The Mid-Peninsula HSR Station: Take Two
One of the decisions that CHSRA has yet to make is whether there should be an HSR station between Millbrae/SFO and San Jose Diridon and if so, where it should be sited. The candidates under consideration are Redwood City, Palo Alto and Mountain View. We last posted on this still-open issue of the Mid-Peninsula Station in February 2009. The present post seeks to revisit that in an updated context.
The station ought to serve two functions: first, it should make HSR service more accessible to residents of the mid-peninsula itself, without forcing them to drive long distances or use Caltrain to connect. The area is not as densely populated as the East Bay, but median household incomes tend to be somewhat higher. Still-single Silicon Valley worker bees tend to have more disposable income, so they may want to take HSR trips more often. Last not least, a mid-peninsula station may simply be the price CHSRA may have to pay for securing environmental approval to construct any new tracks at all in this section of the PCJPB corridor.
The second function should be reasonably convenient access for residents of the central East Bay (Hayward, Union City, Fremont, Newark) via the Dumbarton road bridge (CA-84). Note that prior to the recession, the bridge was severely congested westbound during morning and eastbound during afternoon rush hour. US-101 was similarly congested, so effective connecting bus transit needs to avoid these traffic jams during rush hour.
If/when the BART extension to Santa Clara is completed, residents of the central East Bay will have the additional option of boarding southbound trains at San Jose Diridon. Of course, Amtrak Capitol Corridor and ACE trains already provide connections, though they are not as frequent nor as punctual as BART.
Back in 2000, San Mateo county voters approved a sales tax hike to fund capital investments for passenger rail service between Union City and Redwood City via the Dumbarton Rail corridor. The wooden single-track rail bridge – built in 1910 and definitely not up to modern seismic code – as well as its approaches are SMCTA property. However, the western trestle of the bridge burnt down in a 1998 fire that the local fire chief called “suspicious”. The remaining part of the bridge also contains two steel swing sections across shipping lanes that are only lightly used these days. These sections are currently welded in the open position and would be replaced by bascule sections. The approaches on both sides run either through or very close to the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, a bird sanctuary that is also home to at least one endangered species, the salt marsh harvest mouse. In addition, the Bay mud is still contaminated with methyl mercury from cinnabar mining during the Gold Rush days. Disturbing the mud releases this highly toxic material back into the food web of the DENWR, so all construction activity is subject to additional safeguards and scrutiny. After the bridge is rehabilitated, SMCTA plans to use it for just six Caltrain round trips per day. They do not include any freight, Amtrak or ACE service.
The Dumbarton Rail project has been postponed, because San Mateo county had earlier “borrowed” $145 million in MTC funds from BART’s WSX (Fremont Warm Springs eXtension) project to get the extension to SFO and Millbrae built. BART euphemistically lists the balance of $54 million as “SFO Extension Surplus Revenue” on its project web site. The truth is that there will be a second deferment when SMCTA next gets a chance to reprogram scarce funds.
Just to be 100% clear on this: even if/when the existing Dumbarton rail bridge is actually rehabilitated, it will be totally unsuitable for HSR service because it supports just a single track and is not grade separated against the shipping lanes. Also, the connection to UPRR’s Centerville right of way in Newark features a kink. The freight railroad has indicated it is in no mood to offer Caltrain trackage rights for even six trains a day, given that Amtrak Capitol Corridor and ACE trains already use it. It has also refused to sell any part of that right of way to CHSRA.
Basically, anyone still advocating that CHSRA run its starter line through Altamont needs to understand that this would imply the construction of an expensive brand-new tall dual-track bridge or else a tunnel across a narrow but environmentally sensitive portion of the Bay, plus a tunnel across part of Union City, (e.g. under Decoto Rd) for an intermodal with BART, given that system is elevated in the area. The Hayward fault would have to be crossed below grade. Additional tunnels would be needed just to reach the town of Pleasanton, where HSR is no more welcome than it is in Atherton.
Ergo, the objective for Dumbarton rail is not HSR but very limited diesel-based Caltrain-branded commuter rail service. The upshot of the low service frequency is that it would be a weak HSR feeder at best. Perhaps one day, it could be supplemented with a new ACE route from Stockton to Millbrae/SFO and SF 4th & King, but no such plans exist today.
Another factor that could be considered in selecting between the candidates is current Caltrain ridership. Palo Alto is the second busiest station, with Mountain View a close third and Redwood City sixth. However, this would be misleading as the reasons people board at those stations today are immaterial to their effectiveness as HSR feeders. If anything, stations that are already busy would have to deal with a double whammy of connecting road traffic and demand for parking from regional commuters plus long-distance passengers during peak periods.
The number of residents in each candidate city is also immaterial, as the primary connecting transportation corridors run northwest-southeast, i.e. between cities. With the notable exception of tony Atherton, the mid-peninsula is anyhow a contiguous conurbation.
