Imagine a park over 40 miles long, stretching from San Francisco to San Jose filled with restaurants, cafes, and eco-friendly housing and businesses. Families could rent bikes and make a day excursion, returning on the train.
This is not a fantasy but, rather, a plan proposed by Ben Toy, President of the San Mateo United Homeowners Association, and Dan Ionescu, a peninsula-based architect, whose work focuses on sustainable urban development.
Toy and Ionescu propose a system of putting Caltrain and the High-Speed Train underground, leaving the land around the existing tracks to be converted into a green-belt.
Ionescu, originally from the formerly communist Romania, puts the situation bluntly.
“Politicians have two choices," he said. "They can either put the train underground now or they can do it later.”
Toy points to successful advocacy efforts for tunnel systems in San Francisco and in Anaheim as an illustration that densely populated areas with attractions to preserve are being spared the impact of a noisy and disruptive above-ground system.
The peninsula, both men say, warrants the same treatment.
“We live in small town USA within a large metropolitan area,” said Toy
That ‘small-town’ feel of the peninsula downtowns is at risk, according to Toy’s projections.
The above-ground train system would either have two tracks, resulting in excessive train traffic, leading to delays and safety hazards, or would have three or more tracks, in which case surrounding land would need to be demolished.
The two of them claim that the plan faces a similar hurdle in deciding between level crossings and elevated crossings.
Level crossings present a safety hazard, and also may present a significant delay to traffic given the frequency of the proposed service.
Elevated crossings can be a dwelling for the homeless underneath and can also have a divisive impact on the community.
Toy points to the state of the surrounding areas of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, demolished in the early 1990s, as an example of this impact.
Among other issues, Ionescu expressed concern for the increase in noise pollution from fast, frequent trains.
“The hills amplify sound,” he said.
Ionescu, who specializes in civil architecture, said that an underground system can be constructed at 100 feet below the ground without such noise impact.
Though the cost of such a system is significantly more, Toy pointed to constantly shifting cost projections as evidence that the cost difference may not be as significant as once thought.
Though the projections originally speculated that the underground system would cost $1 Billion per mile, those costs have significantly sunk as low as $500 Million per mile. In comparison, the same studies suggest that above-ground rail would cost nearly $350 Million per mile.
The additional cost, both gentlemen say, is money well spent, and need not be funded by taxpayer dollars.
Due to the high value of peninsula real estate, Toy and Ionescu say that some of the land currently occupied by the train tracks can be sold to developers with the proceeds going to fund the construction of the tunnel.
In San Carlos, the Transit Village Project does just that despite protests from the East San Carlos Neighborhood group.
“All the properties around the train will become prime properties,” said Ionescu.
Toy added that the whole venture can be run more as a business than a typical government construction project.
As part of the plan, Toy and Ionescu call for the current station buildings to remain, becoming coffee shops or restaurants (like the Depot Cafe in San Carlos), with the train stations being located underground, accessible by escalator or elevator.
Parking structures would also be underground, but would be built in an ‘atrium’ style as to decrease the claustrophobia in typical underground stations.
The park, Ionescu says, could be called “Peninsula Park”, similar to New York City’s Central Park.
Toy acknowledges the project may be seen as futile and his plans bizarre, but he stressed that support for the proposal is increasng.
Union leaders, previously skeptical of the plan, have come to support it because of the possible increase of lucrative work opportunities. Residental Associations have long supported the underground plan, but are now gravitating toward it in increasing numbers.
Both men hope to expand the coalition of advocates for the plan by being actively engaging in the local political scene.
If the trains are truly put underground, train lovers may miss the regular sight and sound of the engines. However, Ionescu comforts them by insisting that,
“The best infrastructure is the one you don’t see and works.”