How do you pack the room at the annual Atherton Civic Interest League meeting? Put a discussion of the California High Speed Rail project on the agenda. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 people crowded the Jennings Pavilion at Holbrook-Palmer Park on Thursday evening, May 28, to hear from a panel of experts assembled by the league.
If there were any high-speed rail supporters in the house, they kept that fact to themselves.
The standing-room only audience listened politely to Mike Garvey and John Litzinger, public outreach consultants hired by the state's High Speed Rail Authority, but reserved their enthusiasm for panel members opposed to the current route that would send high-speed trains through the Caltrain corridor that bisects Atherton.
"We need to do this right," said attorney Gary Patton, laying out a case for why the rail authority's preferred route is the wrong way to go.
Mr. Patton is the former executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, a Sacramento-based environmental lobby group that is one of the plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit against the project's planned route from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Atherton and Menlo Park are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
It's not too late to change the route to something better than what's proposed, he told the receptive audience. Mr. Patton advised the crowd to band together, decide on a reasonable alternative, and then, "have constant and continuous contact" with state legislators and the governor.
For his part, Mr. Garvey advised patience, as the environmental study of the route is still in its early phases, and alternatives to the route haven't been analyzed yet.
"People ask, 'Why can't we have a tunnel? What will it look like if we raise (the tracks)?' We don't know the answers to any of those questions yet," Mr. Garvey said.
Duncan Jones, Atherton's public works director, laid out the town's case for both joining the lawsuit and still participating in the high-speed rail planning process. "We need to hedge our bets," he said.
Mr. Jones, a former rail consultant, said that the town's fallback position -- if the route doesn't change, put the high-speed trains in a tunnel, rather than on a raised berm -- isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.
The rail corridor in Atherton is lined by expensive homes, and widening it to accommodate high-speed rail would require purchasing swaths of private property.
"When (the authority) looks at all of the costs and impacts, they may find out that going underground may be cheaper," Mr. Jones said.
The audience got an overview of various tunneling methods, sizes and shapes from John Townsend, the executive vice president of Hatch Mott MacDonald, a consulting engineering firm with expensive experience building rail tunnels all over the world. However, Mr. Townsend said there were too many variables for him to be able to estimate the cost of constructing a high-speed rail tunnel through Atherton.