One of the most unfortunate parts of the debate on the Caltrain/HSR project on the Peninsula is the lack of accurate information. NIMBYs and other project opponents have already convinced many people that an above-grade solution would be a sort of "Berlin Wall" through the city, and Jim McFall's video reinforces that errant conclusion. The problem is that McFall's video has been the only attempt to visualize what the corridor would look like with above-grade tracks.
Mike, who brought us the point by point refutation of the notorious Cox-Vranich HSR denier report last year, is back to inject some sense and fact into the debate over HSR. He has put together a YouTube video of simulations of the Churchill Avenue crossing in Palo Alto - including the existing at-grade model, the proposed CHSRA above-grade solution, and the flawed McFall model. Mike added authentic sounds of the crossing - a recording of Caltrain crossing at-grade, and of the Acela. Here's the video:
You can see clearly that McFall's model is misleading on several counts. He has the dimensions all wrong - the structure is higher in McFall's model than is actually proposed, and the catenary poles are too densely packed together. More importantly, McFall's video doesn't include existing landscaping that would mitigate much of the visual impact of an above-grade solution. There are no trees in the McFall video, whereas Mike's video makes clear that trees are indeed part of the solution.
The results of misleading misinformation on the Caltrain/HSR project (such as the McFall video) could be seen in Atherton on Thursday night, where a crowd came to speak in favor of the city's avowed "tunnel or nothing" stance:
Duncan Jones, Atherton's public works director, laid out the town's case for both joining the lawsuit and still participating in the high-speed rail planning process. "We need to hedge our bets," he said.
Mr. Jones, a former rail consultant, said that the town's fallback position -- if the route doesn't change, put the high-speed trains in a tunnel, rather than on a raised berm -- isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.
The rail corridor in Atherton is lined by expensive homes, and widening it to accommodate high-speed rail would require purchasing swaths of private property.
"When (the authority) looks at all of the costs and impacts, they may find out that going underground may be cheaper," Mr. Jones said.
Jones's comments are barely credible. I cannot imagine that buying a few strips of backyard will cost a billion dollars - which would be the minimum estimate for tunneling through Atherton, even with a cut and cover model. The San Jose Mercury News article on the meeting noted that Hatch Mott MacDonald executives estimated a tunnel through Atherton would cost:
A tunnel on the Peninsula would likely follow the same model as the San Jose BART extension, Townsend said, because both areas have soft ground. A high-speed rail tunnel would likely cost somewhere between $100 million to $250 million per mile, compared to less than $100 million for an at-grade system, he said.
I have a difficult time imagining that the cost of eminent domain for a few backyards would be $100 million. I am also skeptical of the lowball cost of an HSR tunnel that Townsend offered, but even if these estimates are accurate, it represents a doubling of the cost of building on the Peninsula.
Such is the fact-free nature of the debate on the Peninsula, unfortunately. Let's hope Mike's more accurate animation gets spread far and wide, and that people on the Peninsula can actually make informed choices about the Caltrain/HSR project.