Monday, August 30, 2010

HSR: What about San Mateo?

August 30, 2010, 03:30 AM By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff
While its neighbors to the north and south have raised a stink over the possibility of high-speed trains zipping across an aerial viaduct, leaders in San Mateo have been relatively quiet on the matter.

Leaders in Belmont and Burlingame have sent off letters to the Federal Railroad Administrative asking for it not to grant more than $1 billion to the California High-Speed Rail Authority to electrify the Caltrain tracks and build a new transit station in Millbrae.

Leaders in San Mateo have not crafted such a letter even though the city decided on its own nearly 15 years ago that electrified Caltrain tracks should run underground through the city’s downtown going north to Burlingame.

San Mateo’s downtown straddles both side of the tracks on the narrowest corridor in the Caltrain system.

The Peninsula Rail Program unveiled two alternatives for the alignment from the San Francisco to San Jose stretch of the line, one with a primarily aerial viaduct option and the other with the possibility of an open trench for Burlingame and San Mateo.

On Thursday, all five of San Mateo’s councilmen made it clear the tracks must be depressed as they go through downtown. The entire council will hold a special study session Sept. 7 to discuss high-speed rail and define its position about the alternatives.

“The only acceptable option is a below-grade trench,” Mayor John Lee. “An aerial option is not acceptable for downtown. It would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to construct.”

A viaduct would be a huge mistake for San Mateo, Deputy Mayor Jack Matthews said.

Matthews suspects the authority, however, already favors an aerial solution for San Mateo.

“I’m a little disappointed. An open trench doesn’t seem to be favored by high-speed rail,” Matthews said. “When I hear there isn’t enough money, that doesn’t sound to good to me. They will have to find the money.”

Matthews said the city’s position is not based on what it “wants” to have but rather what the city “has” to have.

“There is not enough right of way in downtown,” Matthews said.

In downtown, the corridor narrows to 50 feet in some spots. The authority will need 80 feet or more of right of way to construct an aerial viaduct.

Councilman Brandt Grotte has represented the city in the Peninsula Rail Program’s policymaker working group, comprised of elected officials from cities up and down the Peninsula.

Grotte is optimistic the open trench alternative is still on the table for San Mateo. In the two alternatives for the Peninsula that came out Aug. 5, however, wording in the documents had incorrectly stated that San Mateo preferred an aerial option and not a trenched solution.

Grotte corrected the authority and now documents related to the alternatives going forward should reflect the city’s desire to have a depressed solution.

He also said there has been a misperception with the public that San Mateo has not been communicating with its neighboring cities, although he did say it was time to reach out a little more to leaders in Belmont.

“My intention is to open up a conversation with Belmont to see what they want,” Grotte said. “We’ve been meeting with Burlingame and Millbrae on a monthly basis to discuss our commonalties and positions.”

Roelof van Ark, the rail authority’s chief executive officer, sent a letter to city councils on the Caltrain corridor yesterday discussing the authority’s recent application for additional federal funds from the FRA.

“It appears that some are concerned that language in our Aug. 6 applications for fiscal year 2010/11 federal appropriations has pre-determined the outcome of our ongoing environmental review process. I want to state strongly that this is not the case,” van Ark said in the letter. “It is our combined state and federal environmental review process that will be used to determine the ultimate alignment selected for the high-speed train’s path along the Peninsula.”

So far, van Ark said, engineering is 3 percent to 5 percent completed.

After the draft environmental impact report comes out in December, engineering will be 15 percent completed, allowing for a more thorough evaluation of impacts and benefits, van Ark said.

Councilman David Lim supports high-speed rail for its potential economic benefits and for being a modern solution for the state’s transportation needs.

“I support high-speed rail but I also support the city’s vision for the corridor. That vision has not changed since I joined the council. We want to see an underground alignment for the downtown corridor,” Lim said.

Lim has been fielding lots of calls from San Mateo residents concerned about an aerial viaduct.

Councilman Robert Ross said the application to the FRA that showed only an aerial viaduct solution for the city was “a little disconcerting.”

“It looks like they have already ruled out the alternative,” Ross said. “It has to be depressed, otherwise there will be a small freeway running through downtown.”

Ross wants the city to be prepared for when the draft EIR comes out in December if an open trench is off the table for San Mateo.

“We have to research our legal options, although there may be none. We must be prepared to negotiate for the best solution,” Ross said.

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