22 Aug 2014
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An Alternative Underground Track for High Speed Rail

A peninsula activist campaigns for an innovative but unlikely solution to the high-speed rail debate.

An Alternative Underground Track for High Speed Rail

Imagine a park over 40 miles long, stretching from San Francisco to San Jose filled with restaurants, cafes, and eco-friendly housing and businesses. Families could rent bikes and make a day excursion, returning on the train.

This is not a fantasy, rather, a plan proposed by Ben Toy, President of the San Mateo United Homeowners Association, and Dan Ionescu, a Peninsula-based architect, whose work focuses on sustainable urban development.

Toy and Ionescu propose a system of putting Caltrain and the High-Speed Train underground, leaving the land around the existing tracks to be converted into a green-belt.

Ionescu, originally from formerly communist Romania, puts the situation bluntly.

“Politicians have two choices. They can either put the train underground now or they can do it later.”

Toy points to successful advocacy efforts for tunnel systems in San Francisco and in Anaheim as an illustration that densely populated areas with attractions to preserve are being spared the impact of a noisy and disruptive above-ground system.

The peninsula, both men say, warrants the same treatment.

“We live in small town USA within a large metropolitan area,” said Toy

That ‘small-town’ feel of the peninsula downtowns is at risk, according to Toy’s projections.

The above-ground train system would either have 2-tracks, where there would be excessive train traffic, leading to delays and safety hazards, or could have three or four tracks, in which case more surrounding land would need to be demolished.

In addition, the gentlemen claim that the plan faces a similar hurdle in deciding between level crossings and elevated crossings. Level crossings present a safety hazard, and also may present a significant delay to traffic given the frequency of the proposed service. Elevated crossings can be a dwelling for the homeless underneath and can also have a divisive impact on the community. Toy points to the state of the surrounding areas of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, demolished in the early 1990s, as an example of this impact.

Among other issues, Ionescu expressed concern for the increase in noise pollution from fast, frequent trains.

“The hills amplify sound,” he said.

Ionescu, who specializes in civil architecture, said that an underground system can be constructed at 100 feet below the ground without such noise impact.

Though the cost of such a system is significantly more, Toy pointed to constantly shifting cost projections as evidence that the cost difference may not be as significant as once thought.

Though the projections originally speculated that the underground system would cost $1 billion per mile, those costs have significantly sunk as low as $500 million per mile. In comparison, the same studies suggest that above-ground rail would cost near $350 million per mile.

The additional cost, both gentlemen say, is money well spent, and need not be funded by taxpayer dollars.

Due to the high value of peninsula real estate, Toy and Ionescu say that some of the land currently occupied by the train tracks can be sold to developers with the proceeds going to fund the construction of the tunnel.

“All the properties around the train will become prime properties,” said Ionescu. Toy added that the whole venture can be run more as a business than a typical government construction project.

As part of the plan, Toy and Ionescu plan for the current station buildings to stay, becoming coffee shops or restaurants, with the train stations being located underground, accessible by escalator or elevator.

Parking structures would also be underground, but would be built in an ‘atrium’ style as to decrease the claustrophobia in typical underground stations.

The park, Ionescu says, could be called “Peninsula Park," similar to New York City’s Central Park.

Toy acknowledges that many may see his effort as futile and his plans bizarre, but he stressed that support for the proposal is building. Union leaders, previously skeptical of the plan, have come to support it due to the increase in lucrative work they would have. Residents Associations have long supported the underground plan, but are now gravitating towards it in increasing numbers.

Both men hope to expand the coalition of advocates for the plan by being actively engaging in the local political scene.

If the trains are truly put underground, train lovers may miss the regular sight and sound of the engines. However, Ionescu comforts them by insisting that,

“The best infrastructure is the one you don’t see and works.”

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