Council members from both cities met Jan. 29 to talk about grade separations — building overpasses or underpasses to separate the Caltrain tracks from the roadway at intersections. A key variable in the grade separation discussion is high-speed rail.
The California High Speed Rail Authority is proposing a $40 billion train system that would transport passengers along a San Francisco-Central Valley-Los Angeles route at speeds up to 220 mph.
The rail authority is planning to use the Caltrain corridor to connect San Jose to San Francisco, and wants to build two additional tracks along the Caltrain line to accommodate the faster trains.
But a four-track system requires grade separations, according to state regulations, and that means the tracks and roadway would need to be separated at six local streets: Ravenswood, Oak Grove, Glenwood and Encinal avenues in Menlo Park, and Watkins Avenue and Fair Oaks Lane in Atherton.
The required grade separations, although paid for by the rail authority, would mean calamity to local communities, according to most council members.
"I think high-speed rail up the Peninsula is a disaster," said Menlo Park Councilman Richard Cline — a notion Atherton Councilman Charles Marsala was quick to second, comparing grade separations to the giant asteroid in the film "Armageddon."
The strong opposition excited local critics of high-speed rail, who have long argued that constructing grade separations would worsen congestion, be more costly, and severely impact nearby homes and businesses, as the state may want to obtain land outside of the current Caltrain right of way.
"There's the NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue here, for one," said Menlo Park resident Martin Engel after the meeting. "But this beyond-expensive project, given the state budget, is the most incredibly stupid idea for California, whether or not it's in [Menlo Park's] backyard."
Mr. Engel, who lives adjacent to the tracks, is starting a nonprofit group with neighbors Morris Brown and Mike Brady called "Derail" to oppose the high-speed rail project.
Local proponents say grade separations would allow traffic, bicycles, and pedestrians to pass over or under the tracks, reducing congestion and improving safety. Supporters also say the project has huge environmental benefits, with the potential to take cars off crowded freeways.
"I think the [Menlo Park and Atherton] council members missed the mark," said Jim Bigelow, chairman of the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee. "There needs to be some political reality ... and these council members need to get a lot more informed."
Menlo Park Councilman John Boyle didn't declare support for high-speed rail or grade separations, but after the meeting he questioned the reasoning behind his colleagues' opposition.
"For individual council members to take a position on high-speed rail, when we haven't had discussions about it as a council, I think that's premature," he said. "It's better to engage and work with [state transportation groups] rather than just say, 'Hell no.'"
Up to the voters
High-speed rail depends on the approval of a $10 billion bond measure slated for the November ballot.
The bond needs a majority vote (50 percent plus one) to pass, and further study and planning would get under way for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles connection. The rail authority has proposed building the system as far north as Sacramento and as far south as San Diego.
Atherton Councilman Jerry Carlson said the state's efforts should focus on improving local transit networks rather than connecting the northern and southern parts of the state.
"It's too bad it's not a $10 billion bond measure to work on regional transportation," Mr. Carlson said. "High-speed rail only helps some people."
Mayors Andy Cohen of Menlo Park and Jim Janz of Atherton also opposed plans for high-speed rail and grade separations, but had to do so as citizens during the public comment period of the meeting. Both councilmen own homes adjacent to the Caltrain tracks, presenting a potential conflict of interest.