High Speed Rail Authority Addresses Alignment Concerns in SF

HSR_alignment_options_for_SF.jpgPossible high speed rail alignment options for San Francisco. Image: HSRA.
Peninsula communities have made all the news with their public outcry against the alignment of the California High Speed Rail train, but today some San Franciscans got into the mix. Now that details have emerged about a possible alignment choice through the eastern portion of Potrero, some community members aren't so thrilled with the prospect.

A number of residents in the Potrero, Dogpatch, and Showplace triangle neighborhoods addressed representatives of the High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) today during an informational briefing of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), decrying an option under consideration that would keep the trains at grade and would depress 16th street in a short tunnel under the tracks.

District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell started off by saying she was concerned that dropping 16th under the tracks would "essentially create a freeway, creating unsafe conditions for cyclists and pedestrians and creating a breeding ground for graffiti." She said 16th Street was the only significant connection linking the Mission, Potrero and Showplace Triangle neighborhoods with the eastern waterfront.

She clarified she didn't want her comments to be construed as obstructionist or hindering "this huge, wonderful project," but she asked the authority to consider options that wouldn't divide neighborhoods further.

Dick Millet, Vice President of the Potrero Boosters neighborhood group, started a wave of public comment voicing similar concerns as Maxwell, arguing the HSRA hadn't brought detailed drawings to the limited meetings with the neighborhood, nor had they seriously considered the detrimental impact of the at-grade option.

"We're concerned about the rail crossing at 16th Street, the only major road for two and a half miles to get to the east side," he said. "We're separated by the 101, the 280, and now we're going to create another one."

Josh Smith of Walden Development, which has properties near the proposed alignment, said while he is an avid supporter of High Speed Rail, he was concerned that it would be a "huge mistake" to depress 16th Street and argued that engineers have said it would be feasible to bury the rails, so it should be done. "They haven't come to community meetings with detailed drawings. The devil is in the details, we all know that," he said.

Most of the testimony from the community suggested the best options would be to elevate the trains with aerial tracks or bury them in tunnels, both significantly more expensive than keeping the alignment at grade along existing Caltrain right-of-way.

Robert Doty of the HSRA told Streetsblog after the meeting the agency was considering various options, but warned that placing the rail lines under ground, whether in trenches or deep tunnels, would be very expensive. As a rule of thumb, the HSRA assumed that every dollar spent on at-grade construction would be seven dollars for a deep tunnel, three-to-four dollars for trenches.

Ultimately, the actual cost could be dramatically different depending on the geology constraints, though specific cost analysis wouldn't be available for the various alignments until environmental review was further along, likely in December.

Various San Francisco departments are preparing a memo of goals and expectations to be delivered to the HSRA tomorrow, according to SFCTA Executive Director Jose Luis Moscovich. Though Moscovich didn't provide too many specifics about the memo, he said the city family was collaborating to deal with some of the complex issues relating to the alignment of the trains.

"There's a lot of moving parts here," he said. "I think we need to let the High Speed Rail Authority understand our preferences for how you get from A to B and then let them come up with the construction techniques and let them come up with the solutions they think are going to be the most cost effective."

Despite his assertion that he wanted to the HSRA to analyze numerous solutions, Moscovich came down on the side of the neighbors by telling Streetsblog the at-grade track alignment option through the city along Caltrain right-of-way was a non-starter.

"I don't see a way that we should have at-grade high speed rail trains crossing the city. It doesn't make sense, it doesn't make a lot of sense to divide the city with rail infrastructure at this late stage," he said.

While Moscovich said vibration and noise issues from the high-volume high speed rail trains were not good for residential neighborhoods, in the end the HSRA would make the final decisions.

"Everything else is going to be more of a question of how High Speed Rail is going to be able to penetrate San Francisco with the least impact and so that we have both full use of Caltrain and its stations and the 4th and King yards, that the assets the city's transportation system already has are preserved and enhanced."