Keep digging for best high-speed rail optionsBy Henry Cord, Pete Kolstad
How often has some government authority told us "We can't do it," but the public persisted and it got done after all?
One recent example: Caltrans proposed for 30 years to build a detour around Devils Slide on Highway 1 through a state park north of Half Moon Bay. Locals suggested a tunnel would be better. They hired independent experts who showed that a tunnel was feasible and reasonable after all. Public records revealed that Caltrans overstated the tunnel costs!
Ultimately, Caltrans agreed to build the tunnel bypass, which opens in early 2011.
The same scenario is unfolding in San Jose. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has proposed building a huge bridge over Interstate 280 and Highway 87 to bring the train into Diridon Station. The rail authority study has declared a tunnel impractical and not feasible.
A community coalition of four business groups and 11 neighborhood associations think it is way too early for San Jose to give up its tunnel options, and we respectfully ask the City Council to send a strong message to the rail authority at tonight's meeting insisting on continued study of the best underground and best above-ground routes through central San Jose.
The rail authority has done little to convince us that San Jose's underground alternatives should be rejected because they would be too hard and too expensive to build. We believe San Jose has not been provided with a "best below-ground option." For instance, the authority discarded tunnel alignments that conflicted with freeway supports -- the same type of structures Caltrans moves routinely with its own construction.
High-speed rail provides a unique opportunity to improve San Jose's economic health through exceptional place-making and transit-supportive redevelopment -- but only if the new places it creates can attract investment. We worry about an aerial structure's visual and noise impacts on quality of life.
Remnant lands and space under or adjacent to hulking abutments offer limited development opportunities and can traumatize nearby neighborhoods. Transportation agencies have a poor history managing these lands. We have only one chance to get this right.
Why wouldn't the authority want to include the full details of an underground alignment in the project's environmental impact report? Providing more information on the project through the environmental report process will help build public trust and support.
It would also be helpful to evaluate impacts for the aerial and tunnel routes side by side so the best alignment decision can be made. Simultaneous analysis of the alternatives also offers the opportunity to compare mitigations in 2011 dollars. Timing isn't the pressing issue since federal stimulus dollars recently went to the Central Valley to begin construction there.
City transportation staff also recommends the council agree today to spend $200,000 on design for the elevated option. We support additional independent work on what San Jose's alignments could look like, but we question hiring the same consultants who have already concluded in a pending city study that Diridon Station should be elevated. The new study will add value only if the scope of work includes urban design and underground features, such as portals and venting structures. Design will drive how the land is used -- above or below ground.
This project deserves a full environmental impact report study of San Jose's best aerial and underground high-speed rail options. The alignment that emerges from this decision will enrich or devalue San Jose for 100 years or more. We urge the City Council to resist the rail authority's limited proposal and do everything to optimize the Diridon Station area's economic potential.
HENRY CORD is the advocacy committee chairman for the San Jose Downtown Association. PETE KOLSTAD is a board member of the Market Almaden Neighborhood Association.
Copyright ©2010 San Jose Mercury News. Published 12/07/2010.