if the residents of the mid-Peninsula really feel that their interests are better served by a tunnel, then they should have to make the economic decision to pay for it themselves. Whether or not they are willing to put their money where their mouth is will signal whether the negative impacts are anywhere near as great as they claim. I predict that they will not.

timote said...



Spokker said...

"we shouldn't prefer an at-grade solution a priori, because the railroad does present a marginal negative impact to its neighbors, with respect to noise, safety, and geographic discontinuity."

That's true, but those negative impacts already exist now. A railroad is not being built where a railroad does not exist. That rarely happens in California.

As far as safety goes, at-grade does not mean grade-crossings. The entire thing will be grade separated so safety is only going to be improved.