Bay Area Cities Grill Bullet Train Managers on At-Grade Crossings

(CN) – As California’s bullet train chugs toward its destination of realizing a connection between California’s largest metropolitan areas in the north and south, one impediment continues to loom – grade separations.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority continues to struggle with its budget and time schedule as it narrows its focus to the 119-mile segment in the Central Valley between Merced and Bakersfield.

But the ambition to connect the more populous areas of the state remains, and the authority met in San Jose on Tuesday to discuss how the network will align as it connects Merced to San Jose.

Connecting the Central Valley – where the housing and the general cost of living are relatively affordable – to the mind-blowingly expensive Silicon Valley via rapid and reliable rail transportation is an enticing prospect, according to leaders in both communities.

But one of the most prominent sticking points in the endeavor continues to be whether to build the train tracks at or above grade.

At grade means trains run at the same level as cars, slower trains and other means of transit. Boris Lipkin of the authority noted building the high-speed rail alongside existing rail infrastructure, whether maintained by commuter or freight rail operations, carries many advantages – including keeping costs down with a lighter ecological footprint.

Construction continues on an elevated section of high-speed rail track near downtown Fresno, California. (Matthew Renda/CNS)

But many San Jose residents and the mayor of San Jose say grade separations – viaducts built above roadways and slower rail – are necessary to prevent traffic jams trains traveling at grade would cause.

Furthermore, the city says at grade construction could hamper public safety due to people or cars wandering on the tracks or cutting off emergency vehicles and preventing them from transporting patients while trains cross arterial roadways.

“Our residents deserve the safety that can be granted only through grade separations,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. Liccardo said the city is eager to support high-speed rail, but its full-throated support is contingent on getting the alignment that will alleviate the concerns of residents.

San Jose wants to see five grade separations at five major intersections in the southern part of the city.

Morgan Hill and Gilroy, also on the proposed route from Merced to San Jose, could also feature grade separations to prevent the bisection of the downtown areas and the type of traffic waits that residents fear will befall them due to the proposed frequency of trains ripping through their towns at speeds of 220 miles per hour.

Lipkin told the board a project underway in San Mateo has the city, other rail providers such as Caltrain and the high-speed rail authority collaborating in terms of both funding and design to build an above-grade viaduct to address resident concerns.

“Cities up and down the peninsula have been taking a hard look at grade separations,” he said.

Liccardo said San Jose looks forward to working with the authority to render Diridon station and the surrounding area amenable to high-speed rail, but the city might have to come up with funding for at least part of its desired grade separations if they are to come to fruition: The rail authority board voted unanimously to endorse the preferred alternative of using existing rail infrastructure that does not require the construction of expensive viaducts.

The board made clear, however, the alternative is not final and it remains eager to collaborate with cities looking for solutions to resident concerns.

In the Central Valley, 55 above-grade infrastructure points are being built, amounting to miles of viaducts.

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