Over the weekend Palo Alto hosted an HSR design workshop that included working groups focused on a number of different neighborhoods in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton. I wasn't able to attend owing to last-minute work commitments. But judging by the reports, it was an extremely productive event where residents came up with their preferred plans - and even explored ways to pay for them.
If you were there, by all means, post your thoughts in the comments. For now, I'm going to have to rely on the local press. Sue Dremann at Palo Alto Online had a good overview:
The two-day workshop, sponsored by the Peninsula Cities Consortium, brought together residents, city and Caltrain officials, architects, and experts in transportation, geology, tunneling, historic resources, finance and public art to discuss the visionary futures for the rail corridor.
The consensus was for undergrounded tracks with parks, community gardens, a bicycle boulevard, green spaces, shops and streets to connect neighborhoods now divided by the at-grade and elevated tracks....
Most groups said tunneling the trains seemed the best alternatve -- but they recognized the complexity and cost. The groups considered boring deep beneath creeks and avoiding damage to El Palo Alto, the city's iconic redwood.
Dremann's article goes into some detail on the various neighborhood proposals, but I want to focus on the bigger picture. Assuming this is an accurate reflection of the event, I am extremely pleased to hear this. I've always been open to a tunnel - the question is instead the cost, and according to Dremann, the locals fully understand it:
Some groups suggested the project could be funded by a one-percent sales tax hike, as was done in Berkeley when Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was built. Others suggested a voter-approved 30-year property-tax fee could cover costs.
Both funding models are sensible, since they rightly recognize that they will have to pay for a tunnel themselves. If these cities can muster the public support to approve such a tax, and if they can show it will pay for the costs of the tunnel, then I'll be one of the biggest supporters of such a plan.
Funding an underground solution is not likely to be a simple matter. Gennady Sheyner's Palo Alto Online article makes that pretty clear:
But speakers at Sunday's workshop also acknowledged a major obstacle standing between them and their idealistic vision: the high cost of creating underground tunnels. While rail officials don't expect to have a cost estimate for the project for another year, they have estimated the cost of boring tunnels to be about 6.5 times as much as building at grade.
The cost of building underground tunnels is also expected to be beyond the rail authority's $4.2 billion budget for the Peninsula segment.
Glenn Isaacson, principal at Conversion Management Association, said cities would have a hard time funding a tunnel, but offered several ways in which it could be done. Aside from passing bond measures or enacting special taxes, cities could sell land currently occupied by the Caltrain right-of-way and use the proceeds to pay for the tunnels, he said.
Workshop participants have also singled out a downtown stretch between El Camino Real and Alma Street as a possible site for dense, revenue-generating developments, including multi-story condominiums. But Isaacson warned that the project would still likely require significant additional funding from the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
"I'd urge you to watch your pennies in the cost of what you select," Isaacson advised the audience. "You'll have a hard time covering 100 percent of the gap."
My guess is they'll have to do all of the above - property assessments, passing a bond, and selling air rights - to fund an underground solution. One possible solution is for the CHSRA to lay out the cost of an above-grade solution (some of these articles mention an "at-grade" implementation as a possibility, which it is not) and then tell the locals that if they want to go above and beyond by building a tunnel, they have to pay for those added costs.
If you want to get public support for paying those costs locally, you have to sell not the process, nor the technical solution, but you have to sell a vision. A vision of a better Peninsula. And that too is something that the locals understand:
California's high-speed-rail project could offer Palo Alto and its neighboring cities a rare opportunity to revitalize their downtown districts, transform old train tracks into leafy gateways and bring neighborhoods closer together, a group of leading urban designers and architects said at a Sunday workshop....
Judith Wasserman, a member of Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board, gave the plan a special name: "Together Again for the First Time." Wasserman said an underground system could offer the city a long-awaited chance to connect its neighborhoods.
"The town has always been divided by the train," Wasserman said. "We've never had good cross-town connection. This is an opportunity we'll never have again."
Of course, Wasserman has it backwards; the train was there before the town. But that shouldn't take away from what is a very reasonable and supportable vision for how HSR can enhance and improve the local community.
That all being said, there are two huge, related caveats that we all need to keep in mind before we pronounce the corner being turned on the Peninsula HSR debate.
The first is the above-grade solution. It makes sense for everyone involved to have the community do work on determining how to implement an above-grade four-track solution in a way neighbors can live with. Neither Caltrain, the CHSRA, nor the Peninsula cities can afford to pin their hopes on getting voter approval for a tax increase to build a tunnel. Such work may have been done this weekend and just didn't make its way into the reports, but it is vital that the design workshops include an emphasis on planning above-grade solutions.
The second is freight rail. As we saw at the Palo Alto teach-in last month, the Peninsula Freight Rail Users Group is adamant that freight rail continue to operate much as it does today, and Union Pacific has its trackage rights that have to be considered as well. It's theoretically possible to design a tunnel that could accommodate freight rail, but the design for that is very, very different from tunnels for passenger trains alone. Since many of the proposals for tunneling in Palo Alto and neighboring cities revolve around using the at-grade land for purposes other than a railroad, that means they're going to have to build a tunnel big enough to possibly accommodate 4 tracks and high enough to accommodate today's containerized double-stacked freight consists.
I don't know if that all was discussed at the workshop. But it should have been, and it needs to be discussed going forward. Otherwise what was a very productive and valuable planning workshop may not actually be as effective as it ought to be.