Burlingame leaders say they are preparing to strike back after California's high-speed rail chief told them the state will build its tracks underground on the Peninsula only if local taxpayers foot the massive bill.

"This letter that we got from (California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark) basically says in bold words that, if we want a trench, we're going to have to pay for it," Burlingame Vice Mayor Jerry Deal said.

Van Ark sent the city the letter Dec. 28, after Mayor Terry Nagel asked him to clarify comments he reportedly made in the Gilroy area saying the state could not afford to build the tracks underground.

Van Ark said in his letter that the state has "an obligation to deliver to California citizens" a project that includes "careful considerations of the cost of each section in light of the entire system." The $43 billion project is already facing a funding shortfall of $30 billion, even before adding in potential extra costs of underground tracks on the Peninsula.

"The authority encourages these municipalities (that want below-ground tracks) to explore alternate means of funding the cost difference of placing the alignment below-grade," he wrote.

Like their counterparts in San Mateo, Belmont and several other cities along the Peninsula, Burlingame officials want their entire stretch of planned high-speed rail track buried underground along the Caltrain line. State rail planners say it would be several hundred million dollars cheaper to build aboveground tracks, which locals fear would tower 30 feet in the air, produce more noise and create a physical divide.

Nagel said Burlingame could spend the city's entire $33 million annual budget on funding the tracks and barely make a dent in the price tag.

"It's not even a possibility," Nagel said Wednesday.

The Burlingame City Council plans to consider a stronger stance against the project at its next meeting Jan. 18. The council has retained an outside attorney and may consider joining other Peninsula cities in a lawsuit against the state. It could also adopt a resolution opposing the project or take some other action.

"I think we need to return to common sense here and re-evaluate this whole project," Nagel said.

Van Ark notes in his letter that the authority has not made a decision yet on the type of tracks to be used on the Peninsula, and an environmental study of the options is not due until March. But city officials say the letter shows they have already sealed the deal on building cheaper, aboveground tracks.

"I think there are an increasing number of very clear signals that the authority has no intention of putting it underground," Councilman Michael Brownrigg said. "I just don't believe them anymore, that they're really taking this seriously."

Mike Rosenberg covers San Mateo, Burlingame, Belmont and transportation. Contact him at 650-348-4324.