12 September 2010

Belmont Shoots the Moon

The Belmont City Council is crafting a resolution (see original draft, and revised draft to be considered on 9/14) supporting the reinstatement of a cut-and-cover trench option for the high-speed rail authority's San Francisco - San Jose Draft Project EIR.

Underground tracks, favored by the city, were dropped from further consideration when the CHSRA published its Supplemental Alternatives Analysis on August 5th. That action left Belmont (and neighboring San Carlos) with only a single option to be carried forward for further study in the EIR: a tall viaduct. This viaduct is featured in crude renderings and a YouTube video posted by the city.

Belmont is the only member of the Peninsula Cities Consortium that did not have a trench or below-grade option carried forward for detailed study in the EIR, which has city officials fuming.

All Those Grade Crossings In Belmont

The Supplemental AA has caused quite an uproar on the peninsula, especially in the member cities of the PCC, largely because of the vertical alignment options proposed for the four-track corridor. The vertical alignment may need to be changed, requiring either raised or lowered tracks, in order to eliminate about 45 grade crossings along the peninsula corridor that would otherwise have to be closed. These changes are necessary because the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates grade crossings and pursues a stated policy of reducing the number of such crossings, is exceedingly unlikely to allow four-track grade crossings, much less in a dense suburban environment, regardless of train type or train speed.

One might reasonably assume, then, that the range of vertical options feasible for Belmont would depend solely on the locations and constraints imposed by the grade crossings that currently exist in Belmont. The trouble with this assumption is that the number of grade crossings in Belmont is... Zero.

The existing tracks run through Belmont on a retained fill embankment (shown in photo at left, and known in some quarters as a Berlin Wall) over Harbor Blvd and Ralston Ave. These grade separations were built starting in 1996, opened in October 1999, and did not cut off any pre-existing (legal) access across the tracks. The berm is now perceived as a community division, and prompted the official request to study design options that would enable its removal.

Why a Viaduct?

The Belmont viaduct is an example of the Context Sensitive Solutions process producing an unwanted outcome.

From its very first scoping comments, Belmont expressed misgivings about the berm and requested enhanced connectivity and mobility, in the hope of obtaining a tunnel paid for with OPM (Other People's Money). Taking into account the feedback provided by the Policy and Technical Working Groups at a series of meetings attended by Belmont officials, the Supplemental Analysis Report substituted a tall viaduct for the existing berm because "the Berm option does not enhance connectivity and mobility as well as an aerial viaduct option."

If Belmont disagrees with this outcome, if the city believes the viaduct is not better than a berm, and if this business about connectivity and mobility was all just a colossal misunderstanding, then the berm will simply be expanded to four tracks. The berm is a "fact on the ground" and its visual impact, once all is said, done and litigated, will not be counted against the high-speed rail project. That is the likely outcome if Belmont becomes any more strident in its demands for a tunnel.

32 comments:

  1. This section of the Peninsula seems to be the easiest to engineer - widen the retained fill embankment all the way to San Carlos and on to Redwood City. The perceived "Berlin Wall" and community divider stuff only caught on like a bad cold because of the stupid NIMBYs who froth at the mouth if you mention Caltrain electrification or HSR. There is no way Belmont is going to get what they are demanding unless they pay for it. If anything, the embankment did a lot of good for Belmont and San Carlos.

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  2. @Clem:

    You write:

    "The Belmont viaduct is an example of the Context Sensitive Solutions process producing an unwanted outcome."

    This is certainly not an example of CSS producing an unwanted outcome.

    The fact is that CSS never got going because the Authority and CalTrain promised cooperation in have a true CSS process, never carried through. They stalled, delayed, would provide no funds and quite frankly the whole idea of getting CSS up and going just died.

    I never thought CSS had a chance of working under the best of circumstances, for this project, since the basic design had already been cast in stone before the process ever was to start. The Authority was never going to allow a real CSS process to take place.