The mid-peninsula station should feature four full-length platform tracks accessed via two island platforms. Ideally, HSR and Caltrain would harmonize platform heights above top of rail such that either service could use any of the platform tracks. Rock bottom minimum ROW requirements at the station itself would be 4 * 15′ + 2 * 20′ = 100′. In practice, at least 120′ may be needed during the construction phase. Needless to say, construction costs would be much higher if the station had to be built underground, especially if CHSRA and PCJPB continue to insist on preserving freight rail service.
There should be space for adequate for-fee parking within easy walking distance of the platforms, plus appropriate access road capacity. Where free parking is currently offered by nearby shopping malls or merchants, special measures such as validation might be needed to keep HSR customers from abusing it to avoid fees. Curbside parking spots on city streets could also be abused, unless they are metered.
In addition, there should be enough room for connecting kiss+ride, taxi, heavy/light rail, bus and bicycle infrastructure beyond Caltrain and park+ride. If a walkable neighborhood (e.g. pedestrian downtown or transit-oriented development) can be implemented near the station, so much the better. However, that is not essential for generating HSR ridership in the mid-peninsula.
Station construction will generate more construction nuisance than the grade separation and quad tracking works.
Candidate #1: Redwood City
Pro: Cautiously positive stance toward HSR by city council, elevated alignment might be acceptable. Would be served by Dumbarton rail, if it is ever actually implemented. Good regional access via US-101 and El Camino Real and central East Bay (via Dumbarton road bridge and Bayshore Expressway plus city streets).
Con: Lies half-way between SF and San Jose, such that HSR station spacing in the peninsula would be uneven. Only moderately convenient access from I-280 via Woodside Rd (CA-84) and Edgewood Rd. Significant traffic impacts on El Camino Real and Broadway. Psychologically, Atherton is usually considered the north end of Silicon Valley, though that is subject to change.
The following map sketches a possible HSR station layout in the context of the Caltrain Firebird concept. Note the very limited space available for for-fee parking. The Sequoia Station shopping mall and free parking are located immediately next to the existing Caltrain station. There is also a large high school nearby, which would be impacted during construction.
View Redwood City mid-peninsula station in a larger map
Candidate #2: Palo Alto University Ave.
Pro: Good access via Central Expressway, El Camino Real and I-280 via Sand Hill Rd. Home of Stanford University, which could generate substantial HSR ridership. Extensive bicycle infrastructure. Potential for pedestrian zone along University Ave. if traffic is re-routed to parallel streets. Oldest, most established town in the mid-peninsula. Psychological heart of Silicon Valley’s VC-funded start-up culture, though not its center of employment.
Con: Constrained capacity on University Ave and Embarcadero Rd for connection to Dumbarton road bridge and US-101. Oregon Expressway significantly further south. Very limited space for for-fee parking near downtown parking, unless Stanford University permits construction on its land west of El Camino Real. Large nearby shopping mall with free parking. Nearby high school, hospital and high-end residential districts would be impacted by station construction over-and-above quad tracking.
Note that the El Palo Alto tree will anyhow require special attention during quad-track design and construction. Regardless of whether HSR trains stop in Palo Alto, it will also likely be necessary to reconfigure the University/Alma interchange to free up room for additional tracks on the overpass – unless those additional tracks end up in expensive bored tunnels.
Most importantly: City council has flip-flopped on HSR, is now close to asking for/demanding a tunnel. The town’s “planning process” is infamous for its extreme sensitivity to all manner of NIMBY objections and, associated delays. These reasons alone make Palo Alto arguably the least dependable and most contentious of the three candidates at this moment, so I have not bothered to create a map.
Candidate #3: Mountain View
Pro: City explicitly asked to be studied as a station candidate. Located roughly as close to San Jose as Millbrae is to SF. Excellent access potential via US-101, CA-85, CA-237, I-280, Central Expressway, W. Evelyn and El Camino Real. Existing VTA light rail service into Silicon Valley’s “Golden Triangle”, albeit on single track. Potential for pedestrian zone to boost revenue for restaurants and cafes along Castro St. if traffic is re-routed. Significant bicycle infrastructure along Stevens Creek between Sleeper Ave and Shoreline Park and along Dana St toward Sunnyvale.
Con: Fairly close to San Jose, therefore limited incremental ridership potential. Fairly distant from western end of Dumbarton bridge. Slow but reliable rush hour bus route via Shoreline business park feasible along frontage road east of US-101 if bike lanes on the bridge are usurped during peak periods. City has asked for grade separation via trenches, apparently oblivious to cost, the hydrological hazards of the Permanente and Stevens creeks and, to the lack of lateral space for quad tracking in the section between the 85 and 237 freeways – the overpass support columns are in the way!
