The state staff-recommended High Speed Rail alignment through Morgan Hill may be the least invasive for private properties, but city officials remain concerned about the proposed system’s impact on local vehicle traffic.
That was the consensus expressed by Morgan Hill City councilmembers at a July 17 council workshop on a presentation of the preferred route by California High Speed Rail Authority staff. It is also a view that illustrates the state rail authority’s need to accept “tradeoffs” of the many potential impacts of the bullet train on local communities, authority officials told the council.
Specifically, the lack of grade separations along the state staff-recommended “Alternative 4” High-Speed Rail route through central Morgan Hill would cause local east-to-west traffic to suffer, according to council members. But separating the HSR grade from the roadway at key intersections—in order to allow the bullet train and cars to travel their own directions simultaneously, without impeding each other—would massively impact the private properties surrounding these intersections, explained Boris Lipkin, Northern California regional director for the rail authority.
“We are trying to find balance between all those factors,” Lipkin told the council. “Grade separations [are] a big set of impacts. If we came in with Alternative 2 [which calls for grade separations], I’m sure you’d be telling me we’re ripping up half the town.”
The authority announced earlier this summer it is recommending that the state bullet train board adopt the Alternative 4 route alignment through downtown Morgan Hill. The board is scheduled to meet Sept. 17 to approve its preferred route on the High Speed Rail’s “San Jose to Merced” section of tracks.
This route would use the existing Caltrain and Union Pacific corridor from Morgan Hill through Gilroy. The alignment would electrify the tracks currently used by Caltrain and run the high-speed rail—at speeds up to 110 mph—at street level through downtown Morgan Hill. Another set of parallel tracks would be constructed for freight trains.
Because there would be no grade separations where the tracks cross major east-to-west vehicle routes—such as Dunne and Tennant avenues—councilmembers are concerned that the High-Speed Rail would impede the flow of local traffic when the bullet train passes through town at a rate of up to 16 trains (northbound and southbound) per hour. CHSRA staff have noted that Alternative 4 would require the use of barricades that would drop down to block motor, bicycle and pedestrian traffic from crossing the tracks each time a train passes.
Such an impact on congestion is not merely an inconvenience; it poses a heightened risk of high-impact collisions and could slow down police and fire vehicles en route to various emergencies, councilmembers explained at the July 17 workshop.
Multiple councilmembers repeated their preference—expressed many times over the years leading up to the current HSR staff recommendation—to run the bullet train along the US 101 corridor. Rail authority staff countered that such a route has too many sharp curves for the high-speed rail to meet its travel time benchmarks.
“I just don’t buy it,” Mayor Pro Tem Rene Spring said of this claim repeated at the July 17 workshop. “Please bring in more common sense. And look at where we live; you’re plowing through a beautiful community if this is accepted. For those of us who live here and will continue to live here, the impact will be huge.”
Mayor Rich Constantine asked Lipkin and his staff to conduct a study of how the at-grade Alternative 4 alignment would impact traffic, specifically at Dunne and Tennant avenues, which Constantine said are the two busiest intersections for motor vehicles along the Caltrain corridor.
The bright-side tradeoff, in this case, is that Alternative 4 would require the “fewest displacements on residential, commercial and public facilities as well as agricultural because you’re staying in an existing [rail] corridor,” Lipkin said. The alternative would also have the least impact on wildlife and environmental resources.
In Morgan Hill, zero commercial properties would be impacted by the Alternative 4 alignment, Lipkin said.
But a negative tradeoff of the alternative is the likelihood of more noise, as the high-speed trains would have to engage loud horns as they pass through the densely populated Caltrain corridor, according to authority staff.
The staff-recommended alternative is also slower than other options, Lipkin said.
One added benefit of Alternative 4 is the electrification of the Caltrain tracks, which would improve Caltrain service to and from South County. In fact, it is the only route option that allows a “blended system” with Caltrain, Lipkin said.
The San Jose-to-Merced section of the high-speed rail route includes a station just outside downtown Gilroy, with no stops in Morgan Hill. East of Gilroy, the route would tunnel under Pacheco Pass on its way into the Central Valley.
Lipkin said the staff’s recommendation of Alternative 4 is based on input gathered from stakeholders at various meetings, workshops and open houses throughout the corridor over the last several years.
The Northern Californian portion of the route has never been fully funded. The authority recently ran into more funding trouble after the Federal Rail Administration sent a notice of funding withdrawal, which would cause the high-speed project to lose nearly a billion dollars.
After the CHSRA board selects its preferred alignment alternative Sept. 17, the authority will complete an exhaustive environmental study of all four potential alternatives. A draft of that study is expected in December, with a public comment period to follow before the study is certified. Lipkin said he expects to certify a final environmental study draft by November 2020.
• California High Speed Rail Authority staff will host an open house session on the local section alignment recommendation 5pm to 8pm Aug. 8 at the Gilroy Portuguese Hall, 250 Old Gilroy St.
• The CHSRA board will meet Sept. 17 in San Jose to approve its preferred alignment alternative through Morgan Hill, Gilroy and other areas along the Northern California route.
• Submit comments on the CHSRA staff’s preferred route in person at one of the upcoming meetings, or by email to [email protected], or mail to Northern California Regional Office, California High Speed Rail Authority, 100 Paseo De San Antonio, Suite 300, San Jose, CA 95113.