Viewpoint - June 23, 2010

Guest opinion: City needs a rail commission

by Martin Engel

The city of Menlo Park website lists 11 city commissions, covering subjects such as parks and recreation, transportation (actually traffic), bicycles, environmental quality, housing and libraries. It lists an arts commission, which was disbanded a number of years ago, but appears to remain on the books. The most important of the commissions, which is state-mandated, is the Planning Commission, pertaining to city development.

We can gather that matters of great and continued concern to the city obtain greater citizen participation in planning and providing guidance and advice to the City Council with the formation of a standing citizen advisory commission.

One of the most significant issues to appear on the city's doorstep is the advent of high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor. Its importance grows daily. The city will be profoundly impacted. There may be obligatory costs to the city, accrued well beyond the city's means.

At the current time, and unique to Menlo Park among all the Peninsula cities, is a two-council member subcommittee dedicated to high-speed rail, that meets privately with no public announcement or disclosure. No minutes, no schedule, no agenda. Participants include one or two senior city staff. Reports of this subcommittee's proceedings are provided orally at the end of city council meetings, usually after 11 p.m.

Inasmuch as the destinies of the high-speed train and Caltrain are now so intertwined, they can no longer be considered separately, as has been made clear by executives of both organizations.

There can be no further doubt that a new commission must be established in Menlo Park. This commission would exist to advise the City Council, and particularly the high-speed rail subcommittee, on all matters pertaining to Caltrain and the high-speed rail.

Like all other commissions, it would comply fully with all Brown Act requirements and would be fully endorsed and supported by the City Council.

A mission statement would identify areas appropriate for advising the City Council on anticipated and unanticipated actions, including lawsuits, resolutions, membership in the Peninsula Coalition of Cities (PCC), activities on neighboring cities, legislation in Sacramento that directly affects or can affect Menlo Park, construction impacts along the 8,500 feet of Caltrain corridor within city borders, and possible other litigation pertaining to eminent domain and inverse condemnation.

It should be stressed that this commission would not be a partisan advocacy group. The proposed high-speed rail project and activities in the Caltrain corridor could impact the city's finances, coffers, streets, utilities, staffing, businesses, and resident areas. The commission should be empowered to research, study and comment on the potential impact this 10-year construction project will have on the city. This responsibility cannot be left exclusively to two council members, who are not required to follow Brown Act procedures.

Martin Engel lives on Stone Pine Lane in Menlo Park. He said he submitted this opinion as a private citizen, not in his capacity as a member of the Transportation Commission.


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