Monday, October 5, 2009

Has Palo Alto Turned The Corner?

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

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.


Peter said...

Well, given that Wasserman said that "The town has always been divided by the train," I'm not sure if you can find fault with that wording.

Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

Has anyone looked at the option of switching the diesel freight locomotive to an electric? Switch it somewhere north of San Jose. Then you wouldn't have to worry about diesel fumes in the tunnel, at least.

An unrelated question: I know they're planning on redesigning the Peninsula as SFFS, but would there be any point at certain points to switch to FFSS for tunnels? Drop the HSR tracks into a tunnel, move it to the side slightly, swing the Caltrain tracks over, and drop them into a separate tunnel as well. Then do the process in reverse when exiting. Would this offer any technical advantage? Would this maybe decrease the amount needed to be excavated?

Evan Goldin said...

As a Palo Alto native, this is really encouraging. And just from my conversations with people in Palo Alto, there actually does seem to be increasing acceptance of high speed rail. For a while, it did seem like PA residents were simply opposed to the idea of high speed rail and what it might do to Palo Alto.

These days, it really seems like things are changing for the better. And personally, I think the investment for a tunnel would really be worth it. That's very valuable land that right-of-way takes up.

Rafael said...

@ Robert Cruickshank -

an at-grade solution would be technically feasible in Palo Alto. The town's major cross roads have long since been grade separated, the remainder could be as well - though there would be impacts on traffic patterns and a new for a new bike route to the high school.

The issue is that the locals don't want an at-grade solution, perhaps not even if the railroad right of way were completely enclosed with a vitrine featuring a linear park on top and ped/bike overpasses.


By contrast, a four-track tunnel would be extremely expensive, partly because UPRR imposes a 1% gradient limit and partly because it would have to pass under the San Francisquito creek and root system of the El Palo Alto redwood tree. That means any tunnel would have to extend far beyond city limits to locations where there is enough run length between existing crossings to permit an elevation transition.

In practice, that means north of 5th in Redwood city and south of Whisman in Mountain View. It's unclear that the neighboring cities could sell much in the way of air rights or that they would be prepared to tax themselves to pay for their section of tunnel.

Note that four tunnel tracks require greater width than four tracks at grade, which means properties could be subject to subsidence risk during construction. A three-track tunnel equipped with vibration-isolated slab track ought to satisfy the capacity requirements, but high-speed switches are usually limited to 100mph. CHSRA would have to compensate for the longer transit time by straightening curves elsewhere, e.g. in San Bruno.

Sequential excavation is slow but more cost-effective for three-track tunnels than TBMs. Stations would be deep underground and feature side platforms. Note that HSR requires platforms that are 1/4 mile long and (almost) dead straight.

Whatever the excavation strategy, numerous emergency exits and large extraction fans would be needed to deal with the general risk of fire in a long tunnel.

Traffic disruption during construction would be very high and concentrated near the tunnel portals, which would also generate tunnel boom in operations.

Owen Evans said...

Why are they requesting so much more stimulus money for LA-Anaheim than for SF-SJ? $980M for SF-SJ vs $2.18B for LA-Anaheim. In addition, the SF-SJ stimulus request INCLUDES electrification; the LA segment does NOT.

I suppose some of the difference is in that LA Union Station is included in the request, whereas the SF Transbay Terminal is not. Nonetheless, the $2.18 billion number would indicate to me that they're already planning on doing a lot of tunneling there. So, does this mean that lots of tunnels are already built in to the budget for Southern California, but peninsula cities will have to pay for theirs?

Peter said...

@ Rafael

I'm not wedded to my above idea of splitting the tunnels to SSFF, but would that potentially help solve the 1% grade problem? If the SS tracks were at 1% grade, and the FF tracks were 3.5%, and run freight with an electric (or two) locomotives on the Peninsula, you could at least avoid those problems.

Clem said...

an at-grade solution would be technically feasible in Palo Alto.

Right, and that's often lost in the debate. It's all about tunnels and elevateds.

My read of the tea leaves is that's exactly where Palo Alto will end up. 80% of Palo Alto will stay at grade, with a trench under Churchill and a split elevated grade sep in South Palo Alto. I'll even bet twenty bucks on that... toss it into the tunnel kitty ;-)

Nicolas said...

I attended a seminar at Stanford where the research team behind 'Innovation Place' gave a presentation. Apparently the whole concept was based on, in their own words, "ludicrously non-conservative assumptions" such as no cost to developers, no cost of land acquisition, 100% ground floor retail, etc. Basically they said that from an economic standpoint the entire concept was a non-starter.

BruceMcF said...

@Peter, the electric short line option was at least raised at the Caltrain HSR compatibility blog ... if it was run as an electric short line, with medium freight permitted (eg, 22.5 metric ton axle loads) and a 40:1 (2.5%) ruling grade, that would mitigate many of the costs of accommodating the freight line - at the expense, of course, of requiring it to be run as a short line.

