Talks on downtown high speed rail beginBy Tracy Seipel
Mention the words "high speed rail'' to some San Jose residents and business owners, and the image of an ugly aerial track comes to mind.
The elevated track -- from 20 to 60 feet high, not including the 25-foot-tall overhead electric system -- would only run about three miles. But because it crosses the heart of downtown, that section -- more than any other part of the 20-mile high speed rail corridor in San Jose -- has attracted the most controversy and sparked fears of a permanent eyesore.
Initial renderings from the California High Speed Rail Authority, which is building the state's first high-speed rail line, show an elevated concrete bridge supported by massive columns.
"If done poorly, it would not only divide the central city with a barrier of abutments and trestles, it could be a laughingstock,'' said Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association.
On Tuesday, the City Council will receive an update on the rail project from Hans Larsen, the city's acting transportation director. Among other issues, he will discuss the status of an agreement with the rail authority about the visual design of the elevated track.
Knies and many residents, however, want the council to reexamine whether it's feasible to bring the trains into downtown via an underground tunnel -- even though the rail authority's engineers have concluded that it's technically unsound and prohibitively expensive. The council in September agreed the city should study an aerial track.
The same battle over elevated tracks is being waged along the Peninsula, where Palo Alto has joined Atherton and Menlo Park in a lawsuit against the rail project. State voters approved $9.95 billion in bond funds for the project in 2008, and the federal government has kicked in $3 billion.
Still, Mayor Chuck Reed disagrees with Knies.
"They got their answer,'' said Reed, who wants Tuesday's meeting to focus on the design of an aerial track.
The rail authority plans to bring trains north on tracks roughly parallel to Monterey Highway, over Interstate 280 and into downtown. The elevated portion would begin at Alma Street, head over the Interstate 280 and Highway 87 interchange, then continue to the Diridon Train Station. From there, the aerial track continues to Taylor Street, where it would either drop to a lower height or go underground.
Although the rail authority's website includes conceptual drawings of what the aerial viaduct would look like, the final design won't be chosen until next summer at the earliest. Trying to figure out as soon as possible how it might look "will resolve a lot of fear that people have,'' Reed said.
"We're trying to make sure that what we get in San Jose is good -- and that ugly is bad.''
The comment is consistent with a pledge made by Reed and councilmembers Sam Liccardo, Madison Nguyen and Ash Kalra in mid-September, when the council called on the rail authority to let the city approve or reject any design for an aerial alignment through the Diridon Station area.
If the authority does not agree to that condition, the council said it will demand a full study of a tunnel instead (though the authority would be under no obligation to comply).
On Tuesday, acting transportation chief Larsen will ask the council to defer signing any cooperative agreement with the rail authority until draft environmental documents are released for the segment from Merced to San Jose; that's expected in July. Similar documents for the segment between San Jose and San Francisco will be released later.
Larsen also hopes the design guidelines for the elevated tracks and downtown station can be completed for the council to vote on in June.
To get there, he's asking the council for permission to spend $100,000 on consultants with expertise in engineering, urban design and architecture. He's seeking another $100,000 to pay the salary of an architect on loan from the city's public works department. All funds would come from taxes developers pay for road infrastructure, Larsen said.
He also is asking the council to let him form two "community working groups'' to assist the city and rail authority in developing the design guidelines. Members of the Diridon Station Area Good Neighbor Committee, who have met with city redevelopment agency staff during the last year to discuss proposed development in the station area, are likely to be tapped for help, Larsen said.
Committee member Helen Chapman is in favor "of the basic premise of high speed rail, but it has to be well thought-out.''
"This is the opportunity for San Jose to do something absolutely special,'' she said. "This is one of those times it should not be brushed off.''
Copyright ©2010 San Jose Mercury News. Published 12/06/2010.