02 August 2009

The Berkeley BART Tunnel Saga

Among the many interesting things that happened in Berkeley in the 1960s, one of them happens to be relevant to high speed rail on the peninsula: the BART tunnel saga. (tunnel photo by Paul Wicks). The parallels with peninsula communities who desire high speed rail and Caltrain to disappear underground are striking, and indeed oft-mentioned by the California High Speed Rail Authority during community outreach meetings. "You want a tunnel," they say? "Sure, no problem, if you can pay for it just like Berkeley did."

The story goes that Berkeley simply ponied up the cash and presto, BART was put underground. In reality, it was an agonizingly complicated and acrimonious process that pitted the city against BART and its engineering consultants in a David vs. Goliath fight. The side of Goliath was led by Parsons Brinckerhoff, the same firm now heading up the California high speed rail project. There is much to learn for peninsula cities whose official preference is that high speed rail be put in a tunnel, a growing list of which includes Burlingame, San Mateo, Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto.

The Berkeley tunnel saga was chronicled by historian and political scientist Stephen Zwerling, who published Mass Transit and the Politics of Technology in 1974 (ISBN 0-275-08390-0). This book is no longer in print and has become quite rare. A few examples are available at public libraries in San Jose, Palo Alto, Redwood City, San Mateo and San Francisco. Some sections were converted to electronic format here. The Berkeley story is contained in a limited reproduction of Chapter 3--a must-read for all tunnel proponents and opponents.

If one were to crudely apply the lessons from BART vs. Berkeley in the 1960s to CHSRA vs. peninsula communities in the 2000s, the key takeaway would be this: if peninsula cities wanted tunnels, they would need to take matters of design, cost estimation and financing into their own hands now because the CHSRA would not help them--and could indeed actively undermine them while pretending to help. The Authority would know that tunnels are expensive, and that ceding even an inch of tunnel to one community could trigger demands from many other communities up and down the peninsula and even state-wide, weighing heavily on the financial viability of the project.

This is all hypothetical, of course; the CHSRA in the 2000s may not compare to the fascinating tale of BART in the 1960s. Then again, the overall dynamics of the situation are too similar to ignore. Would expecting a different outcome make one a fool?


  1. The Berkeley BART saga is instructive in that it illustrates the arrogant and domineering mindset of BARTD and its consulting engineers. Some would argue CHSRA is behaving in much the same way on the SF peninsula.

    On the other hand, there are some major differences as well:

    a) the BART ROW through Berkeley had not been used by freight trains for a long time. Indeed, there was no passenger service either and, at least some sections had been converted to roads. Grade separation brought no benefits beyond those for BART. This is not comparable to the situation in the Caltrain ROW today.

    b) only two tracks were needed in Berkeley, not 3 nor 4. In addition, the tunnel length was just 3.3 miles, much less than the total length envisioned by the five SF peninsula cities seeking an underground alignment through their jurisdictions. Note that the Berkeley tunnel was bored, not constructed as a covered trench.

    c) afaik, the tunnel section in Berkeley did not present major hydrological problems related to gravity-drained conduits crossing the ROW. The natural gradient there is greater than along the Caltrain ROW.

    d) I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but I believe that Berkeley did not have to fund the delta for tunneling all by itself. It was also able to divert some federal transportation allocations for freeway construction in the area.

    Nevertheless, the Berkeley example did indeed establish a very important precedent: if an affluent community wants trains to run in tunnels even though there is no technical requirement for that, it - not the regional or statewide planning agency! - needs to secure the additional funding required.

    Whether that comes in the form of private investment, additional local tax revenue or diverted state/federal grants is a secondary issue. The only requirement is that it not be money that was going to be used for HSR construction in that section anyhow - it has to be additional funding.

  2. The plot thickens:

    Palo Alto to hire consultants to review high-speed rail plans.

    IMHO, this is actually a good thing, even though there will almost certainly be disagreement over e.g. the cost of a tunnel option as well as the need for four tracks all the way down the peninsula. It may well be bitter and protracted, much like the Berkeley BART saga of the 1960s.

