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It began with a series of casual chats between neighbors in the Southgate neighborhood before it spilled over to other parts of Palo Alto.
Gradually, the rumors became more troubling. Homes will be seized. Property values will plummet. The city will be divided by a 15-foot-high barrier -- a modern-day Berlin Wall -- running along the Caltrain tracks and scarring the neighborhoods in its path.
Ironically, some of the residents cast their votes for the very project they are now rallying against. In November, Palo Alto joined every other Peninsula city except Atherton in passing Proposition 1A, which authorizes a $9.95 billion bond to construct the nation's first high-speed rail system in California.
The 800-mile rail line would eventually stretch from San Francisco to San Diego, carrying commuters up and down the state at speeds reaching 220 mph and allowing residents to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 38 minutes, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with guiding the project to its conclusion.
The rail would also run on grade-separated tracks, which means it would operate at a different elevation than other transportation paths, making collisions all but impossible.
But as residents who attended the rail authority's public scoping sessions in January repeatedly said when asked for their thoughts on the project: The devil's in the details. A fast, clean train line may be a worthy ideal, they say, but it becomes less worthy if the train is heading toward your backyard.
"The idea that high-speed rail will be going through densely populated cities is a significant issue," Palo Alto resident Mary Brodbeck told the City Council during a Feb. 9 meeting. "There is significant pent-up frustration in our community that we have not been heard on this issue."
At some point, between November and February, fears began to bubble up around Southgate as neighbors have come to a discomforting realization: The largest peacetime infrastructure project in the nation's history will likely rumble through their backyards, and there may be nothing they can do to stop it.
Though anxieties over the high-speed rail project have only recently begun to surface in Palo Alto, very little about the project is actually new. The rail authority, which consists of a nine-member board of directors and a few staff members, was created in 1996 and has been working with private engineering and environmental-consulting firms on the project for more than a decade.
By the time California voters approved Proposition 1A -- giving it 53 percent of support statewide and 60 percent in Santa Clara County -- the authority had already released thousands of pages of information analyzing potential routes and funding sources.
Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and myriad state and local officials lobbied for Proposition 1A, touting the proposed high-speed rail line as the best way to mitigate the state's swelling congestion, reduce carbon emissions and bring the United States in line with other developed nations, most of whom built similar systems decades ago.
In Palo Alto, the City Council passed a resolution in October calling the high-speed rail a "proven technology" that would "provide a faster, far better environmental solution to the problem of moving our state's growing population from one part of the state to another."
Last July, the Authority chose the Pacheco Pass, which cuts over from the Central Valley to Santa Clara Valley, as the preferable route for the first planned installment of the rail line. Had the alternate, eastern Altamont Pass been selected, the rail line would have skipped the Peninsula in favor of connecting to San Francisco from the east.
Also, under a scheme proposed by the rail authority, one of the stations along the segment would be located in either Redwood City or Palo Alto. Though that decision is yet to be made, the proposed trains could zip through Palo Alto as early as 2015, reaching the speed of 125 mph.
Residents had a chance to learn about the projects at three scoping sessions the rail authority conducted in January. The meetings, held in San Carlos, San Francisco and Santa Clara and focusing on the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the line, were held precisely to inform the public about the project and to get feedback on what issues the agency should study in its environmental impact report.
But more than a few Palo Alto residents say they left these sessions unsatisfied. Agency officials lauded the benefits of the electrified steel-on-steel rail system and described the approval process, but strayed from answering specific questions about the track alignments and possible use of eminent domain to secure the needed right of way.
The real engineering work is just getting started, project engineer Timothy Cobb told the audience at the sessions, and will likely take at least a year and possibly more.
Among the larger-than-expected spillover crowd at the San Carlos scoping session was Tom D'Arezzo of Palo Alto. A resident of Mariposa Avenue, which runs parallel to Alma Street and the Caltrain tracks, D'Arezzo attended the first scoping session because he wanted to know how the train will affect his neighborhood in general and his property in particular. D'Arezzo said he was dumbfounded when he couldn't get clear answers to his questions about eminent domain, track alignments and other details close to his and his neighbors' hearts.
For D'Arezzo and his neighbors, the question isn't merely academic. If the rail ends up running along the Caltrain tracks, as planned, two new tracks would need to be installed, rail authority officials had said. But it wasn't clear to D'Arezzo or anyone else at the scoping meetings whether the authority would need to use eminent domain to acquire the land needed for the track expansions.
The next day, D'Arezzo wrote a letter to his neighborhood group and launched a Yahoo message board to encourage people to become more engaged in this project. He also decided to attend the Feb. 2 City Council meeting to voice his concerns.
Other residents from Southgate and Charleston Meadows neighborhoods also stopped by City Hall to express frustration and, in some cases, opposition.
"I was still in the information-gathering, mode and I decided I needed to go to the next council meeting and speak," D'Arezzo said. "I was surprised when I got to the City Council meeting and saw that, independently, some people decided to show up as well."
