Neighborhoods Send Message to High Speed Rail Authority: Put the Trains Underground

The following is the text of a letter that was hand delivered to California High Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark following his Sept. 29, 2010 speech to the San Jose Rotary Club by San Jose Downtown Association Executive Director Scott Knies. In an unprecedented show of unity, the letter was signed by leaders of 10 central San Jose neighborhood associations and the heads of the city’s two leading business associations.

Neighborhood and business groups in central San Jose urge the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) to include an underground option for San Jose in the project’s Environment Impact Report.

While we continue to support high-speed rail, the decision on the alignment through downtown San Jose requires further study. The San Jose City Council meeting Sept. 14 on this issue raised a new set of questions deserving timely answers:

1. We did not hear CHSRA staff nor City of San Jose Department of Transportation (CSJ DOT) staff present any “fatal flaws” for continued study of underground options. CHSRA staff stated that a San Jose tunnel was “unfeasible and impractical.” The unfeasible justification centered on cost. CHSRA and CSJ DOT staff reports to the San Jose City Council nearly doubled the underground project costs from $1.3 billion in June to $2.5billion, while aerial costs were announced at $500 million. CHSRA staffs’ explanation on Sept. 14 assigned the tunnel’s cost escalation primarily “to accommodate future development.”
a) What are the specific “accommodations” CHSRA staff estimated that added more than $1 billion to San Jose’s underground costs?

View the complete letter to California High Speed Rail Association CEO Roelof van Ark, including an analysis of the underground option.

b) What alternative “accommodations” did CHSRA consider other than a mat foundation covering the entire site for San Jose’s underground option?
c) Do the cost comparisons (tunnel versus aerial) include the potential value of future ‘air rights’ for development on top of a tunnel alignment?
d) Are there any corresponding potential development rights for the aerial scenario?
e) Is the cost of an ‘iconic’ above ground station included in the aerial cost estimate’?
f) If San Jose insists on world-class quality station and aerial structure architecture, who would pay for the additional cost?
g) The aerial alignment will likely have significant ongoing maintenance costs associated with graffiti removal, homeless encampments, rail wear on the “S” turn and “wheel squeal” noise abatement. Have these recurring expenses been factored into a net present value “cost” when compared to the underground option?

2. The BART project has selected tunnels and a subway station in the very same vicinity that CHSRA does not want to continue study for a tunnel and station. CHSRA has used “unstable soils” as one of its reasons for stating the tunnel is unfeasible while clearly it was feasible for BART.
a) How is it possible BART finds underground feasible but not CHSRA?
b) What soil sampling did CHSRA conduct in addition to those samples drawn for BART?
c) Where were the CHSRA samples taken?
d) What are the differences with the nearby tunnel recommended for further study by CHSRA
just north of this area near the San Jose/Santa Clara border?

3. On Sept. 14, CHSRA and CSJ DOT staff said the tunnel option would take seven years of construction and “tear up the city.” Our BART project managers explicitly demonstrated how they could shorten
construction and minimize impacts for the San Jose underground route that utilizes bored tunnels and cut and cover stations.
a) How did CHSRA staff arrive at the construction period for the underground option, and likewise, its estimates for the aerial construction?
b) What analysis was done on construction strategies that could shorten the tirneline and construction impacts?

4. CHSRA staff also reported on Sept . 14 that “80 property casements” are needed for the underground option.
a) Please elucidate the characteristics of these easements, such as whether they are deep underground easements and how they might impact existing or future property use.
b) Additionally, what sort of financial compensation is associated with these easements?
c) In the Sept. 14 meeting, your staff did not elaborate on the “about 10” property takings needed for the aerial option, nor did your staff indicate the number of property takings required in the aerial alignment north of Diridon, which looks like a much bigger number than 10 with some potential larger acquisitions required. How were all these property acquisitions for the aerial structure from Taylor to Tamien accounted for in your preliminary design,  public
outreach and cost estimates?

5. The City of San Jose requested on several occasions - both in writing and in person at CHSRA board meetings - that CHSRA study a “best” underground alignment.
a) CHSRA staff rejected both the deep tunnel and hallow tunnel options in its June report. How and when was it determined that these two tunnel alignments were the “best” underground alignments and that no other alignment would resolve any of the concerns, such as conflict with the Native American burial site at Tamien?
b) CHSRA staff on Sept. 14 said they had completed “almost 15 percent engineering” on San Jose’s tunnel options. Was this level of engineering work included for both the shallow and deep tunnel alignments in the June Alternative Analysis report?
c) Which underground alignment did CHSRA staff ultimately conclude the “best option” as requested by San Jose and why was it deemed the “best?”