This lateral constraint makes Clem Tillier’s suggestion for a vertical split grade separation (Focus on Mountain View) at Castro St nigh-on impossible in a quad track context. The single platform of the existing, lightly used Evelyn VTA light rail station is the cherry on top in this context.
Below is a map showing one possible implementation for an at-grade HSR station in Mountain View, based on the Caltrain Firebird concept. Note that it is located between Shoreline and Castro to provide sufficient space for southbound Caltrains to reach line speed before the heavy rail corridor narrows to two tracks at 85. If CHSRA insists on quad tracks all the way, there will either be impacts on the busy frontage roads or, one regular and two freeway overpasses will have to be remodeled or, the new tracks will have to be stacked in tunnel, possibly diving under Stevens Creek.
View Mountain View mid-peninsula station in a larger map
With an at-grade concept for the rails, Moffett Blvd would be connected to Hope St via an S-shaped two-lane underpass. This would permit a new pedestrian zone along Castro and some side streets, forcing vehicular traffic around downtown. Merchants often fear this would lead to a loss of business, but in Mountain View, there are already parking lots behind downtown commercial buildings plus pedestrian alleys.
A single traffic lane each way would be preserved on Hope St between Villa St and a relocated two-way W Evelyn Ave, enabling access to the bus plaza and station for traffic hailing from El Camino Real / Los Altos.
The concept shown would segregate traffic headed into downtown from traffic headed for the station, with through vehicles encouraged to use Shoreline Blvd, Whisman or Grant Rd/237 instead. In particular, easy connections between the new underpass and W Evelyn are deliberately absent. The existing convenient connection between Castro and Central Expy would also be lost, motorists would have to use Shoreline Blvd or Whisman/237 plus W Evelyn instead.
A second underpass between Castro St and Stierlin Rd would be reserved for pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Side passages would provide grade-separated access to all train platforms incl. VTA light rail, plus a bus plaza on W Evelyn, new bus sidings on Central Expressway and a new bicycle parking/rental/sale/repair facility. The existing Caltrain parking lot could be converted into a new city park or else, used for transit-oriented development. Unfortunately, the presence of the new Moffett/Hope underpass plus existing overhead power lines mean that the district north-east of Central and south-east of Moffett would not enjoy fully grade-separated pedestrian access. Residents would have to make do with the existing cross walk at Moffett to reach the pedestrian underpass.
In addition, the city police department would be relocated into the upper floors of a new building that would house the station facilities on the ground floor. That would free up a large block for a couple of for-fee multi-story car parks. A smaller existing structure serving the downtown merchants currently offers free parking.
Note that a decision to stick with at-grade rail in Mountain View would favor a split or underpass grade separation for Rengstorff Ave. According to Clem Tillier, the existing overpass at San Antonio Rd is not up to seismic code. Vertical clearance for bi-level trains plus OCS is impaired, though it may be possible to work around that. The station platforms may need to be moved north or south, well clear of the overpass, unless it is torn down and replaced by either a split grade or an underpass separation.
Alternative: No Mid-Peninsula Station
AB3034 imposes a 24 station limit on the California HSR network, though it’s not clear if that applies only to the use of prop 1A bonds for constructing those stations or, permanently. If CHSRA cannot identify a station site that will deliver significant incremental HSR ridership at reasonable cost and environmental impacts, it could yet decide against all three candidates. Note that the requested Kings/Tulare county station east of Hanford is currently #25 or #26, so CHSRA will need to cut stations elsewhere if state legislators or a judge force it to comply with the letter of the law.
Of the three candidates, Mountain View appears the most promising in terms of station access from multiple directions. It would not serve central East Bay cities particularly well, but then again, neither would the others. Traffic impacts could be mitigated, indeed the downtown area could be made more attractive via a new pedestrian zone and city park.
Assuming CHSRA sticks with its preference for Pacheco Pass, four tracks will be needed at all three candidate stations, whether or not they are picked. This is true of both the official plan and the Caltrain Firebird scenario. However, the ancillary effort required to make road, transit and bicycle access to any mid-peninsula HSR station work well is substantial and would impose additional construction nuisance on the host city.
Finally, while CHSRA is definitely responsible for funding vehicular and pedestrian grade separations plus station platforms, it is not on the hook for changes to local roads, pedestrian zones, parks, construction of multi-story car parks or connecting transit, other than compensating for impacts on their lateral and vertical location. Each of the candidate cities will have to decide if it really wants to remain in the running at all by comparing economic and other development opportunities and risks with and without an HSR station.
The City of Mountain View expects to finalize its formal comments on CHSRA’s Alignment Alternatives during a council meeting on Tuesday 22 June. Grade separation strategy should not be chosen independently of site selection for the mid-peninsula HSR station or of space constraints related to quad tracking in the 85-237 section. The meeting is open to the general public.
City Council Meeting on Alternative Analysis
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Council Meeting: 6:30pm
500 Castro Street