    The failure of any cooperation by the Authority is one on the reasons why Palo Alto, which has the very active CARRD group which pushed hard for the CSS project, is now pushing a no confidence letter that will be sent to the FRA.

    So after months of promises and plenty of talk and wasted time at the PCC meetings, Palo Alto and the rest of the PCC finally gave up and now admits the effort to implement CSS was a failure.

    So, Clem you have got this one wrong.

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  3. @ Morris Brown -

    The CSS process Clem was referring was carried out in the 1990 and was focused narrowly on grade separating Caltrain in Belmont. It had nothing whatsoever to do with HSR.

    Btw, CSS does not mean that local communities get to decide and others get to pay regardless of the price tag. Rather, it means that the locals get to participate in the process of articulating the pros and cons of each potential solution. The objective is to ensure the decision makers - i.e. the ones holding the purse strings - don't choose the wrong solution because they misunderstand the local situation.

    If, however, the locals insist on solutions that are point blank unaffordable and they aren't willing to fund the difference, there is no point in pursuing a CSS process. In that scenario, the project is either dropped or local objections are ignored.

    In particular, the claim that grade separations "divide the community" is spurious, especially when all pre-existing crossing points are preserved. It's not as if you could (safely) walk - let alone drive or ride a bike - across the existing Caltrain tracks wherever and whenever you like. Just because you can see across the tracks doesn't mean you're connected to the people living on the other side.

    IMHO, "dividing the community" is just code for "lowering the value of my personal property". If you choose to purchase a home very close to an active railroad, you take the risk that at some point - perhaps decades later - there will be an increase in rail traffic volume and/or changes to the rail infrastructure (quad tracking, grade separations, electrification etc). Sometimes risks become reality, that's why they call it "buyer beware".

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  4. @Rafael

    I think I understand the CSS process pretty well, thank you sir.

    Well the link Clem provided on CSS references the Peninsula Rail program, I certainly understood his statement to be referencing the now CSS process, what has just recently been abandoned.

    I certainly don't agree at all with your statement:

    "In particular, the claim that grade separations "divide the community" is spurious, especially when all pre-existing crossing points are preserved"

    That is nonsense. Why is Belmont unwilling to just expand what they now have? Belmont has experienced the very division you claim is spurious -- they don't care to make it worse

    Particularly in the case of CalTrain, which is unique in being owned by the public, businesses and residents certainly should not have to worry about much more serious impacts being created by expansion of tracks, ROW etc. CalTrain simply, at this point, doesn't care to listen.

    Certainly your "buyer beware" statement really should be applied the State Legislature, and the current Governor which bought into the "snakeoil" sales pitches put forward by the Authority, and which are only now being unraveled as crucial details and facts are exposed.

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  5. The California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates grade crossings and pursues a stated policy of reducing the number of such crossings, is exceedingly unlikely to allow four-track grade crossings.

    Depends on the speed of rail traffic. If the ROW was already wide enough, then PUC won't prohibit extra track being laid.

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  6. Why is Belmont unwilling to just expand what they now have?

    Clem's post already addressed that. But if you missed it, it's because, like virtually every other Peninsula city, they're hoping to get a free tunnel paid for by the California taxpayer. Ka-ching!

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  7. Adirondacker1280013 September, 2010 11:18

    IMHO, "dividing the community" is just code for "lowering the value of my personal property".

    ..and the thing is all over the world, including in the Bay Area, people pay premium prices to be near the train.

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  8. I like how the trains are all labelled "T├╝rkihs Transport" and every car has two pantographs, both of which are in use.

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  9. If you really believe that property values near the Caltrain line will rise if/when HSR is built on a viaduct or berm, there is a bridge in New York for you for sale cheap.

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  10. If you really believe that property values near the Caltrain line will rise if/when HSR is built on a viaduct or berm, there is a bridge in New York for you for sale cheap.

