It's good to see that despite the Palo Alto City Council's decision to do a 180 and cave to a small, unrepresentative group of NIMBYs, the city's planning commissioners are taking a more sensible approach to the question of how to build HSR through their city. I don't agree with all of their conclusions, but they seem to be offering the kind of constructive engagement that has been totally lacking from the city council:
Many in the city still support the train in concept but are grasping for ways to fit it into a narrow rail corridor that bisects quiet neighborhoods. The first paragraph of the city's draft letter asks that the study "provide a complete analysis of all linear rail corridor elevation options, including at-grade, elevated or depressed including open trench and tunneling."
It goes on, "All options, particularly the tunneling option, should be evaluated to the same level of detail as the elevated track proposal."
That doesn't mean the city considers a tunnel a miracle solution, however. Planning Commissioner Samir Tuma asked that city staff remove the clause "particularly the tunneling option," saying that it's not yet clear that would be the best alternative to raised tracks.
At this blog we've been quite willing to examine the tunnel concept, and Rafael will have more to say on that and other possible implementations of HSR in an upcoming post. But the tunnel should be evaluated on the same terms as the other options, and shouldn't be given any undue favoritism or shrift.
Most opposition to a tunnel so far has focused on the cost, which is presumed to be astronomical. But Commissioner Karen Holman agreed it may not be the answer even if the city can afford it. She said she often tells members of the public, "Don't fall in love with the below-grade scenario. There are all manner of potential impacts to that, and many are the same as above-grade."
Specifically, Holman said, construction of a tunnel or trench could disrupt the lives of those who live nearby and require the state to take people's property. Beyond that, it could pose problems related to underground water, including a toxic plume and an aquifer that serves as an emergency drinking-water supply.
Kudos to Karen Holman for this very sensible position. There are indeed lots of impacts to a tunnel, from the disruption of construction to unknown effects on hydrology to, of course, the enormous cost. The public should look at all of the options from a fully informed perspective, whereas some of the louder voices have already decided a tunnel is best without really looking at the details. This is especially ironic given that one of the main NIMBY arguments is that the CHSRA somehow did not properly inform Palo Alto residents about the project before the November vote. That charge has no validity, but it's not right for those NIMBYs to sell a tunnel as the solution to the HSR question without being able to offer the public any real information on what it would actually look like, how it would be implemented, and what the cost would be.
Given that, Commissioner Daniel Garber wondered if the city should ask for more study of keeping the tracks at ground level. That would likely require closure of several cross streets, however, a possibility other commissioners were not interested in considering.
The overriding sentiment was captured by Commissioner Arthur Keller near the end of the four-hour-long session. "There is no completely satisfactory solution to this," he said. "All of the alternatives will have drawbacks. The question is which of the drawbacks are better than others, which of the drawbacks we can live with. And the ones can we live with, the ones Caltrain can live with and the ones high-speed rail can live with might not all be the same."
Again this is a sensible point to make, even if I disagree with the framing of solutions as "drawbacks." Keller realizes that there is no magic bullet solution that will make everyone happy (and that is probably what he intended to say by using the term "drawbacks"), so the city ought to move ahead through an honest and realistic assessment of all the options without trying to prejudge the outcome.
Especially welcome is the planning commission's desire to ensure HSR gets built. That stands in clear contrast to the city council's flirtations with HSR denial. It would be ideal if the constructive attitude shown by the planning commission spreads to the city council, but it's probably going to take a push from Palo Alto residents who support HSR to ensure that happens.
PS: The BayRail Alliance is hosting a meeting tonight on the Transbay Terminal/DTX project, at the Panera Bread located just across from the 4th and King Caltrain station in San Francisco from 6 to 8:30 pm. Unfortunately I won't be able to make it up from Monterey for this meeting, but it promises to be an excellent opportunity to learn more about the project and where it stands.