Cover Story - March 4, 2009

Will locals have a seat at the table?

Officials, residents fear backroom decisions on high-speed rail

by Sean Howell

From the laying of the first tracks on the transcontinental rail line, the little folks have had a notoriously tough time getting The Railroad's attention.

Jesse James made conductors shake in their boots, and Pullman strikers succeeded in temporarily forcing trains to grind to a halt. But for as long as the railroad has been a viable form of transportation, the powerful people behind it have generally succeeded in running their opponents — including Mr. James and the Pullman workers — off the tracks. It's no accident that "to railroad" has crept into our parlance in the verb form.

Now, as the California high-speed rail project races ahead with the full steam of the state's voters behind it, local officials and residents are doing everything they can to be heard, short of dynamiting the tracks.

That's not to say that the relationship between high-speed rail officials and residents of the communities the rail line will pass through is an inherently adversarial one. Locals would like to see a project that does as little damage as possible to their communities, and rail officials say that they plan to work with the cities throughout the process.

But to hear local residents and council members tell it, their interactions with the High-Speed Rail Authority fit right into the mold of David vs. Goliath, Jesse James vs. the carpetbaggers, the railroad union vs. the Pullman company. They have even found their own version of Leland Stanford (in his role as robber baron, not University founder) among the ranks of the rail authority: Judge Quentin Kopp, a charismatic former state senator who chairs the authority's board.

Judge Kopp heralds high-speed trains as the way of the future, calling attention to their low greenhouse gas emissions, their perfect safety record (according to the Judge, the trains have never caused a fatality), and, of course, their speed. It's easy to imagine Mr. Stanford, the chairman of the Central Pacific, trumpeting the electric trains' coal-guzzling counterparts in much the same way at the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Menlo Park Councilman Rich Cline characterizes the rail authority as a "powerhouse organization," as obsessively focused on the promise of bringing riders from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two and a half hours as their forebears were on transporting passengers from coast to coast on a single rail line. Menlo Park and Atherton have taken what officials describe as a two-pronged approach to getting Judge Kopp and the rail authority to listen to them: negotiation, and litigation. The cities joined a lawsuit against the project back in August, contending that the authority's decision to run trains up the Peninsula was premature.

"We chose to litigate because the odds of them compromising with a small town like Menlo Park or Atherton ... those are long odds," Mr. Cline said. (The proposed rail line would cross through the cities for only three of its 800 miles.)

Judge Kopp waves off Menlo Park and Atherton's lawsuit like an elephant flicking at a fly.

"I am confident it will be heard and disposed of" when the California Superior Court takes up the suit in May, he said, characterizing Menlo Park and Atherton council members as taking a not-in-my-backyard stance. "I listen to the 57 percent of Menlo Park voters who passed" the bond measure providing the project's first wave of funding, he said — not the elected officials who joined the suit.

Judge Kopp added that, as far as he can remember, the suit has not been mentioned in any of the board's meetings. The rail authority is following the same process in its dealings with those two communities as it has with every other city in the county, he said, bristling at the suggestion made by several Menlo Park council members that the lawsuit will give the city more leverage. "That's their myth," he said.

Councilman Cline is frustrated with what he sees as Judge Kopp's one-track approach to the issue — and with the tendency of journalists take the judge's word as gospel.

"The matter is so much more complicated than Judge Kopp makes it sound," Mr. Cline said. "It's not black-and-white."

He rejected the judge's suggestion that local communities could pay the cost differential if they want the trains to pass through a tunnel, as Berkeley residents did when voters passed a bond measure to pay for BART tunnels in the 1960s.

"It's our right of way, we owned it before Judge Kopp decided to make trains a hobby, and it's still ours," he said. "We should (have the leverage in) a negotiation, not an institution that came up with an idea and got some money. I feel he's trying to turn the negotiation around.

"Just because the cheapest and laziest alternative is a 25-foot-high berm doesn't mean we should succumb to that, or be stuck putting up hundreds of millions of dollars" to pay for the trains to run underground, Mr. Cline continued.

He acknowledged the heat Menlo Park and Atherton have taken for joining the lawsuit — to date, they are the only two jurisdictions in the state to have sued over the project. But he added that they were ahead of other Peninsula cities in worrying about the details of how high-speed trains would pass through their communities. Palo Alto residents who live near the tracks seem to have become aware of the rail's potentially deleterious effects on their properties only in the last few weeks, holding several meetings to protest the possibility that the tracks would need to be widened and raised through Peninsula cities.