6. Because the City of San Jose has been asking CHSRA since Dec. 2009 to seek and analyze a “best” underground alignment and CHSRA now recommends no further study of the “best” underground option—or any other underground options—we are concemed about the
integrity of the EIR process.
a) How will the EIR not be defective and at risk of legal actions by interested parties outside of San Jose who are determined to undermine the entire project?
b) Since federal law mandates a full EIR must include all viable options. how will the project’s EIR be complete if CHSRA eliminates San Jose’s underground options before the study?

7. The CHSRA Alternative Analysis report and appendix released the same morning of the Authority’s June 3 board meeting eliminated all alignment options through Central San Jose except the so-called SR87/I280 aerial route, preferred by CHSRA and CSJ DOT staff.
a) For whal reasons does CHSRA choose to re lease recommendations and reports after public hearings are underway?
b) How does this benefit the public participation process and foster collaborative decision-making?
c) For what reasons does CHSRA release reports without sufficient supporting empirical data for the decision (aerial alignment) contained within the report?
d) How will the lack of specific detail in the CHSRA’s released documents to date on San Jose’s alignment options inform or place at risk the subsequent EIR process?

8. CHSRA staff indicated the tunnel option would be detrimental to development in the Diridon Area. Most metropolitan areas have utilized the joint public-private development approach to preserve future development opportunities and build substantial structures on top of tunnels and underground stations.
a) Why is this development approach utilized around the world not viable in San Jose?
b) Everyone encourages transit-oriented development around stations. How did CHSRA staff reach its conclusion that such development would be enhanced by the aerial structure more than the underground option when experience tells us differently (San Francisco Transbay Terminal, etc .)?

9.  As for an underground option in San Jose being “impractical,” the preponderance of responses given at the Sept. 14 council meeting were about timing: potential delay to the project in order to study the underground, plus potential delays to the funding stream.
Given our understanding the San Jose to San Francisco section is in the initial project phase (not San Jose to Merced):
a) How are the San Jose to Merced decisions impacted?  For instance, how does the timing on the northern SF-SJ route drive the decisions on the southern alignment?
b) How will the delays that are apparent from city council actions on the Peninsula for the SF-SJ section allow more time to study options in San Jose?
c) Earlier this month, Caltrain officials suggested phasing construction to allow more time to study trenching and tunneling along the Peninsula in those communities that requested it. How would this approach allow for further comprehensive study of a tunnel alignment in San Jose?

10. Impractical can mean many things, which is why it would seem the environmental factors are critical to study at this stage of the project. Neighborhood groups throughout Central San Jose are particularly interested in these elements. While we understand the EIR has yet to be released and the analysis in the EIR may differ, the attached chart is an example of issues that could be vetted in the EJR, particularly as it pertains to the tunnel in comparison
to the aerial. The second attachment is a copy of the summary from the scoping document submitted to CHSRA in April 2009 for a tunnel option that CHSRA withdrew prior to the release of your June 2010 Alternatives Analysis.
a ) For what reasons and when did CHSRA staff reject these and other underground options in San Jose, such as the deep and shallow tunnel alignments?
b) For what reason did CHSRA not combine elements from multiple alignments to achieve a “best” underground option for San Jose?
c) For what reason did CHSRA not evaluate other areas besides Tamien Station for a tunnel portal since it is well known the area is a sensitive archeological site?

11. The incremental cost estimates given for accommodating a shared underground BART station with high-speed rail were $l40 million in your June report. It is our understanding this estimate was for the shallow tunnel high-speed rail option (HSR running above BART tracks).
a) How does this incremental underground cost, if at all, include the potential efficiencies from BART and high-speed rail sharing station construction and infrastructure? Please include the criteria assumptions and computations you used to make your estimate.

12. By virtue of spliuing the two Bay Area high-speed rail sections at Diridon Station, it is difficult for San Jose to receive a complete picture of the project in our city.
a) How will future planning documents about the north and south of Diridon Station areas provide improved transparency, accountability and increased coordinations?
b) At what point will a comprehensive look at the Diridon Station Area—north and south—be prepared and offered for local public input prior to the completion of the EIR process?

Thank you for addressing our questions and the continued consideration of a tunnel option for San Jose.