Obviously the existing freight customers would be adamantly opposed.

Why are they planning on redesigning the Peninsula as SFFS? Is there a notion that its a metaphorical Interstate Highway, and fast traffic is best off on the inside lane so it doesn't interfere with all the trains coming down the entrance ramps onto the slow lanes?

Peter said...

I don't know why they are designing it SFFS, but it's one of those things that seems to be set in stone. It's one of those "pick your battles" issues. Given that they're locking themselves in to SFFS early on, for example byrebuilding San Bruno the way they are, I don't think at this point that their minds are going to be changed by anything. There are more than enough other battles worth fighting, like eliminating or curtailing freight, or the issue of tunneling overall.

Matt said...

@ Owen E

I think that LA-ANA is getting more funding because the engineering work there is much farther along than SF-SJ.

As far as I know the only tunnel plan between LAUS and ANA is 1.3 miles between La Palma and Ball in Anaheim, and that is under consideration with an at-grade alignment. The only trench is a short stretch adjacent to Fullerton Airport. The only reason the tunnel is being considered is because the ROW is only 50 feet wide there.

Anonymous said...

What you're failing to gather from the discussion in Palo Alto is that tunnel is the prerequisite or there will be no high speed rai - period. That will be seen to. The represenation there was of the 'yay we love development' ilk, and probably every last one of them was there. Tell these folks you won't tunnel, you'll see how quickly this turns ugly. (Uglier than already has been - and we can see how well the lawsuit angle works so far, for the sloppy arrogant CHSRA)

Anonymous said...

Maybe you are not getting this through your head - a large majority of Palo Altans will literally sit on the tracks before they allow at grade or higher alignment.

People are starting to understand how much they hate having Caltrain dividing the town- the focus will be on eliminating barriers, not reinforcing them.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Good comments as always. Not quite sure how an at-grade model works with high speed trains and the FRA. But Clem and Rafael are far more knowledgeable than I on the technical aspects of all this.

The last two anons are also making good points, that this whole exercise is getting residents worked up about the annoyance of having built their community around an active at-grade railroad. That's one reason I called for these workshops to spend some time on finding a workable above-grade solution, especially since the finances of a tunnel, along with the matter of accommodating freight trains, are dicey at best.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of money for Anaheim...

November 2008 Business Plan $1.994 bn for LA-Anaheim segment

ARRA Request Oct 2009 $4.41 bn ($4.38 bn + $30 million for final engineering) This number EXCLUDES 74 acre maintainence facility, electrification and systems elements - best guess $500 million.

$1.994 bn -> $4.91 bn in less than a year. This is a 146% increase. Using the inflation estimates given by the Authority and midpoint for construction phasing, we might expect a 21% increase in costs because of inflation.


Anonymous said...

Herein lies the problem.

The current at-grade railroad in Palo Alto is much less of a barrier than the grade separations in Belmont or San Carlos.

There are some interesting things you could do with raised in the downtown areas. Other than that nothing at or above ground is going to fly.

I know we have been through this ad naseum but it is not reasonable to ask a community to put a 4 track elevated structure through its center.

Speaking of elevated structures, have you seen the plans for Bakersfield?

Blue -

Red -

Both seem to be +/- 50 foot elevated structures through Bakersfield.

dave said...

Here's an interesting animated video of the three options for HSR in Palo Alto. They all look really good, especially the controversial aerial looks nice. This was supposedly shown on 9/30/09.

dave said...

Looks like Disney is getting two HSR stops. One in California and one in Florida


Clem said...

The current at-grade railroad in Palo Alto is much less of a barrier than the grade separations in Belmont or San Carlos.

As a San Carlos resident, I can't agree with this at all--unless you meant a visual barrier. Visual barriers don't prevent you getting from point A to point B, which is what a physical barrier does (like the tracks in Palo Alto).

San Carlos = high visual, low physical barrier

Palo Alto = low visual, high physical barrier

The whole "division," "barrier," and "Berlin Wall" debate needs to be separated into physical and visual components before it starts to make any sense. Conflating the two is confusing and is often used to scaremongering advantage.

I wish the CHSRA would finally publish their new video renderings of Southgate under various grade sep scenarios (i.e. their emergency McFall video rebuttal...) This was shown at the alternatives analysis meeting last week, supposedly "unfinished". Looked finished to me.

Anonymous said...

Here's a video of the video:

Anonymous said...

Has anyone ever suggested rather than tunneling and selling the air rights, to build the elevated structure and selling the "arch rights" below... a la Vauxhall in London?


Owen Evans said...

If Palo Alto etc are to be the ones funding a tunnel, in the interest of fairness, Palo Alto should only be required to cover the difference between the cost of the tunnel and the actual construction cost of the elevated option, rather than the difference between the cost of a tunnel and the original, lowballed estimate for a minimal elevated option. In other words, all the real world cost escalations that would no doubt occur even for an elevated alignment (additional mitigations, inflation, last minute design modifications etc) must somehow be figured into the calculations for how much PA must shell out to get a tunnel.