    However, with engineers involved on both sides, at least there is a good chance of some fact-based discussion, which has been sorely lacking from the HSR opposition. The project is too large and the result too important to leave it all up to just CHSRA or those who react to it on a purely emotional level.

    The bottom line will end up the same as it is today: if you want a fancy stretch of rail tunnel through suburbia, you're going to have to figure out a way to raise funds for the difference yourself. Anything else opens CHSRA up to environmental justice lawsuits that would kill the entire project, which has been democratically legitimized. The sooner SF peninsula cities bite the bullet, the sooner there can be a constructive dialog on how to keep the cost delta to a minimum - even if that means firing a CHSRA board member or two. The only people who benefit from years of delay are lawyers and construction companies.

    Moving the alignment to 101 or to the East Bay, perhaps even out onto a causeway down the middle of the Bay, will be advocated yet again and rejected yet again. That's because each of these alternatives would cost at least as much while doing nothing at all to grade separate Caltrain and UPRR traffic.

  3. Rafael raises some very good points about the differences between BART in Berkeley and HSR on the Peninsula. That all being said, my guess is this will probably play out much the same way.

    As I understand that article, and based on my own preliminary research into the matter, the key was that Berkeley and BART disagreed on the costs of undergrounding the route. I would be *stunned* if Palo Alto, which has already moved to hire its own consultants, and CHSRA agreed on the costs of a Peninsula tunnel.

    Another key takeaway is that Berkeley had the willingness to, in the pre-Prop 13 era, tax itself via a bond to underground the line, and that the state was willing to help BART meet its costs (I don't know when that article was written, but the impact of the Vietnam War on domestic inflation has been conclusively demonstrated by economic historians).

    I wish I could say that Peninsula residents had the willingness to spend non-existent municipal funds to build a tunnel, or that the state legislature would be in any mood to help the CHSRA get additional funds if/when that becomes necessary around 2015. But I'm not certain of either one. Well, that latter is more of a possibility, especially if the HSR project isn't seen as a gilded pony with everyone getting the tunnel they want.

    CHSRA needs to adopt a friendly but firm public tone toward the Peninsula that boils down to "show me the money." Peninsula residents who demand a tunnel without showing how it will be paid for are not credible.

    As to the "arrogant and domineering mindset" of the project engineers, that was certainly the predominant mindset of that class in the 1960s, no doubt about it. And yet we shouldn't excuse a similarly arrogant and domineering mindset on the part of city officials and NIMBYs. There's a tendency in this country to assume the "little guy" is always in the right and the government agency is always in the wrong, even when the reality is rather different.

  4. One big difference between Berkeley and the Peninsula is that BART actually carved out a new ROW north of the Berkeley station, resulting in a significant number of homes getting demolished.

    By the way, the "arrogant and domineering" 60s engineers are still around. Mehdi Morshed, for example, and Kopp and Diridon are of that era too, much more so than the current generation of politicians.

  5. The story of the South Berkeley tunnel is interesting from an anecdotal standpoint, but probably not relevant here. There have been huge changes in CEQA and other rules since that time which give more power to affected communities.

    I think the biggest lesson from the Berkeley tunnel saga is the huge devastation caused to surrounding business because of the extended construction. The scars from this are evident to this day. I would think long-term construction impacts is going to be a huge issue for Peninsula cities.

    In terms of finding a close analogy, I would suggest the Devil's Slide tunnel project (which also happens to be in San Mateo County). You have a huge arrogant State agency (Caltrans) determined to build their giant aerial freeway, and committed local environmentalists pushing for the tunnel. Environmentalists did have much success in court in blocking the aerial freeway (mainly because state law explicitly required Hwy 1 be limited to 2 lanes). Nonetheless, the county naively endorsed Caltrans preferred option -- initially -- until overwhelming popular opposition (and Measure T ballot measure) forced the county to also go along with the tunnel alternative. Note also that in the case of Devil's Slide, independent experts were hired who had enough credibility to challenge Caltrans cost estimates for a tunnel option.

    With regard to Palo Alto hiring their own independent consultants -- I find it extremely odd and troubling that CHSRA would be upset by this. It is actually quite common (and encouraged!) for cities to do this when large projects like this come along.