    Two points:

    1) I have little doubt that "property values near the Caltrain line will rise if/when HSR is built on a viaduct or berm." In fact, I'd be willing to bet on it. Choose ten neighborhoods near the Caltrain line. I'll bet that the average sale price in those neighborhoods is higher in 2020 after the viaduct/berm is built than it is today.

    2) Even if/when I win my bet, that doesn't imply that the causal effect of HSR on property values is positive. It just implies that, if negative, it's too small to detect. The causal effect of upgrading Caltrain would likely be positive on average, but the effects would be distributed unevenly. Properties directly adjacent to the elevated line might (or might not) experience a negative effect, whereas most other properties in these towns would experience unambiguously positive effects.

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  11. @anon:
    "If you really believe that property values near the Caltrain line will rise if/when HSR is built on a viaduct or berm, there is a bridge in New York for you for sale cheap."

    Oh, they will rise. You obviously haven't studied the literature; if you'd care to give your name and make a real-money bet, I could make some easy money off you.

    Everyone within 1/2 mile of a station will see their property values go WAY up.

    The "station effect" increasing property values has been demonstrated to massively outweigh the "track effect" decreasing property values for being near a track. Being near a track with *no* station does decrease values.

    Being near a station simply outweighs *all* property effects of being near a track, *no matter what* the track is -- a 12-track trench with a 12-track viaduct over it, anything.

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  12. @Morris: The peninsula CSS process suffers from bad faith all around. It is by its very nature a process designed to reach a compromise, otherwise known as a solution that nobody really likes but everyone can barely accept. Caving in to every demand for a tunnel is not what I call compromise, and it's no surprise that the PRP will not go there. As has been extensively discussed on this blog, tunnels are not the panacea that rail opponents often make them out to be... nor are elevated structures necessarily neighborhood-blighting "six to eight lane freeways". Thinking people need to see through the heated rhetoric.

    If anyone wants to call that bad faith, so be it. The respective stakeholders just need to ask themselves very honestly whether their adopted stance gets them any closer to their desired outcome. In Belmont's case, my hunch is that it won't.

    @Rafael: the 1990s grade separations were not built to any process resembling CSS. In fact, CSS as a formalized process wasn't even invented yet when those projects were designed.

    @Drunk Engineer: I've been led to understand, although it isn't written down anywhere that I could find, that the CPUC will not allow any new grade crossings with more than two tracks. Just like I said, regardless of speed. So the equation becomes 4 tracks = forced grade separation. Period.

    @everyone: Regarding property values, it all depends on what is built and especially what service is provided. A recent PRP policy working group meeting featured a presentation on property values near stations, but as Palo Alto mayor Pat Burt astutely pointed out, all the literature was based on light-rail systems with frequent stops and walkable communities within 1/4 mile of the station, and not a 125 mph non-stop express.

    There's no denying that a reinvented Caltrain service (working smarter, not harder, as also advocated on this blog) would have a positive effect on property values, perhaps enough to offset any drop from grade separations and train traffic growth. Belmont in particular stands out: it is one of the towns that got the short end of the stick when the Baby Bullet was created.

    The service improvement that is possible in Belmont is amazing, and I'm sure Belmont leaders would be impressed if the PRP even lifted a finger to sell it to them. But sadly they're not, and everybody's getting wrapped around the axle.

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  13. @Rafael

    I asked some Belmont people about whether CSS was used in the late 1990's for their grade separation process. They have no memory that it was used.

    According to Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Context_Sensitive_Solutions#History

    CSS didn't even start until the late 1990's, so it doesn't seem like it was used. If you know otherwise, please document.


    At least among many Belmont residents, they feel that what they have now is not ideal to say the least. They don't want more of the same

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  14. At last nights Palo Alto council meeting, (9/13/2010), CalTrain spokesman, Mark Simon, delivered two letters, which would indicate a shift in CalTraio's position relative to the Authority and to the Peninsula Cities.

