Not since 1869 when the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were joined on Utah's Promontory Summit has a train project elicited such interest in California. However, the proposed $43 billion High Speed Rail (HSR) is doing it again. The crescendo here on the Peninsula is building, as a critical Environmental Study, which must be completed by year's end, will determine the California High Speed Rail Authority's (CHSRA) preferred means of construction along the CalTrain corridor through Burlingame and the rest of the Peninsula. (CHSRA long ago discarded the ideas of building HSR on Highway 101, 280 or the bayside, and San Franciscans are determined to see it run up the Peninsula so they can get to SFO, San Jose and Los Angeles directly without changing trains somewhere.)
The problem is, when the Peninsula train lines were built more than 100 years ago, our cities were mostly green fields. Now schools, homes, businesses and parks crowd CalTrain corridors. As Palo Alto Mayor Burt has put it, getting HSR to run on new additional tracks in the CalTrain corridor is like trying to squeeze a size 12 foot into a size 8 shoe.
Moreover, HSR cannot just sit next to CalTrain at grade. The new tracks must be grade separated, which means running on a different level as automobiles. CalTrain can get away with it because their trains run slower and less often, but if CalTrain is sped up, or if HSR trains are added, then it is not practical, safe or even legal to have trains and autos on the same grade.
Grade separation is something we in Burlingame have to confront with or without HSR. CalTrain wants to electrify itself to run more efficiently and more frequently. What HSR has done is to accelerate this debate locally and, it must be said, also made the solution more complex, because now we have to accommodate 4 grade-separated tracks rather than just two.
The cheapest way to grade separate the line between San Francisco and San Jose is above grade. That means raising the railroad tracks either on a berm, wall or elevated pylons, just like a freeway. The combined HSR/CalTrain tracks need at least 80 feet of width and must be strong enough to withstand earthquakes while carrying four trains at once, including freight trains. The width is equal to a six-lane freeway, similar to the new Peninsula Overpass. The scale of construction can only be surmised, but will not be svelte, that's for sure. Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the Environmental Study still being prepared, CHSRA tipped its hand in its recent application to the Feds for more stimulus money by making it clear they prefer a cheaper raised structure (so they can build more).
Around the world, cities are deconstructing raised freeways, yet here the CHSRA wants to build a new one. Burlingame has tried to tell anyone who will listen that a raised six-lane freeway or 30-foot wall running through town is not acceptable. We would be prepared to have it run in a covered trench or tunnel. We are not NIMBYs but rather UMBYs – Under My BackYard. For those who are wondering, the CHSRA's cost estimates for aerial along the Peninsula is a bit over $5 billion, and to trench the tracks in the cities that want them would add another $1 billion, according to the Bay Area News Group's analysis.
For a 20 to 30 percent increase in segment price, we can have HSR on the Peninsula and not wreck our communities too. Now that would merit a new golden spike.