Art Bernstein
San Jose Downtown Association

Pat Dando
San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce

Helen Chapman
Shasta Hanchett Park Neighborhood Association

David Dearborn
Willow Glen Neighborhood Association

Pete Kolstad
Market Almaden Neighborhood Association

Steve Kline
Burbank/Del Monte Neighborhood Action Coalition

Kymberli Brady
San Jose Downtown Residents Association

Robert Sippel
Rose Garden Preservation Neighborhood Association

Phil Hood
Delmas Park Nelghborbood Association

John Urban
Newhall Neighborhood Association

Debbie Wade
Greater Gardner

Clay Reigel
College Park Neighborhood Association


  1. “While we continue to support high-speed rail….”  The entire HSR project is nothing more than a boondoggle akin to the WPA projects in the last century.  If you continue to support it, then you pay for it.  Don’t burden taxpayers with yet more costs associated with a gold-plated Boston Big Dig.

  2. Just for clarification: the neighborhoods aren’t demanding that HSR go underground, just that the underground option be included in the EIR.  When push comes to shove, they will accept an aerial structure that blends in with the current/future urban environment of central/downtown San Jose.  Kevin: a majority of Californians, and solid majorities here in Silicon Valley, believe that not only can we afford HSR but that it is important to our future economy.  Steve: stakeholders who will have to live with this forever?  The NIMBY’s and “Boondogglers” are almost all 60 years + in age and have no intention of seeing San Jose, or California for that matter, move forward.  This project is about my generation and future generations, not the AARP’s (my apologies for being so blunt).  Lastly, I’ll agree with Greg that this project will be such a “Boondoggle” and burden on society (sarcasm); just like the Goldent Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge, and Interstate highway system.  Who needs a new transportation system that will invigorate the economy, provide jobs, stimulate smart-growth and provide a more efficient means of transportation anyway?

    • Tony, your pro-HSRA position still has no credibility because you continue to generalize HSR opponents as old-fart NIMBYs when credible issues have been raised by organizations with no NIMBY bias. You still owe SJI readers an analysis of the reports by the State legislative analyst’s office, the California State Auditor’s Office and the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies that I linked to here:

      Come on, Tony, explain to SJI readers where these organizations went wrong with their analysis on the HSR program. Quote the objectionable section of their reports and explain why you disagree with the experts. Put up or shut up.

      • Put up or shut up?  My HSRA position has no credibility?  What part of the word “Democracy” don’t you get Hugh?  What part of 2008 Prop. 1A passing don’t you get?  What part of over 60% of Californians STILL supporting HSR don’t you get?  What part of HSR systems around the world being successful/profitable don’t you get?  Quite frankly, these are the only “analysis” that matter now Hugh.  The system will be built because this is what the majority wants; the only questions that now remain are related design and how it’s built.  FWIW, visit the following site for complete rebuttals/debunking of your cherished “analysis” from LAO and UC Berkley:

        Good day all!

    • > a majority of Californians, and solid majorities here in Silicon Valley, believe that not only can we afford HSR but that it is important to our future economy. 

      The majority of Californians and the majority of life forms in Silicon Valley are stupid.  And we are close to the point where the “majority” of Californians don’t pay taxes.

      These “majorities” largely believe the leftist utopian propaganda that “the rich” are going to pay for everything and therefore everything is affordable.

    • I hope that SJ ALL projects that affect ALL SJ residents and visitors welcome the opportunity to hear from everyone. To me, that’s what embracing diversity is all about. (Diversity of generations,  of thought, of culture, etc.)

      Too often our generations are separated from each other so they cannot appreciate what each has to offer. For example, perhaps if “we” had paid a bit more attention to the frugality and work ethic of our Elder Generation, our current society may not be in the financial mess we are in. We could learn alot about the future by looking into best practices/lessoons learned of the past.

      Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were great role models, both from the Elder Generation. Not only did they have a “common sense” attitude about finances, running a company, and giving back to the community, they also were willing to take big risks in order to become successful. Let’s look at Irene Dalis of Opera SJ who has done a phenomenal job through her “don’t spend it when you don’t have it” attitude. From what I have read/heard she and her organization have not fallen into “the red” (or if they have it sure hasn’t been for very long!) and have not had to ask for bailouts (donations are different than bailouts). She has taken enormous risks and Opera SJ remains an artistic jewel that we can be proud of.

      My point: Let’s please embrace all ideas before starting to point figures and discount each other’s potential contribution. We are all in this (society) together, let’s look for ways to work together as we look toward building a great future.

      My .02


    • You misunderstand me.  I support the High Speed Rail proposal (I voted for it), but placing it underground would increase the costs ENORMOUSLY.  It would effectively kill the project.  Its the equivalent of suggesting the tracks be “festooned with emeralds and rubies.”