    I have posted scanned copies of those letters at:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/37394030/CalTrain-9-13-2010

    The PA meeting was interesting after Simon delivered these letters. It should be available for watching on the web later.

    I had a very short conversation with Mark and asked him what this all meant.

    What I think I understood, was CalTrain is now saying you don't need 4 tracks for the immediate future. That the Authority's insistence they will run 10 trains each hour each way at peak times really isn't reality, and therefore, a much reduced number, like 3-5 trans / hour would meet needs for many years to come.

    All very interesting --- at least to me.

    At the meeting it was commented that such a proposal had been advanced before and that the Authority had said it was not possible and was not legal. I don't know what that meant.

    Richard Mlynarik has often advocated this kind of position. Perhaps he would comment.

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  15. @Clem @everybody

    Palo Alto has commissioned a study on the effect on property values.

    Perhaps this will shed light on this question, although how anyone would believe that one's property would go up in value by being along side an aerial train which wouldn't stop for 20 to 30 miles away and thus yield no real value to that property owner, yet subject them to noise and obstruction of views and divisions within the city is more than my feeble mind can fathom.

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  16. @ Morris

    Your last comment neglects to mention that there would be an elevated Caltrain station within a couple of miles of the house next to the tracks.

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  17. The Palo Alto study, if undertaken in good faith, could yield interesting results. The change contemplated is from one kind of train tracks to another in the same space, with the same stations (more or less; if PA plays their cards right they get an HSR stop, too).

    It's hard to imagine that grade separating the tracks would cause a major loss in property value.

    A question I continue to have, and continue to not see answered, is how loud the 100-125 mph HSR will be ... RELATIVE to how loud CalTrain is now. CalTrain is loud. Will HSR be as loud? With higher frequency, that could diminish property values substantially. On the other hand, if it's quieter, probably not.

    Moreover, it's fairly easy to imagine that providing stops for LA capital to get off in several places in the Silicon Valley, rather than just SFO or SJC, could be very good for businesses there.

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  18. For the record, CARRD acknowledged that CSS is dead last night at the Palo Alto City Council Study session. There is no finger pointing as to who is to blame, but clearly the compressed time frame, lack of funding, lack of decision making power at PRP and the "DAD" approach (Decide, Announce, Defend) were all factors. As we said last night, you know it isn't a collaborative approach when at board meetings elected officials are frantically flipping through papers to figure out what just happened to their city. RIP - CSS.

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  19. Palo Alto on a slide also showed some noise information. The slide was meant to show, that it is a multi-variable situation; that how far and how loud the trains will be depends on many different variables.

    They intend to study the noise issue quite hard.

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  20. @Clem The other important thing to remember regarding property values is that the DTX component alone represents a massive service improvement to many Caltrain customers (or potential Caltrain customers). It shortens their effective trip time by 15-20 minutes, which is a significant percentage of total trip time for many trips.

    So even in the worst-case scenario in which the only Caltrain improvements you get are DTX + electrification, you should still expect a positive impact on property values for most houses. Of course, it would still be better to have an integrated express/local schedule utilizing all 4 tracks as well.

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  21. @Mike: The important things to keep in mind about (1) DTX and (2) electrification are:

    (1) Caltrain's planners and engineers successfully sought to keep most Caltrain out of the Transbay Terminal, to make it physically impossible for Caltrain to even stop at the majority of the tracks in the terminal, and to build a new and larger Fourth and Townsend station just as far away from the real end of the line as it is today.

    (2) Caltrain's planners and engineers predict that electrification will *increase* operating cost (= even fewer trains for the same money as subsidies shrink, or even if they increase) and that the huge time benefit from spending a billion bucks will be "average travel time savings of 1 to 8 minutes" — with the larger savings being on the local trains that are uses by the fewest people.

    So good luck with that "massive service improvement to many Caltrain customers" business. That's certainly how things might have worked in an alternate reality of some sort — but not one on ours in which anybody at Caltrain has a say in the way things are done.

