Caltrain is in the midst prepping four of its oldest and lowest hanging bridges for replacement and some San Mateo residents who live along the tracks fear they won’t be afforded much clout in the future of their backyards.
Caltrain has big plans for the majority of its 77 miles of track and replacing four bridges in San Mateo is necessary before it can move forward with electrification, officials said.
The bridges at Tilton, Monte Diablo, East Santa Inez and East Poplar avenues are more than 100 years old and their low clearance often causes large trucks to become stuck or further damage the bridges, Caltrain spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann said.
“They’re at the end of their useful life and we need to upgrade these bridges to meet current seismic and safety standards and certainly in the fact with the future of electrification we’ll be running more trains on the bridges. So we need to be doing more now,” Ackemann said.
Caltrain is working to clear brush and vegetation, including large trees, surrounding the tracks through Friday to prepare for physical construction that’s expected to begin later in the summer and last about two years, Ackemann said.
Replacing the bridges and implementing infrastructure to support electrification has led to questions over property lines and the possibility of neighbors being told they’re within Caltrain’s right-of-way. Some residents say they have little control in any decisions being made and fear construction may go on longer than it needs.
Juan Napoles, who lives on Poplar Avenue, said he’s been told the side of the apartment building he owns, lives in and rents out is encroaching on Caltrain’s property.
“It’s been very hard dealing with Caltrain and we don’t feel like the city is really helping us and we just fear that there’s going to be a lot of work and the end product might not be an improvement. We don’t mind inconvenience if we know we’re going to have something better,” Napoles said.
Caltrain will be spending about $30 million to replace the four bridges, which will be prefabricated off-site and installed primarily in the evenings. The four streets will be closed in eight-week rotations beginning around the end of 2015 and this is a huge step toward the entire system being upgraded, said Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn. Caltrain is also beginning to lay the fiber optic cable required for it to install Positive Train Control, which is required by law and allows dispatchers to control, stop and slow the trains more quickly.
“[It’s] the first step in the modernization of Caltrain and that’s a very significant project that’s going to transform the railroad as it is today,” Dunn said.
Tilton Avenue has the lowest hanging bridge at just 8 feet 6 inches, however it is the one bridge that cannot be raised due to its proximity to the downtown San Mateo train station, Dunn wrote in an email.
The Poplar bridge will be raised from 13 feet to 15 feet, the Monte Diablo bridge from 11 feet 1 inch to 13 feet 2 inches and the Santa Inez bridge from 12 feet 3 inches to 15 feet, Dunn wrote.
Neighbors will have an immediate benefit having the height of the bridges raised and it’s an important step in the long run, Ackemann said.
“This is a critical project at this time for a variety of reasons. In addition, the community will get the benefits of the increased bridge vertical height clearance and of course that’s a benefit because it allows emergency vehicles easier access and it also helps eliminate these shutdowns the community experiences when oversized vehicles get stuck under the bridge,” Ackemann said.
It’s seems appropriate to fix the bridges due to their age, but most residents have little clout in decisions being made by the multi-agency organization and fear between the bridge construction and eventual electrification, they could be facing disruption in their backyards for years, said Karen Jensen.
Jensen lives on Claremont Street between the Monte Diablo and Santa Inez bridges. The current brush clearing has yet to have a large impact on her, but that could soon change, she said. Caltrain recently informed her between 1.5 to 2 feet along her 45-foot backyard is in its right of way and there are several large Monterey Pine heritage trees that may be removed, Jensen said.
It would be costly for her to have her own survey conducted and to hire an attorney to try and petition Caltrain’s property line determinations, Jensen said.
“While they’ve been quite cooperative, it’s clear it’s a huge bureaucracy and to deal with it would take more time and money than I have,” Jensen said.
Napoles said he sympathizes with Jensen and, after originally being told only two of his trees would be affected, Caltrain eventually ended up removing all seven last week.
They paid him for the trees and have offered to move or reconstruct the fence separating his property from the tracks, Napoles said.
But more importantly, he fears he could suffer financial consequences if construction were to elongate. He depends on the income he makes from renting out several apartments on his property and worries he’d struggle to pay his bills if people don’t want to rent his units due to Caltrain’s interference, Napoles said.
Both Jensen and Napoles are frustrated the city has failed to step in and speak up for them. They understand it’s Caltrain’s property, but said they would like San Mateo city officials to step in and provide opinion on design and landscaping.
San Mateo Public Works staff attended several of Caltrain’s community workshops regarding the replacement and gathered public input which it incorporated into its suggestions, said Susanna Chan, deputy director of Public Works.
“We provided input and comments on the design of the project and a lot of those inputs actually came from the community,” Chan said.
Residents’ concerns regarding trees were discussed early on, but they’re not on city-owned property, Chan said.
“So they have the right to remove those trees. So with them we understand we don’t really have the authority to levy ... the city’s tree ordinance,” Chan said.
However, Caltrain has worked with the city and offered to pay for the heritage trees it removed. The city received $45,000 which it will use to develop a program to help replace some of the residents’ trees, Chan said.
Mayor Robert Ross said the city wants residents to be able to enjoy their properties, but it is Caltrain’s property and safety is of the utmost importance, Ross said.
“If Caltrain needs to maintain their lot for safety and for keeping the area safe, I think we need to help them facilitate that,” Ross said.
Caltrain is continuing to reach out to the community and work with neighbors whose properties are being affected. It will continue to clear vegetation in San Mateo through the end of the week and is digging trenches along stretches of tracks in other parts of the county to install the fiber optic cables for Positive Train Control.
“The Caltrain modernization program is going to set the stage for enhanced modern commuter rail services, so we can’t have bridges that are not up to the task,” Dunn said. These bridges are 100 years old and we have continual problems now with vehicles running into them and it’s part of making improvements that are going to set the stage for the future of Caltrain.”
For more information visit www.caltrain.com/smbridges or call (650) 508-7726.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106