"Why shouldn't we join other cities in suing you guys and stopping this thing?" Palo Alto Councilman Jack Morton asked of rail officials at a Feb. 26 meeting.

Locals frustrated

At several information sessions hosted by the rail authority, residents have expressed frustration at the lack of answers provided by rail officials, whose responses tend to range from "We'll consider that" to "We'll look at everything that's required by environmental law." Duncan Jones, Atherton's director of public works, complained about the authority's inability to furnish answers on issues as basic as how many tracks the project will require — a decision that should have been made while rail officials were deciding whether to run trains up the Peninsula, or the East Bay, Mr. Jones argued.

"They're saying they think they can come through here without taking any right of way, without disturbing anyone," Mr. Jones said. He doesn't believe that would be possible if the project requires five or six tracks.

Mary Lou Timpson, whose Atherton property abuts the tracks, said she is skeptical that the rail authority will actually consider putting the tracks underground through Atherton and Menlo Park. Widened tracks would likely cut through her backyard, she said, forcing the removal of high trees she has planted to provide a sight barrier to the Caltrain line. The impact on her property's value of a rail along a raised berm, flanked by high walls and overlaid by electrical lines, would be "inconceivable," she said.

Dan Leavitt, deputy director for the rail authority, said that rail officials fully intend to listen to and consult with cities and residents along the Caltrain corridor — as required by law.

"It's to our benefit to make sure there's a high level of concurrence, to help us have a draft that is more acceptable to the public," Mr. Leavitt said. "As we're developing our plans, we'll be studying what cities are asking for."

Rail authority representatives are "saying all the right things," said Atherton Mayor Jerry Carlson, but he isn't confident the authority will actually incorporate comments from cities and residents in its plans. Council members from Menlo Park have said they share Mr. Carlson's fear that the major decisions about how the rail will cut through local communities will be hashed out behind closed doors, then presented to the public. Representatives from a wide swath of Peninsula jurisdictions, including Atherton and Menlo Park, have sought strength in numbers, forming an ad hoc coalition to make their shared concerns and preferences known.

"It's frustrating when they ask for your comments ... then say, 'Here are your comments, and here are our plans,'" Mr. Carlson said, adding that the regional coalition would press for more of a role for Peninsula cities throughout the planning process.

Under state and federal environmental law, project planners are required to avoid adverse impacts to the environment, where "feasible." But cost considerations can override that requirement. It will be up to the rail authority to decide whether putting the trains underground — the alignment local residents say would have the least impact on their communities, though it may be more expensive — would be financially feasible.

Of all the uncertainty surrounding the project, perhaps the biggest question mark is whether the authority will be able to secure the estimated $40 billion required to fund it. Its financing plan calls for money from the federal government, local and regional agencies, and private sources — no sure thing, especially given the depressed state of the economy. And rail officials are still waiting for the state to issue the $9.95 billion bond measure approved by voters in November, which was put on hold as California legislators scrambled to find another $40 billion to shore up the budget deficit.


Posted by Rich Cline, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 4, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Sean, thanks for the article. Appreciate all your hard work getting the story together.

This is a complex issue and it is almost unfair to expect the article which is limited by space and time to be able to break down all the subtleties.

I did support the litigation under the premise that the city did not get an adequate response to miltiple letters sent in over the past several years. These questions related to impacts, alternatives, economics and actual rail usage. Until a week or two ago, we were only told that our letter was "lost" and had not been received (we sent multiple letters). I still feel that the decision to enter into a legal discussion was appropriate given the oversight. In this position as a councilmember, I don't feel I have the luxury to hope it works out or trust that more is coming from the rail authorities, regardless of my personal feelings about HSR.

And the litigation fulfills my need to get those answers before our agencies enter into long-term contracts that bind us all into this project. This was not anti-rail and it still is not anti-rail. HSR has many benefits that cannot be overlooked, but it must be done right because it will last for 100 years.

But by the same token, we are now a few months removed from a proposition that was passed by a majority of citizens of Menlo Park. Whether or not we think the state can afford it, or if the bonds can be priced adequately and soon enough or if privae funding can be achieved, it was approved.

This is why we have a parallel plan to work with our neighboring cities and find a way to create opportunities with the HSR and Caltrain and our communities. This is a key point. We are moving ahead in a positive fashion and we are looking forward.

I think these points can be lost in newspaper form, and I rambled to poor Sean for longer than I should have about all of this.

We have receieved an initial response from Judge Kopp relating to the "lost" letters. The city is reviewing this letter and we hope to have a quick response in return.

My take away point: This is not about anti-rail or anti-HSR, it is about representing the city in the most responsible way I see fit.

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