    We will have totally bitching freight service to the Port of San Francisco and the Port of Redwood City, however.

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  22. Adirondacker1280014 September, 2010 14:29

    A question I continue to have, and continue to not see answered, is how loud the 100-125 mph HSR will be ... RELATIVE to how loud CalTrain is now.

    Quieter. It's not exactly the same thing, the Raritan Valley line in New Jersey is not electrified. Those trains share the same tracks with electric trains on the Northeast Corridor for a short stretch in Newark. The diesels are much louder.

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  23. @Anonymous

    Agree that the sample "Caltrain 2025" timetable in the Preliminary Alternatives Analysis does not look promising. No off-peak Caltrain service to TBT??? Admittedly it's only a minority of customers, but why leave the Caltrain TBT platforms totally empty for 6 hours each day? Makes no sense at all...hard to believe it will be representative of the ultimate service pattern.

    But overall, even the brain-dead "Caltrain 2025" schedule represents a large service improvement over the current one, as evidenced by Clem's analysis.

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  24. "A question I continue to have, and continue to not see answered, is how loud the 100-125 mph HSR will be ... RELATIVE to how loud CalTrain is now. CalTrain is loud. Will HSR be as loud?"

    Significantly quieter.

    Some major sources of train noise:
    (1) wheel squeal around curves. This is deliberately reduced when designing high-speed tracks.
    (2) horns and whistles. Eliminated with grade separation.
    (3) Engine noise. Electric engines are practically silent compared to diesel engines, so this will be nearly eliminated.
    (4) Aerodynamic noise. This is the only one which will go up -- slightly more "whoosh". The other three together are much louder, though.

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  25. "(2) Caltrain's planners and engineers predict that electrification will *increase* operating cost "

    OK, Richard, where do you get this? Last I heard the motivation for electrification from Caltrain itself was that it was necessary in order to reduce operating costs.

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  26. I understand why Belmont expressing concern about the (visual) barrier effect would result in a "berm -> viaduct" scenario, but why does the viaduct have to be so much taller than the current berm? The roads seem to have enough clearance already.

    Also, the renderings may be 'crude', but they do definitely help establish relative scale and such.

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  27. It looks like part of the plan is to raise the roads that are currently dipped beneath the berm.

    One reason I can think of why they want to raise the tracks even higher is so that they can widen ROW for quad-tracking without increasing the property impacts associated with increasing the "width" of the underpass. Increasing how the "width" of the underpass would increase the impact on properties around each underpass.

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  28. OK, Richard, where do you get this? Last I heard the motivation for electrification from Caltrain itself was that it was necessary in order to reduce operating costs.

    I think he's right on this one. I recall reading one of the Caltrain electrification EIR docs several years ago and being surprised that operating costs were not going down.

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  29. Caltrain's web page on electrification claims "Electric trains are cheaper to operate" than diesels.

    Page 2-49 of the electrification FEIR states: "Caltrain electrification with EMUs is projected to increase Caltrain’s O&M costs by approximately $5.69 million in 2015 and about $6.00 million in 2035." (compared to the no-build alternative).

    Full details in tables 2.3-9 and 2.3-10.

    So, yes, Caltrain is directly contradicting itself.

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  30. Are operating costs per train-km scheduled to rise, or is the increase scheduled to come only from running more trains?

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  31. I think Alon's likely to be right. Yes, if you run more trains, it will probably cost more; Caltrain compared "current service" with "electrification plus increased service made possible by electrification".

    More interestingly, this doesn't address increased revenues from increased patronage from more frequent, faster service. So it's not immediately obvious whether in fact the scheme as a whole will result in a smaller need for tax funding, thanks to higher farebox funding.

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  32. Yep. Just checked the FEIR: the difference in cost is due to running 114 trains per day (including 6 diesels to Gilroy) instead of 98 trains per day.

    And the improved *is* expected to 'pay for itself' in increased farebox returns by the '2035' target date.

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