Problems Piling Up High-Speed Rail Study: Tunnel Impractical


By Tracy Seipel: San Jose Mercury News
tseipel@mercurynews.com
11/15/2011

High-Speed Rail Authority confirms engineering challenges, but push to
go underground won’t die. Add one more to the ever-expanding list of problems facing California’s grand plan for high-speed rail: It can’t go underground in San Jose, the backers of the system say.

Concepts of a station and track alignment for high-speed rail at the Diridon site in downtown San Jose. (California High Speed Rail Authority and Newlands & Company, Inc (NC3D)) Courtesy San Jose Mercury News

Concepts of a station and track alignment for high-speed rail at the Diridon site in downtown San Jose. (California High Speed Rail Authority and Newlands & Company, Inc (NC3D)) Courtesy San Jose Mercury News

Echoing previous studies, a report released Monday by the California High-Speed Rail Authority concluded that there is no viable tunnel option to accommodate high-speed trains below downtown’s Diridon Station.  

The news comes as the rail project faces questions about its growing
price tag and its political viability in a climate of tight government
budgets. “We have looked at this very thoroughly and done very detailed
engineering for this,” said Dan Leavitt, the authority’s deputy director, about the tunnel option. “It is not a constructable scenario for high-speed rail.”  

The news, though disappointing, was hardly unexpected by many downtown
San Jose residents and businesses who oppose a gigantic aerial concrete structure they fear will destroy the look and feel of the area.

“It is stunning in its massiveness and will have a detrimental effect on development in that area,” said Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, who like many others continues to believe a tunnel can still be built under the station. But the rail authority thinks otherwise. Much like previous studies that indicated a deep or shallow tunnel were unrealistic because of poor soil combined with high groundwater, the latest report on a modified tunnel — between deep and shallow — shows that approach suffers from similar engineering problems.

In addition, the rail authority said the modified option — which would be underneath and perpendicular to the proposed BART station at Diridon Station — would increase the amount of surrounding property the authority would need to buy and, like the other options, cost several times more than an aerial system.

But the city seems determined to keep pushing the tunnel concept. The City Council’s Rules and Open Government Committee agreed last week to a proposal by Transportation Director Hans Larsen to ask local engineers familiar with San Jose’s soil and groundwater levels for their opinion of the rail authority’s conclusions on those matters.

“It’s an opportunity for San Jose people to pick it apart, and if there is a better way to do it (a tunnel), then I want to hear about it,” Mayor Chuck Reed said.

Knies, who also was among a 20-member committee that since February has worked with rail authority officials on a set of “visual design guidelines” for the rail route, said he remains focused on the tunnel option.

“We love high-speed rail, but we love San Jose more,” he said. But other members of the committee acknowledge that the aboveground option is the only option — and they’re trying to make the best of it.

Jessica Zenk, transportation policy director for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said the committee focused on a plan that mixes aerial and ground-level tracks. As part of the effort, the committee tried to develop a vision for high-speed rail in San Jose and how the project would interact with surrounding neighborhoods — even examining how art could be used to improve the look of the rail system’s infrastructure.

The result is a set of guidelines that may give San Jose residents a better idea of the magnitude of the project and its compatibility with different parts of the city.
The ultimate designs will have more community input, and will have to be signed off both by the council and rail authorities Larsen said the city will host a community meeting Dec. 8 to discuss the rail authority’s report.

The City Council will decide in March whether it will accept the rail authority’s conclusion. Meanwhile, City Councilmen Sam Liccardo and Pierluigi Oliverio, among others, say the practical hurdles facing high-speed rail could be so
overwhelming that design issues may be moot.

Last month, the authority updated its new business plan and pegged the price tag at $98.5 billion, accounting for inflation — more than double the estimate of $42.6 billion from two years ago, when it was already the priciest public works development in the nation. It’s a little less than triple the estimate of $33.6 billion voters were told when they approved the project in 2008. By comparison, the total state budget this year is $86 billion.

“Given the size of the challenges that high-speed rail faces in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, any debate about how to get through downtown San Jose may become academic,” Liccardo said.

Contact Tracy Seipel at 408 275-0140.

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