By Sharon Noguchi

Posted: 10/04/2009 07:48:49 PM PDT

Updated: 10/05/2009 10:22:04 AM PDT
Imagine a green ribbon of walking and biking paths running eight miles through Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton, interspersed with parks, sculptures and shopping plazas — all along where Caltrain tracks now run.

A weekend design workshop on how to accommodate the 200 mph trains planned to run down the Peninsula sketched out an idealized vision for eight miles of track. If realized, the multibillion-dollar proposal — part pie-in-the-sky, part edgy development scheme — could make Palo Alto and its neighboring towns even pricier and more desirable.

Put Caltrain and the new high-speed rail underground in a trench or tunnel, workshop participants said, to control noise and eliminate a longtime barrier splitting cities into east and west segments. They also suggested downsizing six-lane El Camino Real, to make it less of a dividing line and easier for cyclists and pedestrians to cross.

The chance to redesign and knit together the community comes along only once every 100 years, said John Kriken, a planning consultant with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in San Francisco.

“We should call it ‘Together again for the first time,’ ” said Judith Wasserman, a Palo Alto architectural review board member who helped organize the workshop. About 80 residents and 20 planning and transportation professionals attended the two-day sessions at the Palo Alto Sheraton.

The ideas would not only make Palo Alto more livable and walkable, but also would “tremendously increase property values,” said architect Tony Carrasco.  Of course, the parklike vision comes with a hefty price tag. Placing rails in a trench rather than at grade could cost about ?3?1/2 times to 6?1/2 times as costly, according to Caltrain transportation chief Robert Doty. And below-ground rails require below-ground stations, and could mean acquiring adjacent private property for construction, he said.

The California High-Speed Rail Project, approved by state voters last year, would run bullet trains between Southern and Northern California, over Pacheco Pass and up the Peninsula to San Francisco. The 50-mile segment from San Francisco to San Jose is estimated to cost $4.2 billion, for at-grade construction. An uncovered trench could cost $60 million to $200 million per mile; boring a tunnel could run up to $250 million per mile.

That all translates to $480 million to $2 billion extra to please residents of an eight-mile segment, a bill the state is unlikely to foot. So cities demanding underground tracks would likely have to figure out a way to finance them. The workshop focused on the mid-Peninsula because it was convened by officials in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton.

Various financing methods are possible, consultant Glenn Isaacson said, such as selling development rights above the tracks and pledging future increased tax revenue.

But the participants didn’t have to pencil out the budget. Nor did they consider litigation, such as a recent court ruling that declared environmental studies for the rail route on the Peninsula insufficient. Their mission was simply to color in their dreams for their communities.

So on tracing paper taped atop Google maps showing the rail corridor, they drew in parks, paths and plazas. Some in Palo Alto wanted a high-speed rail station, but no parking.

Palo Alto Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto, who chairs the three-city group, said the ideas were “very exciting.”

“Our 140-year-old transportation system has served us well,” said Brian Steen, a land-use consultant who chaired the workshop. “But it’s time to update.”

Tuesday in San Jose, California High-Speed Rail Authority officials plan to address questions from neighbors to be included in an upcoming environmental impact report, including potentially changing the route from the Caltrain corridor to Highway 87 as it approaches Diridon Station from the south. The meeting will be from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Gardner Community Center, 520 W. Virginia St. For more information, go to