On Feb. 8, he said, about 60 residents attended a community meeting focusing on high-speed rail. The meeting included a presentation by Councilman John Barton, who used a picture of the Berlin Wall to characterize the embankment the line would require if it were constructed above ground. D'Arezzo said Barton also advocated placing the line in an underground tunnel, an option that several residents have also lobbied for.
The next evening, most of the residents from that gathering showed up at the City Council meeting.
The council, for its part, has been asking its own questions about the project and its implications for Palo Alto's future. In December, the City Council directed city staff to examine the potential impacts of a high-speed rail station on Palo Alto.
In January, Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto attended the San Carlos scoping session and, like D'Arezzo, expressed a sense of frustration about the limited communication channel between the rail authority and the cities that would be impacted by the new rail line.
After the meeting, Kishimoto talked to leaders from other Peninsula cities and noticed they had similar concerns. The week after the San Carlos meeting, she helped assemble an ad hoc coalition of officials from all over the Peninsula -- including Mountain View, Atherton, Menlo Park, Redwood City and Burlingame. The group has met three times.
Kishimoto said members are now considering signing a Memorandum of Understanding, which would enable them to efficiently share information and negotiate with the rail authority.
"We represent a fairly diverse collection of cities, some of which are more enthusiastic about high-speed rail than others," Kishimoto said. "But we realized that we do have a lot of clear areas of common concern."
One of these, Kishimoto said, is the need for more time to identify issues the environmental impact report should cover.
On that ground, at least, the group appears to have already secured a victory. The rail authority had previously set March 6 as the deadline for submitting comments about the scope of the environmental study. In the last few weeks, residents and officials from other jurisdiction have argued that the March 6 deadline gives them insufficient time to make the necessary comments.
In mid-February, authority officials said the wish might be granted.
City leaders also urged the rail authority to give greater consideration to urban design in its environmental study, thereby making sure the rail line would integrate smoothly with the environment through which it would be stretching.
Kishimoto said the group also urged the authority to fully consider the tunneling option in its impact report and to integrate the high-speed rail system with Caltrain to reduce redundancy and limit the number of trips.
Palo Alto officials are next scheduled to discuss the rail project March 2 at 7 p.m. An hour before that, dozens of city residents are expected to march from Lytton Plaza to City Hall to demonstrate their reservations and frustrations.
Unfortunately for those wanting certainty now, some of the most pressing questions will not be answered for a year or more. Among them: Will there be tunnels or overhead tracks? Will Palo Alto get a station? Will properties be confiscated through the process of eminent domain?
In the meantime, the authority, for its part, will be asking its own questions, mostly about funding. The $9.95 billion bond passed by the voters authorizes $9 billion for high-speed rail construction and another $950 million for rail-related services such as shuttles and light rails connected to the system. The federal government is projected to provide $10 billion to $12 billion for the project, while another $7 billion or so would come from private investors.
But it's not yet clear what effect the economic recession will have on potential investors, which include Goldman Sachs and the California State Teachers' Retirement System, authority staff have stated.
On the other hand, the federal economic stimulus bill should spell some good news for the authority. On Feb. 17, President Barack Obama signed a $787 billion bill, which includes $8 billion for high-speed rail. California is expected to land at least $2 billion of that money.
At the same time, nothing is certain in a recession. Quentin Kopp, who chairs the rail authority's board of directors, said the agency is still waiting for the approved bonds from Proposition 1A to be sold. And the cost of postponement is steep. Kopp said each year of delay would add $2 billion to the project's $45 billion price tag.
"The design engineering phase will probably require approximately two years," Kopp said. "I'd like it to be speedier, but lack of money always delays a project. ... Until the treasurer decides the bonds can be sold, we're literally working on promise."
Meanwhile, the authority plans to continue its outreach process. On Feb. 26, agency officials plan to meet with Palo Alto residents at the Mitchell Park Community Center. The meeting is tentatively scheduled for 7 p.m. Updates will be posted on the city's website, which now has a section devoted to the high-speed rail project.
Timothy Cobb, the engineer in charge of the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment, also said agency officials will return to update residents on a quarterly basis, even though some of the most important questions won't be answered for some time.
Sara Armstrong, president of her neighborhood's Charleston Meadows Association, said she hopes future meetings will provide more specifics about the rail plan. Most of the answers the authority has been providing so far have been little more than marketing, Armstrong told the City Council.
"My recommendation is, we need to do a lot more community outreach within Palo Alto," Armstrong said. "I think we should start within Palo Alto an effort to inform our citizens about what has actually gone on.
"How can we mitigate the negative impacts and focus on the positives that this high-speed rail would mean for the community?" she asked.
Rail authority seeks comments
The California High-Speed Rail Authority is seeking feedback from residents about what issues should be considered in its Environmental Impact Report. For information, visit www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov. Comments should be mailed by March 6 to: Mr. Dan Leavitt, deputy director, ATTN: San Francisco to San Jose HST Project, EIR/EIS, California High-Speed Rail Authority, 925 L St., Suite 1425, Sacramento, CA 95814