Roelof van Ark Meets Peninsula Cities
California High Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark met with Peninsula city leaders yesterday to discuss the HSR project, and the headline news from the meeting was that tunneling wasn’t going to happen on the Peninsula:
The boss of the California high-speed train project had a clear message to cities on the Peninsula on Friday: The state’s bullet trains won’t run through a tunnel or covered trench in the region.
In a two-hour meeting with California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark at San Mateo City Hall, the bullet train executive told officials from San Mateo, Burlingame and Millbrae that the covered trenches were not possible for anything other than very short stretches of track, city leaders who attended the meeting said.
The reason? Freight trains that currently run along the line can’t be closed off from the surface because they need ventilation.
The tunnels in many cases would cost billions of dollars for just a few miles and were several times more expensive than the above-ground options. But state officials had said that if the cities could raise the money, they could get the below-ground tracks they wanted.
The needs of freight rail users have gotten lost in the shuffle over the last several months as Peninsula cities demanded a long tunnel – which for numerous reasons isn’t workable for today’s freight rail operators. This isn’t a new issue, of course – at the September 2009 Palo Alto HSR teach-in Greg Greenway of the Peninsula Freight Rail Users Group told the audience that existing operating capacity had to be preserved so that Peninsula businesses currently depending on freight rail aren’t cut off – something Union Pacific has been saying about HSR more broadly (not just on the Peninsula). Freight trains are used to short tunnels, but nothing quite like the miles-long tunnel that has been discussed by many Peninsula cities.
Some Peninsula leaders called for “new ideas”:
Another attendee at the meeting, Millbrae Councilwoman Gina Papan — whose city is in favor of the project and will get a bullet train stop — said cities still might be able to get covered trenches if some new ideas are put forward.
“You have to understand that freight is going through (the Peninsula) right now,” Papan said. “If we can keep that above ground and a high-speed rail in a covered trench, there are alternatives.”
This is worth exploring, but has its own challenges – keeping freight rail at the surface might not provide improvements or benefits to the communities since they would not be able to recapture the surface ROW for development (whether as parks or as something else). And if they can’t recapture that surface ROW, then the Peninsula cities are going to have an extremely difficult time funding construction of a tunnel anyway, unless local taxpayers are just going to foot the bill directly. Still, it can’t hurt to examine the concept.
Van Ark also pointed out that the Peninsula cities’ lack of consistency has hurt efforts to provide a regional solution:
Another issue the officials said van Ark raised in the meeting was the lack of a consistent stance among Peninsula cities.
“We came out of this meeting with the hope that we’ll bring more cities on board, and we’ll be pursuing that actively,” Papan said.
Even between the “tri-cities” of Burlingame, Millbrae and San Mateo, there are plenty of disagreements. And the cities that have sued — Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton — have created an ever bigger divide in the region, he said, according to officials who were there.
This is undoubtedly true. Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton have made it very difficult to provide any kind of regional consensus due to their elected leaders’ negativity about the project. By ignoring their constituents’ ongoing support for the project and preferring anti-HSR resolutions and lawsuits to more constructive solutions, they’ve only made it less likely that a regional solution can be achieved.
The Draft EIR is due in December – a milestone that will help clarify significantly the possible vertical alignment for the HSR project. Let’s hope that Peninsula city leaders are able to work more constructively to produce a solution their constituents can accept.