Officials representing the High-Speed Rail Authority got an earful from San Carlos residents and city officials on strategies they are considering to facilitate high-speed and commuter service along the Peninsula’s stretch of Caltrain corridor.
Questions from councilmembers and residents swirled about the demand for high-speed rail, how adjustments could affect existing infrastructure — particularly as a viaduct 50 feet above the current tracks is one proposal — and how plans are being communicated to residents in communities surrounding the tracks, among others.
The state’s controversial $64 billion project is slated to share the tracks winding through the densely populated Bay Area as part of the “blended system,” which was codified by legislation prompted by public backlash during initial plans to create a separate set of tracks.
Residents and councilmembers alike were especially wary of how track adjustments needed to make a 6-mile long set of passing tracks spanning San Mateo to Redwood City possible would affect the neighborhoods surrounding the city’s stretch of the Caltrain corridor. One alternative considered by rail authorities, passing tracks are expected to offer train operators more flexibility in coordinating train schedules, but could require the city to construct an additional set of tracks or move the city’s historic train station farther away from the station to accommodate them.
Rail officials also discussed the possibility of constructing a viaduct, or aerial bridge allowing trains to pass up to 50 feet above the tracks currently running through the city, in the hopes of running up to six Caltrain commuter trains and four high-speed rail trains per hour in both directions between San Francisco and San Jose during peak commute times.
Councilman Ron Collins objected to the idea of the viaduct and wondered why a third, bidirectional track to allow another passage through the city couldn’t be considered alongside other strategies.
“You have to know that that is an incredibly disruptive option to this community, and to Belmont and to Redwood City and to any other cities are affected by this,” he said, according to a video of the meeting.
Ben Tripousis, the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s northern California regional director, responded saying the authority has been working with Caltrain officials to avoid building passing tracks and meet dual goals of minimally affecting residents along the Caltrain corridor and preserving the current level of Caltrain service.
“You’re exactly right that a viaduct in any location is a significant piece of infrastructure with significant impacts,” he said.
Will Gimpel, another representative of the authority, said there is less room for error for train operators if trains running in two directions share one track to pass trains.
Dimitri Vandellos, president of the Greater East San Carlos Neighborhood Association, also expressed alarm at the consideration of a viaduct to facilitate train movement in San Carlos.
“The viaduct is frankly not an option for San Carlos,” he said, adding that a berm the city built some 20 years ago to facilitate trains through San Carlos had created enough consternation among residents, who voted to restrict its height. “We built that berm, we lived through that construction project, we’re not going to accept another construction project.”
Vandellos also reminded officials that concerns raised about possible changes to Old County Road, which runs parallel to and on the eastern side of the tracks, during the planning process for the San Carlos Transit Village could be stirred up again in high-speed rail conversations should additional tracks be required.
Expected to add 202 rental units and 25,800 square feet of commercial space to the city’s stock once complete, plans to build the village also include parking and accessibility updates to the city’s Caltrain station.
Councilman Cameron Johnson expressed concern about building passing tracks when demand for high-speed rail service is still unknown.
“Is it smart to go forward with building passing tracks … to manage demand that we don’t yet know is going to be there?” he said. “How do you give the community confidence that this is really necessary?”
Resident Tim Hilborn also argued against creating passing tracks, and asked for greater clarity from rail officials on the options they are considering for environmental assessment so residents could offer feedback before plans are made final.
“I feel all this is a moving target,” he said. “We don’t even know how much ticket prices are going to be, every month they seem to be going up.”
Collins also asked the rail authorities how funding for the viaduct would compare to the safety improvements identified for the 41 at-grade roads currently crossing the Caltrain corridor between San Francisco and San Jose. Though rail officials said three grade separations, or modifications in which the rail is either lowered or raised away from surface streets, recently approved for crossings in San Mateo would improve safety and reduce noise, similar projects in other cities have yet to formalize.
“It’s hard for me to imagine gates coming down and a train going by at 110 miles per hour in 41 locations,” said Collins.
With grade separation projects to be negotiated with each city through which the track runs, Tripousis said plans for those projects would unfold on a separate timeline from the overall project.
Councilman Mark Olbert asked high-speed rail authorities if the timing of their environmental review could be pushed out to a later time when a few, more feasible strategies for blending service between Caltrain and high-speed routes could be identified. Rail officials said they were targeting the end of 2018 to craft an environmental review of the overall project, and hoped to come to an agreement with Caltrain on whether passing tracks would be needed before then so residents could weigh in on the planning process.
Olbert said an environmental review of several alternatives now could create confusion and garner opposition to the overall project from residents at odds with alternatives that turn out to be less feasible.
“You can always do an [environmental impact report], you just have a bigger envelope and look at more alternatives,” he said. “But it becomes not only less meaningful but it also really freaks out the communities.”
Tripousis said the authority plans to do ongoing outreach to residents through community group meetings and public forums, and hoped to distribute a schedule of engagement opportunities in the coming weeks.
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