Caltrain and the residents of San Mateo’s Hayward Park neighborhood are at an impasse as to where to put a controversial set-out track used to store maintenance equipment and sometimes locomotives during emergencies. 

Caltrain claims it must construct a set-out track, which extends about 1,000 feet adjacent to the main tracks, between 10th and 14th avenues, roughly 50 feet from homes, and that no other location in the area is financially feasible. 

This week, after months of analysis, San Mateo’s Public Works department is also recommending that site.

Worried about noise and light impacts during the night and a potential decline in property values, the neighborhood does not want the set-out track there and is lobbying to have it instead placed in commercial areas between Fifth and Ninth avenues or between 20th and 25th avenues. 

Caltrain said those sites are too expensive for various reasons and that the latter one would displace a preschool. But the neighborhood isn’t convinced and is threatening legal action if Caltrain follows through on its plan to put the set-out track near homes.  

“This will be completely disruptive to the neighborhood and it’s not for lack of other options,” said Cheryl Dean, a member of the Hayward Park neighborhood association, for which membership has grown in response to this controversy. “Our next step is to take legal action.”

That is where both sides currently stand and a contentious community meeting Tuesday did little to move the needle, according to those in attendance. 

On Jan. 21, the City Council will host a study session on the project, but is not expected to make a decision on how to proceed. Where the set-out track goes is ultimately up to Caltrain, though the railroad said it’s committed to working with the city through the decision-making process.

A set-out track previously existed behind Ana Furniture, but is being displaced because of the 25th Avenue grade separation project. Caltrain has said the set-out track must remain in the area for safe maintenance of the railroad. There are many set-out tracks up and down the corridor in both residential and commercial areas. 

As part of the 25th Avenue grade separation project, $2 million has been budgeted for the relocation of the set-out track. That money would ostensibly be sufficient if the set-out track goes between 10th and 14th avenues, but not for the two sites the neighborhood wants. The one between Fifth and Ninth avenues would cost $11.1 million because it requires the removal and reconstruction of a railroad track switch while the site between 20th and 25th avenues would cost $13.7 million because two new bridges over Beresford Creek would have to be constructed and the mainline track realigned.

If those sites were to move forward, then the city would be responsible for the additional cost, Caltrain officials have said.

Suspicions

Hayward Park residents are suspicious of those cost estimates, which they say keep changing, and don’t believe the city should have to pay. 

“These numbers are not believable. Either the budget for the site [between 10th and 14th avenues] is underplayed or they’ve vastly overplayed the estimates for the other sites,” said resident Mike Johnson. “At this moment in time we’ve not been able to find and haven’t been provided any contract or legal documentation that indicates the city has to pay for this project at all.”

Caltrain spokesman Dan Lieberman said the city is the sponsor of the grade separation and signed a memorandum of understanding with the railroad agreeing to pay for additional costs relating to the project, which includes the set-out track.

Other residents feel the cost of putting the set-out track in a commercial area should have been part of the grade separation project budget from the start and not described as an additional cost because a residential location should never have been considered. 

Johnson wants the project put on hold until even more analysis is done.

“We desire to slow this down and take time to actually assess the information and have a clear and transparent decision-making process rather than just taking the recommendation given [earlier this week],” Johnson said. 

Tight timeline

Caltrain has countered that a decision on where to put the set-out track needs to be made by February to keep the project within the timeline for the grade separation project or else it becomes a standalone project, for which costs will rise.

San Mateo’s recommendation to put the set-out track on the west side of the main tracks between 10th and 14th avenues also proposes a $1.1 million concrete masonry wall or $500,000 slatted fence with vegetation to mitigate impacts, but neither proposal is making that location any more acceptable to the neighborhood. 

What name to call it?

Word choice is also at the center of the controversy. The neighborhood insists the set-out track is a maintenance yard and that Caltrain officials previously described it as such, while railroad officials prefer the term parking track so it isn’t confused with multi-acre maintenance facilities located in San Jose and elsewhere along the corridor where trains go for repairs.

“The name has evolved and they keep softening it to make it more palatable,” Johnson said. 

Each term connotes a different amount of activity in the area. Neighbors fear the worst in terms of impacts, but Caltrain officials anticipate the set-out track will only be used about once a month to temporarily store a train if it breaks down, and are now saying there will not be loading of large equipment or heavy truck traffic in the area.

Construction questions

Neighbors also feared Caltrain was moving forward with the site between 10th and 14th avenues without approval from the city when construction began occurring there the other week. Caltrain officials confirmed that a decision has not yet been made and the work being done is the installation of a drainage ditch to prevent pooling and runoff from rain after a large amount of soil was dumped on the site last year. That work is now complete, Lieberman said.

Resident Anne de la Rosa said a growing number of neighbors believe the council will ultimately settle on the original site between 10th and 14th avenues.

“If that’s the case, they’d like to be able to have more of a chance to be part of suggesting and reviewing sound and site mitigations,” she said.

(650) 344-5200 ext. 102

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