  3. HSR is a great example of small thinking.  The NIMBY needs of each community dictate how we need to compromise the greater project for private needs (property values, noise factor.)

    In Palo Alto/Atherton/Menlo Park – Its demonstrated to foolish extremes where wealthy homeowners expect either a first class fully funded build out (paid for by someone else) or they stand willing to kill the whole project.

    Let’s take this a different direction, like water projects, prisons, schools and colleges, landfills and water treatment, the regional and state wide benefits are huge for a well done HSR system.  A lot of the objections are in the details of each communities segment and how it aesthetically impacts the community.  And lets not forget, CA is really reaching here as we’ve entered a post-industrial less is more, welfare state mentality where nothing big gets built and we just muddle along with incrementalism.

    So let’s break out of our sad little rut and dream and build big again.  I propose a multi-county Redevelopment District be created for Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco Counties to encompass the Grand Boulevard and HSR routes.  The goal of the district and sole purpose will be to leverage property tax increment financing to build out the SJ-SF corridor as a world class system with HSR below ground most of the route and BART extended at the same time as a local connector, serving both HSR and Caltrain stations as well as new density clusters built out along El Camino (The Grand Boulevard.)

    This would require a state legislator or two to author and carry the bill to create this new kind of hybrid Redevelopment District, and involve buy in from multiple communities, but its easily doable, even in a down economy.  Actually Economic Development projects of this scale make even more sense in a down economy.

    On a second note, let’s expand the HSR project to more than just the Bay Area-LA routing.  The secret to really getting a world class system is to never close the plants or shut down construction.  Trickle financing could continue construction for years and I’d love to see the system continue North into Oregon, Washington and Canada.  That’s building for the future.  Small thinking, incrementalism and NIMBY crap are a symptom of what’s wrong not only with our country but the local community.  Even while making tough choices to get through hard times we need to be planting the seeds of future prosperity.  Dare to dream again.

    • Blair I think NAFTA railways are already pushing into the PAC-North West but completely bypass California, Oregon, and Washington, severely limiting producers of goods in these states to participate in the global markets.  So having a rail system in place is what we need despite the protests.  Even if it is initially for passenger transport the skeletal infrastructure for a freight line will be there for future development.  The fact that NAFTA railways ignored California raises many questions about the effectiveness of California legislators as a whole but that’s another topic all together.


      In my view the need to catch up and be competitive in rail transportation is enough to justify the cost savings of an above ground train. It’s much more responsible and affords a lot more opportunities if planned creatively.  For example, in Bangkok BTS train system saddles the the roads at the stops and provides safe routes to both sides of the streets for passengers to enter and exit with stairs escalators and elevators.  The stops are also near major retail centers which is convenient but the stations themselves also have a variety of kiosks and retail shops, everything from Belgian waffle stands, fresh squeezed juices 7-11’s and Coffee houses, all above the traffic.  The municipal government is then in a position to be a landlord.  Additional revenue sources are always a plus.  Independent businesses are also always a plus.
          Subterranean structures always attract rats, and cockroaches, and other vermin. They are more susceptible to sabotage and bombings, and repair costs are always going to be higher then on their above ground counterparts. 
          Noise factor hardly seems like a real issue since these trains are supposed to hug the freeways, but that could possibly be overcome by the use of MagLev trains. They work, they achieve the speeds needed, just one possibility to consider.
          As far as a regional RDA is concerned that’s kind of like putting a fox (state of California) in the hen house. We need an agency that the state can’t touch.  Regardless of the HSR issues at hand re-naming and restructuring the RDA and protecting the local citizens Tax dollars should be of the highest priority.  We can dream but it will be a rude awakening when you realize the state took your money, again.

      While I’d like to wax on and on and apply some shiny editing to this bit, I’ll leave it as is and dream of fine dining establishments and mini movie theaters in a distinctly American style situated above the City of San Jose while I people watch waiting for my train to L.A.

  4. Why not just suspend the HSR tracks 5,000 above ground using helium balloons?

    The balloons could be designed to look like clouds and not be visible from the ground.

    The tracks could be put inside of giant thin film tubes so the train passengers could not see the ground and those suffering from acrophobia would not be distressed.

    This would also satisfy those interests who want the HSR to be in a tunnel.

  5. Don’t just put the trains underground, but make all the trains out of solid gold, and festoon the tracks with emeralds & rubies!  Why not?  Apparently people believe we can afford such things.

  6. Transparency sure can be murky at times. The city leaders are very arrogant in this high speed rail issue. No input and very little information for the stakeholders who will have to live with this forever.