The leafy town of Atherton abuts a mere 0.8 mile of the peninsula rail corridor, and yet may turn out to be the greatest friction point for HSR on the peninsula--and possibly anywhere in California. This is not because of technical difficulty, but rather because the town is more willing and able than most to employ legal means to get its wishes: as a first priority, a routing of HSR that is not through Atherton (namely, via the Altamont Pass), and as a last resort, the construction of a tunnel to put Caltrain and HSR completely out of sight.
In an 11-page letter sent to the CHSRA in late 2007, the Town of Atherton detailed its concerns about the HSR project. Refer to Chapter 22, p. 101 of the Bay Area to Central Valley Program EIR/EIS. The letter includes the following claims:
- properties will need to be condemned to build HSR through Atherton;
- partially condemned properties are subject to remainder damages "easily in excess" of the value of the entire property, to compensate owners for noise and visual impacts in perpetuity;
- the remainder of the property may not be condemned unless it is actually needed for the project; condemnation to limit remainder damages is not sufficient to support the taking.
Despite the controversy around the issue of eminent domain, the Caltrain right of way (see maps for mileposts 27 and 28) is 80 - 85 feet wide and straight as a ruler everywhere along the 0.8 mile section that falls within Atherton town limits. In principle, this is sufficient space to accommodate four tracks, although temporary construction easements may still be required to build the grade separation structures at Atherton's two grade crossings, Fair Oaks Lane and Watkins Avenue.
Trees are highly prized in Atherton, and many large volunteer trees growing on the railroad right of way would have to be removed. Caltrain's electrification EIR identified 80 trees that would need to be removed for a two-track at-grade electrified configuration; a wider four-track arrangement would likely result in even more tree removals.
The existing tracks slope down at a gentle (less than 0.5%) grade to the north, and cross a drainage ditch known as the Atherton Channel at Watkins Ave. The vertical alignment of the tracks through Atherton is intimately linked to the choices made in neighboring Menlo Park, which has several closely-spaced crossings that would require a consistent vertical alignment to be used through both cities. The existing alignment is shown in the figure below, created from Caltrain track survey data.
Even with the program EIR in legal trouble, project-level environmental work is continuing, with the CHSRA's preliminary design alternatives including elevated, at-grade and below-grade variations of the vertical alignment through Atherton.
An elevated alignment, as originally suggested in the program EIR/EIS and as previously studied in neighboring Menlo Park, would raise the tracks about 15 feet and lower the roads by about 5 feet. Pedestrian sidewalks would stay at grade. The tracks would have to be elevated over all six crossings in Menlo / Atherton, as shown in the figure below. Note, the 1% grade specified for freight trains considerably lengthens the northern approach to such an elevated structure.
Putting the tracks in a trench would require lowering the rails by 30 feet, to accommodate tall freight cars under overhead electrification. The solid red line in the figure below shows a trench alignment. The tracks must rise back to grade at the existing Fifth Avenue grade separation to the north, so trains, tracks, poles and overhead wires would be out of sight for only a portion of Atherton. Again, freight-friendly 1% grades are shown.
In the analysis of alternatives process for the San Francisco - San Jose project EIR, the CHSRA requested each city to state its preferred design alternative. Atherton's position is still that the Pacheco Pass HSR routing through Atherton is ill-advised, wasteful, expensive, and adds no transportation value. Should this route be built, however, Atherton proposes a tunnel concept that is ill-advised, wasteful, expensive, and adds no transportation value. An eye for an eye...
A letter from Atherton (see p. 5) states a preference for an unusual two-level stacked tunnel arrangement, with two HSR tracks in a tunnel on the lower level and two Caltrain / UPRR tracks in a trench on the upper level, as diagrammed in the notional cross-section at right. All roads would remain at grade, and the horizontal clearances would "fit well within" the 80 - 85 foot right of way, purportedly allowing trees to be preserved. The vertical alignment for such a tunnel is shown in the vertical profile (above) as a dotted red line. Accounting for the minimum vertical clearances, the HSR tunnel would bottom out about 75 feet below grade, well below sea level. The extensive ventilation head houses, emergency evacuation stairwells and pump houses required to operate such a tunnel are not shown in the diagram.
The claimed benefits of such an arrangement include:
- No property takes and little loss of property value
- No barrier or visual impact, little noise
- Less cost than a twin-bore four-track tunnel
- Upper level usable by diesel freight trains
It remains unclear who would pay for such a pharaonic tunnel structure. While the price of property in Atherton is high, it remains small in comparison to a tunnel. Less easy to quantify is the price of a view and the price of peace and quiet. Are those truly worth $10,000 per linear inch? Atherton should have plenty of MBA's to figure it out.
NOTE: This post will be updated continuously, as warranted by additional information or new events relating to Atherton.