Friday, September 26, 2008

Palo Alto: Prop 1A is "Opportunity of a Lifetime"

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

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.


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting idea but I'm not sure if the math really works out. If the Caltrain ROW averages 100' wide through Palo Alto, then putting it underground for 4.25 miles reclaims around 50 acres of land. So that implies that the land is worth up to $10 million/acre ($230/sq ft) which sounds expensive even for Palo Alto. For example, 3 properties appearing on RedFin near the Caltrain ROW are listed for $150-170/sq ft, and that includes a nice house as well as just the land itself (so it should be an overestimate of the land value). So either the land value are pretty optimistic, or burying Caltrain/HSR would free up even more land than just the actual ROW.

Anonymous said...

Note: In case it wasn't clear above, the $150-170/sq ft figure refers to the square footage of the entire lot, not the square footage of the house itself.

Rafael said...

You don't really want Caltrain and HSR to turn into a roller coaster, though it can be done (watch this video from the 1:40 mark).

Ergo, if it's going underground through downtown Palo Alto it has to stay there for a while in both directions. That could present a problem for sewer mains and storm drains in the area.

Commercial - as opposed to residential - real estate on top of the ROW might well fetch $230/sq ft near downtown Palo Alto and up into Menlo Park. It depends on how many storys developers would be allowed to build, rooftop utilization, parking spaces, vibrations from passing trains etc. This applies especially if the concept is basically a pedestrian/bike boulevard adjacent to cafes and other eateries.

South of say, Homer and north of Ravenswood, the whole notion would be a tougher sell. I'm not sure putting the tracks underground could be self-financing and, therein lies the rub.

Anonymous said...

The disruption happens more than 720 times a day along Alma Street: The lights turn red, and people and cars grind to a halt as tons of SUV approach in the cross direction.

Obviously trains carrying hundreds of people are less important than 10 cars.

Brandon in California said...

Property value in downtown San Diego far surpasses that $150 to $170 per square foot value. Here, it has been in the $300 to $400 range and up.

I believe places like NY, London and Tokyo are closer to $1000. But that is elsewhere.

If HSR is put underground, land values adjacent to tracks... and all property in the vicinity, should dramatically increase in value.

If CHSRA or Caltrain were permitted to develop on the land above tunneled tracks... I suspect land values could reach and maybe surpass that $150-$170 figure... but it depends on what development is allowed.

BUT.... 4.5 miles of tunnelling is gonna cost well over $464 million as cited by the Palo Alto paper and probably closer $1 billion or more assuming a $200 million or more cost per mile cost... which I believe is consistent with other "like" projects.

Obviously, before an idea like that moves forward with any seriousness, advanced efforts on costing the project must be completed.

Anonymous said...

Rafael writes:

Commercial - as opposed to residential - real estate on top of the ROW might well fetch $230/sq ft near downtown Palo Alto and up into Menlo Park.

With regards Menlo Park land values, I can offer these numbers. I presume Palo Alto a bit higher, but not sure about that.

Land values in the rail corridor are about $90 / sq. foot. The Derry project used these figures. A block further to the west, right on El Camino got up to about $6 million / acre, which is $136 / sq. foot. Frontage along El Camino is much mosre valuable than along the rail corridor.

So quite frankly getting into 200 to 250 / sq. foot at this time is not realistic.

As pointed out, tunneling in Palo Alto would require a long stretch. A tunnel possibility has been suggested for Menlo Park and Ahterton. For sure this would mean plenty of eminent domain land takings in these two cities, and also in Palo Alto. In addition there exists a body of water, between the Menlo Park and Palo Alto, the San Francisquito Creek and going through, or under the creek in no cheap matter.

Writers on this subject should remember, that Palo Alto and Menlo park are relatively small communities; land value are not what they are in San Francisco.

Rafael said...

@ morris brown -

I understand your point, but putting the tracks underground would greatly increase the value of land adjacent to and on top of the current at-grade ROW. How much of an increase? That's the big question.

