San Mateo officials are concerned the high-speed rail project will cause lengthy traffic jams downtown, necessitating the need for costly grade separation projects that will be uniquely difficult to construct there.

San Mateo is by no means the only city in San Mateo County with concerns about the project, which is outlined in a draft environmental impact report released in July. The public comment period for the DEIR came to a close roughly two weeks ago and there have been many comments.

The City/County Association of Governments board, which consists of elected officials from every city in the county, last week sent a letter to the California High-Speed Rail Authority outlining its concerns with the DEIR.

In addition to San Mateo, the cities of Brisbane and Millbrae have also sent letters to the authority with concerns and comments on the DEIR. Brisbane’s letter totaled more than 1,000 pages.

High-speed rail aims to share the tracks with Caltrain, which itself has ambitious expansion plans over the next 20 years.

Once both efforts are realized, there will be so many trains traveling through the corridor that in downtown San Mateo, cars could be stuck at railroad crossings for as long as 20 minutes per peak hour, said Brad Underwood, San Mateo’s Public Works director.

And that’s based on Caltrain’s “baseline” growth scenario. If Caltrain opts for the “high-growth” scenario then gate downtime goes up to almost 27 minutes per peak hour.

“It’s a huge concern in the city,” Underwood said.

San Mateo councilmembers have echoed the concern.

“We can’t have our intersections closed for 26 minutes during peak hours. It shuts down the city,” Councilwoman Diane Papan said at a meeting in August.

The solution is grade separation projects, which separate the tracks from the road so cars don’t have to wait for the trains to pass. Of the 29 at-grade crossings that remain in San Mateo County, there are nine in downtown San Mateo. The city’s officials want high-speed rail to invest in the costly projects, but it currently has no plans to do so.

Underwood said San Mateo is in the very beginning stages of studying future grade separation projects, but there is currently only funding for studies, not the projects themselves. 

“[The effort] is a ways out for sure,” he said.

Room to work?

And funding isn’t the only challenge associated with separating at-grade crossings downtown.

“The challenge is just with the room to work downtown. The right-of-way is already narrow and there’s no room for a shoefly,” he said, referring to the method of creating a parallel track for trains to travel on while a grade separation project is underway.

Instead, segments of the corridor in downtown San Mateo may have to be shut down during construction if grade separation projects occur there and buses would be used to fill the void.

Underwood also said if there’s one downtown grade separation project then they must all be completed.

“Once you start one you need to do all of them because of how close together they are,” he said. “The trains can’t get back up and down.”

High-speed rail did contribute $84 million to the $180 million 25th Avenue grade separation project, which is currently under construction in the city. But that was because the project paved the way for passing tracks in the area should they be needed in the future for high-speed rail.

Boris Lipkin, regional director for the High-Speed Rail Authority, said such a partnership could be arranged for future projects, but suggested the likelihood isn’t exactly high.

“We’ve seen examples of successful partnerships and we’d point to those avenues to continue to pursue, but there’s no commitment at this time for a project,” he said. “Those projects are often led by the cities themselves.”

C/CAG’s letter also urges the authority to invest in grade separation projects to limit impacts to traffic.

“The project’s increase in trains and train speeds will also increase the transportation, noise and public safety impacts at each at-grade crossing,” the letter states. “The High-Speed Rail Authority provided funding for the 25th Avenue grade separation in the city of San Mateo. The project should make similar investments for additional grade separations in San Mateo County.”

Displacement of homes, commercial properties

C/CAG’s letter also notes the project estimates the displacement of up to 62 housing units home to as many as 181 people, creating a “major negative impact to each of those individuals and their communities.” The letter asks why contributions to replacement housing are not suggested in DEIR.

For the preferred alternative of the high-speed rail project, 10 homes and 29 commercial properties will be displaced, Lipkin said.

“The design of the project is focused on avoiding property impacts and using the Caltrain corridor as much as possible,” Lipkin said. “We’ve already brought that down in San Mateo County, those numbers are already quite low and where we can we’ll continue to strive to do that.”

The other alternative for the project, however, includes a passing track segment in San Mateo and Redwood City that would impact significantly more properties.

‘Fatally defective’

During a C/CAG meeting last week, Brisbane Councilman Cliff Lentz said city staff initially expected to draft roughly 300 pages worth of comments about the impact report, but ended up sending over 1,000 pages.

“The reason for that is that they found many, many items that were misleading and inaccurate,” he said and proceeded to read excerpts from those comments. “The document is fatally defective under CEQA and NEPA. The document legally is defective and does a disservice to the state of California.”

Lentz noted the project seeks to build a 100-acre rail yard in a part of the city previously home to a landfill and where 2,200 housing units have been proposed. He said the draft impact report fails to mention that constructing a rail yard there would require the removal of millions of tons of dirt and garbage, which is at odds with state regulations.

“If high-speed rail is willing to put forth in their DEIR this misinformation about the rail yard it makes you question what else are they doing throughout the rest of the document throughout our county,” he said.

High-speed rail officials rejected the accusation that the DEIR is “misleading and inaccurate” and noted every comment submitted about the report will be studied and responded to over the next year.

Overall importance

Lipkin said the overall importance of the project can be forgotten when immersed in the “blow by blow” of a DEIR.

“It’s easy for things to get lost in the blow by blow of a DEIR and the response to comments and I think it’s helpful to take a step back and remember why we’re doing this,” he said. “This is one of the main ways to meet California’s ambitious climate goals by shifting away from highway travel and investing in modernizing the rail network to connect the state together.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has worked on establishing a bullet train service between Los Angeles and San Francisco since voters approved a $10 billion bond more than 10 years ago. While estimates for the project have varied, recent reports have it projected to cost approximately $80.3 billion with a 2031 completion date.

“With of this magnitude there’ll be impacts and it’s our responsibility to study and disclose and work with communities to resolve them where we can, but there are big reasons why we’re doing this and there will be important benefits on the other side of the work currently underway,” he said.

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