    The sponsoring agency benefits enormously from this arrangement and will often provide assistance in getting funding for the consultants. There are many, many examples of this. For example, San Francisco has its own staff and consultants working on the TBT and tunnel projects (ok, perhaps not so competently...). Another example: In the East Bay, Berkeley has hired its own consultant to determine the locally preferred alternative in the EIR for the AC Transit BRT project.

    So, I think the fact that CHSRA has come out so negatively against a local city doing its own due diligence, and building community support for the project is truly indicative of the corruption and arrogance at the CSHRA.

  6. @bikerider, I must have missed the train, but when did the CHSRA express any reservations about Palo Alto doing its own study?

  7. In terms of finding a close analogy, I would suggest the Devil's Slide tunnel project (which also happens to be in San Mateo County).

    In the case of Devil's Slide, the projected costs in the EIR of the tunnel route were not that much higher than with the surface route. That is why the tunnel route was chosen and funded by the county/state. It won't be true with HSR that the the tunnel route is roughly the same cost as the above ground route. Far from it. BART through Berkeley is a better analogy.

  8. yeah, and it only took what, 30 or 40 years to get the Devil's Slide tunnel built. I remember seeing the pro-tunnel bumper stickers when i was a kid. When is it expected to be finished, 201?

  9. I am so glad that the Devils slide project got delayed for 30-40 years. It essentially stopped commuter development in the areas south of Pacifica while stronger land-use restrictions were put in place, since every couple years when the road was out it added an hour to the commute. Imagine crappy Pacifica continuously to Half-moon bay.

    At this point I the tunnel is a good idea.

  10. @Clem: I am referring to a story I heard broadcast on KCBS radio news yesterday evening, where Rod Diridon gave the usual FUD (i.e. further studies by Palo Alto would jeopardize $1 billion stimulus funds, etc).

    In the case of Devil's slide, the tunnel option was (at first) widely regarded as being too costly. It was only later, after independent study, that it was shown to be not that much more expensive. Similarly, you are presuming a tunnel option for HSR is way more expensive, but independent study may show otherwise.

  11. Similarly, you are presuming a tunnel option for HSR is way more expensive,

    Indeed. And I feel very secure in that presumption. But I have no problem with the City of PA spending $70,000 to confirm it.

  12. @bikerider

    I'm trying to verify what Rod Diridon said on KCBS about Palo Alto causing delays to stimulus funds- can you send a link to it?

  13. Sorry, don't have a link. I heard it on the radio during evening commute, and tried to look up a link for it when I got home. Not all their reports end up on the web unfortunately.

  14. Found this in the Daily Post (print only, sorry):

    Rail official Rod Diridon said that the authority has already hired the best consultants in the business to design and review the project. He said he didn't have any qualms about Palo Alto's plans, as long as they don't slow anything down. "The taxpayers, through the (authority) board are already spending tens of millions of dollars to do an exhaustive evaluation," Diridon said. "That's being done by the best engineering and planning firms in the world selected by competitive bid."

  15. "That's being done by the best engineering and planning firms in the world selected by competitive bid."

    Naturally. That's why they're all American, and even better than that, based right here in the Bay Area, land of Rod and Quentin. We're Number One!

    I know that when *I'm* looking for the best passenger rail engineers in the universe with the finest record of success in delivering the best solutions on time and on budget, I can always find just what I need *right here in my my back yard*.

    You *do* know that Rod Diridon, of the world famous Mineta Transportation Institute and universally acclaimed as the Father of VTA Light Rail, personally designed — from initial specifications down to selection of rail steel and ballast grade — *both* the Spanish and the Korean national high speed systems, don't you? Also, the Queen of England personally begged him to come and fix up the mess the Continentals were making of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. He's too modest to admit it, but it's true. World class experts we have around here!

  16. @ Anonymous, 22:04

    The firms involved, URS, Arup, AECOM, HNTB, Parsons, STV, and Hatch Mott McDonald are all major US-based engineering firms.

  17. That's why they're all American

    Point taken. As a point of trivia, the Spanish HSR consultancy Prointec is involved in peninsula design with HNTB.