Anonymous said...


"My read of the tea leaves is that's exactly where Palo Alto will end up. 80% of Palo Alto will stay at grade, with a trench under Churchill and a split elevated grade sep in South Palo Alto. I'll even bet twenty bucks on that... toss it into the tunnel kitty ;-)"

My tea leaves say that HSR won't make it past SJ because of cost overruns. We'll still be taking Caltrain between SJ and SF.

Anonymous said...

The nimbys will sit on the tracks ?
Good you will be arrested!! The rest of the Bay Area has had enough of Palo Alto "games" for a long time

djconnel said...

What really divides cities is highways, not railroads. Why no lines in the sand demanding that 101 and 280 be buried?

Anonymous said...


A significant part of the traffic on Peninsula freeways is local traffic. There are lots of onramps. The hsr will passing thru these towns at high speed - the burgs receive little benefit but much grief. That's why the hsr should be routed via 101.

The CHSRA scheme has the potential to be one of the most egregious public works failures in American history. Unfortunately the best approach now would be for the Jarvisites to stop it dead in its tracks, if only to derail the Tehachapis boondoggle.

BTW the nedia have been reporting PA is the fourth wealthiest city in California. Let's hear some more about the berm. And let Tehachapi have its station and make it a mandatory halt. Hell, put in a stop every 10 miles.

Anonymous said...

The contrast between article comments in Palo Alto Online versus SJ Mercury News is striking.

On PA online, it's all anti-HSR vitriol. On SJ Mercury, it's all anti-Palo Alto vitriol.

dave said...

@ anonymous 10:26

The SJ Mercury news article comments section seems lika an all out Palo Alto resident Meelee!

mike said...


If tracks are at least 25' below grade level at Churchill, how do you get back to grade level by Embarcadero? Are you thinking that they will allow a grade approaching 2%, or are you thinking that they will continue the trench past Embarcadero (filling in the depressed roadway) and come back up before University Ave?

Rafael said...

@ mike -

I ran into exactly this issue in the post La Vitrine.

The distance between Embarcadero and Churchill is about 1600 feet. Unfortunately, the at-grade terrain in Palo Alto (h/t Clem) isn't flat, it actually descends about 5.5 feet from Embarcadero to Churchill.

At 3.5% gradient and with a 10000m vertical transition curve radius, HSR tracks could descend 26.5ft in 1600ft run length - but not 32ft. A full level transition is even less feasible for the other tracks due to the 1% gradient limit imposed by UPRR traffic.

That means a decision to build a rail underpass at Churchill would imply bringing Embarcadero back to grade level and eliminating its grade separation against Alma.

Both University and Embarcadero could be left alone and trains remain at grade there is Churchill becomes either a deep underpass (single lane in alternating directions, bike lanes moved to new underpass further north) or else, a full elevated or split grade separation. Split grade would imply constructing a dip in Alma at that location.

Clem said...

how do you get back to grade level by Embarcadero?

You can't.

That goes to show how simplistic this "alternatives analysis" was... it shows a quick dash up between Churchill and Embarcadero. Bzzzzzzt, sorry, can't do that.

Embarcadero would have to be turned either into an intersection with Alma (which would suck for traffic), or a split overpass with Alma depressed underneath.

If they insist on one percent grades to accommodate freight, you can forget a trench or tunnel entirely: the tracks will necessarily be elevated over Churchill due to the local topography.

(Southgate residents should be familiar with the northbound freight trains revving uphill...)

NONIMBYS said...

UP has the right to run as many heavy frights as it can..SO if the nimbys are crying now wait till these sissy pants SEE a real railroad..24/7 with big heavy drags and 120 car intermodale...

Adirondacker12800 said...

it shows a quick dash up between Churchill and Embarcadero.

Does it? There's stuff labeled Alma Street, then what looks like an post production edit, and stuff labeled Churchill Ave. All of the stuff labled Alma shows variants of elevated structures. Would there be an elevated structure at Embarcadero? It'd be nice to see the original and not a video of a video.

Rafael said...

@ adirondacker12800 -

University, Embarcadero and Oregon Expressway in Palo Alto are existing underpasses. Anything other than at-grade in those three locations is a choice, not a necessity.

Palo Alto Ave should be closed and replaced by a deep underpass a couple of hundred feet further south to protect the El Palo Alto tree and avoid complications with the San Francisquito creek.

Churchill should become a nice rail overpass, as should E Meadow and Charleston. In the context of this high-end residential neighborhood, nice means transparent sound walls, generous vegetation and bright LED lighting under the tracks - even during the day.

If desired, the elevation could be implemented as a viaduct (aerial) to permit cross views at grade level. The space underneath could be used in a variety of ways. However, all-concrete viaducts don't dampen noise and vibration nearly as well as retained fill embankments do.