The latest efforts by planners of the California high-speed rail system to gather community input and influence the flow of information about the project have not done much to assuage the concerns of local skeptics.
Rail officials have characterized two recent developments -- the signing of a $9 million contract with a public relations firm, and the rollout of a comprehensive outreach plan to communities along the rail line -- as measures to provide accurate information and gather local feedback about the $40 billion project, which would run high-speed trains from San Diego to Sacramento.
But for local residents and officials skeptical of the project from the beginning, those efforts don't do much to assuage fears that, when the dust settles, plans will call for trains to tear through local communities on an elevated platform. That design is thought to be several times cheaper than running trains underground, the stated preference of both Menlo Park and Atherton.
"As far as leading to a satisfactory, do-it-right solution, I'm skeptical that (increased outreach) is going to be the answer," Atherton Mayor Jerry Carlson said in an interview. "I think the final answer's going to be made in Sacramento by the high-speed-rail board, regardless of what the consultants say." He added, however, that he hoped the outreach effort would at least get local residents more informed and involved.
As for the new $9 million public relations contract, Mr. Carlson and others interpret it as an effort to stifle dissent, rather than promote dialogue.
"I characterize it as a propaganda machine, I really feel that way," he said. "That's the intended purpose, to get their message across, and they've singled out the Peninsula as being the one area where they're gotten beaten up on" in newspapers and online venues.
Some have latched on to remarks by board member Ron Diridon to a representative of the PR company during a recent meeting as the latest sign that board members are intent on squelching opposition to the project, rather than working with local critics.
"Misinformation is causing serious media relations problems in the Midpeninsula; Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto area especially," Mr. Diridon said. He blamed project opponents for "blatantly providing false information to the media," and went on to say that the PR firm needed to correct that information immediately, to prevent it from becoming "a sore that festers," or "the rotten apple in the barrel." PR workers should see themselves as "flying squads of emergency responders" in correcting false media reports, he said.
Mr. Diridon said the PR contract would help to streamline communication efforts and prevent employees of the rail agency from issuing conflicting or inaccurate messages.
One frequent poster on The Almanac's Web site saw evidence that the PR firm is already at it, accusing an anonymous poster -- who defended Mr. Diridon, the project, and the PR firm -- of being an employee of the firm. The accused poster denied the allegation. The PR firm, Ogilvy, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At Menlo Park's Nov. 10 council meeting, Councilman Rich Cline said he saw mixed messages in the rail authority's communication efforts with Peninsula residents.
On the one hand, "you're saying, 'your input is something we want,'" Mr. Cline told Mike Garvey, who's heading up community outreach efforts for the consulting firm overseeing the project's two-year environmental review process. "On the other hand, you're saying, 'we have to do something about these bad apples, we have to eliminate the bad apples from the bunch, we need to get rid of 'em, let's get a PR firm to do it.' The two messages completely contradict."
Joking that remarks by board members might put his children through college, Mr. Garvey said that the goal of the environmental analysis is to "get away from the kind of emotion we've seen up to this point -- not only on the part of the public, but also on the part of board members."
The board is "free to do what it wants," but its members won't be able to simply disregard the environmental study, he said. Project engineers would consider input gathered from local residents in conducting that study.
"We welcome everyone, whether they are critical or supportive," Mr. Garvey said.
Beyond continued doubts over whether their solicitations, complaints and pleas will influence the thinking of rail authority board members, local officials have also expressed concern that residents will simply get lost in a deluge of information about the rail project in the two-plus years before the board's decision on the preferred alignment, scheduled for early 2012.
They fear that efforts by the rail authority, the environmental review contractor, a regional advocacy group, local jurisdictions, and involved residents will merge into a soupy muddle in the minds of casual followers.
"It's a bit of a blur," Menlo Park Mayor Heyward Robinson told Mr. Garvey.
"How do we prevent burnout?" Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson asked. "I'm afraid that people are going to feel like they have to come to a lot of meetings to get their voices heard."
Mr. Robinson proposed a more direct solution, saying that he's heard rail officials complain of "misinformation" several times, without offering specific examples.
"We haven't had a presentation from the High-Speed Rail Authority to this council and to this community in well over a year," he said. "There are a lot of legitimate questions, and we kind of keep hearing things from various sources that there's misinformation out there. And I'm sure there is. ... Instead of sort of throwing darts and saying, 'well, there's misinformation,' come! We're here every Tuesday night. ... Come and clear up some of these things."