Faced with outrage and confusion from Palo Alto and other Peninsula cities, the Caltrain Board of Directors has revised its agreement with the state agency in charge of building a high-speed rail system, eliminating any mention of a "four-track" rail alignment.
The decision by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board -- which oversees Caltrain -- surprised and pleased Palo Alto officials, who criticized the earlier draft of the agreement between the two agencies as "duplicitous." City officials had asserted the memorandum's wording all but dictated how the future rail line would be configured along the Peninsula, eliminating the chance for cities to weigh in on their preferences.
The new agreement approved by the Caltrain board Thursday morning also states that "track configuration analyses will consider both horizontal and vertical alignments in the Caltrain corridor."
The agreement, known as a memorandum of understanding (MOU), became a hot topic at Monday's City Council meeting. City officials had been repeatedly assured by California High-Speed Rail Authority that all design options, including the locally popular tunneling alternative, are on the table.
But the proposed agreement stated that "ultimate configuration of the Caltrain corridor will be a four track grade-separated high-speed rail system, with mixed-traffic from Caltrain commuter rail and the high-speed rail service."
Councilman Pat Burt and Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie both characterized the memorandum as far too detailed and suggested that the rail-agency officials misled them earlier.
The city drafted a letter to the Caltrain board, requesting that it remove "any commitment to specific track design or operational condition without public input and required environmental review."
On Thursday, Caltrain officials assured concerned residents that the language in the proposed memorandum only intended to ensure that the new system would not threaten Caltrain's existing infrastructure. Robert Doty, Caltrain's director of rail transportation, said the language has since become a disturbance, with many residents and city officials assuming that the two agencies have already made a decision about what the new system would look like.
The passed memorandum states that "ultimate configuration of the Caltrain corridor will consist of a multiple track, grade-separated high-speed rail system, with mixed traffic from Caltrain commuter rail and the high-speed train service capable of operation on all tracks to enable Caltrain to achieve service levels of no less than eight trains per hour in each direction."
Emslie thanked the board for making the revision.
"We really appreciate the responsiveness in the MOU and support the changes that were made," Emslie told the board. "We're looking forward to working with the high-speed rail staff and the Caltrain staff."
Burt also thanked the board for taking the cities' concern into consideration and urged them to give municipalities a seat at the table in discussions of the proposed rail system, which would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles and use the Caltrain corridor as its pathway through the Peninsula.
In the last few months, Burt and Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto have been meeting officials from other Peninsula cities to discuss common concerns about the proposed rail system. On Monday, the council agreed to a memorandum of understanding, drafted by City Attorney Gary Baum, creating an official coalition called the Peninsula Cities Consortium.
"Our concern is that the cities must be allowed to enter into this process in a substantive way and in a formal way," Burt told the Caltrain board.
Sara Armstrong, who heads the Charleston Meadows Neighborhood Association, also told the board to keep local communities in mind. Palo Alto neighborhoods, she said, are particularly concerned about the bifurcating effects of elevated rail tracks, which would create a wall along the Caltrain corridor. The public's level of trust toward the rail project has become quite low, she said.
"Take into consideration that you're taking on an important role in this project," Armstrong said. "Ensure that both our unique concerns and overarching concerns are heard."
Caltrain officials pledged to do just that. The passed memorandum specifies that the "high-speed rail must be designed, constructed and operated in a manner fully consistent with the operational requirements of the Caltrain commuter rail rapid transit service and with consideration of the cities on the Peninsula through which the high-speed rail system will be constructed and operated."
Michael Scanlon, Caltrain's executive director, underscored that the "consideration" mentioned in the paragraph will be genuine. He said the concerns expressed by city officials and residents throughout the Peninsula are important and legitimate.
"It was felt, when we agreed on the language, that this would be the right word to show that we were serious," Scanlon said.
Jim Hartnett, member of the Caltrain board, also said the board's job is to represent the residents' concerns. He noted that the new agreement would allow the Caltrain board to perform this duty effectively.
"This MOU not only puts us at the table, it gives us a position at the table that is unprecedented," Caltrain board member Jim Hartnett said Thursday. "It puts a local face on a state project which we wouldn't otherwise have any input into."