A related issue is how a mile-plus of new commercial property would impact traffic in the area. The idea merits further study with or without HSR, but I'm sceptical it could work.

Note that the cheaper alternative - a covered trench wide enough to support four tracks and supporting columns - is also the more disruptive option. In particular, Caltrain would probably have to employ buses on Alma and/or El Camino Real to bridge the underground section during construction, which could last several years.

Tunnels for four tracks would be incredibly expensive.

Brandon in California said...

^^^ Whatever is proposed must be "constructable". If construction means closing the alignment altogether for any period of time (other than weekend), well, that is not contructable.

If anything happens... it MUST allow existing operations to continue. Weekend disruptions would possibly be the only exception.

Phasing is the only way to do that. I can see it occurring hypothetically or generally going along such:

* relocate/rebuild/create temporary tracks (2) where needed on one side of the corridor in order to maintain train operations during construction.

* Construct trench on opposite side, plus temporary roadway crossings (bridges), and build tracks to readiness for 2-tracks and Caltrain service.

* Shift train services to 2-track trench.

* Remove at-grade tracks and construct 2nd trench adjacent to first, include temporary roadway bridges.

For an example... the Alameda corridor in LA may be a good example of how phasing would occur.

Rafael said...

@ brandon in San Diego -

Palo Alto city leaders have floated the idea of constructing tracks underneath Alma Street, which could potentially be extended as far north as Oak Grove Ave in Menlo Park before any houses have to be bought or seized via eminent domain. Where the underground structure would re-emerge depends on what solution Menlo Park and Atherton will accept (and potentially, help pay for).

In the Alma Street scenario, the tracks would have to dive underneath the San Francisquito Creek, University Ave and Embarcadero Rd. On the southern end, the new tracks would presumably be brought back above ground between Churchill and Oregon Expressway, the primary cross road in the town.

Caltrain operations would continue unhindered while work on Alma Street was proceeding one track at a time. Only after the bypass was completed and made available to Caltrain would the existing tracks be moved underground as well. That will involve bringing University Ave and Embarcadero Rd. back up to grade.

All told, this would amount to a lengthy and severe disruption of life and traffic flow in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. The upside is that the railroad would no longer bisect these towns, be an eyesore, generate noise and pollution, be involved in deadly grade crossing accidents etc.

However, given that Caltrain is heavily subsidized by the counties it serves, it would be possible to shut down rail operations in a section and offer passengers courtesy buses. Yes, ridership would suffer and road traffic would increase for a while. Rolling stock would continue to depreciate and operations costs rise because of the bus service. Even so, this might be a lot faster and cheaper than ripping up Alma Street as well as the Caltrain ROW.

Both alternatives deserve to be looked at if the fundamental idea of paying for undergrounding by selling air rights proves feasible.

Brandon in California said...

If the scenario of trenching or undergrounding tracks through Palo Alto, or any other city is studied, Caltrain will certainly consider at some level of thought (internal or b4 Board) long periods of no Caltrain service among ahost of other opetions.

However, don't fool yourself, that option will be DOA.

LVTfan said...

The obvious, wise, just and smart solution is not permitted in California.

The obvious, wise, just and smart solution is to use taxes on land value to finance common services and infrastructure investment. What do good services and good infrastructure do? They increase land value. So there is a natural virtuous circle in collecting some, most or all of that land value to finance such things.

Unfortunately, California's voters 30 years ago, in their cupidity and greed, tied the hands of the future.

The "third rail" of California politics is turning into the 3rd rail for California transportation, schools, etc.

The benefit of putting the trains underground extends a lot further than the right of way itself, and that value should be socialized, not privatized, gifted to landholders.

See "Retrieving Transit's Benefits and Other Advantages of Funding Transit From Land Value" January, 2008, at for more about these ideas.

Extracting yourselves from Prop 13 won't be easy, but it is truly the only answer. It has to be done, if you want California to ever be the Golden State again, for all, not just its elderly and landed.