Almanac

News - September 29, 2010

Menlo Park joins high-speed rail lawsuit

by Sandy Brundage

Like an endless loop, Menlo Park City Council voted 4-0 on Tuesday, Sept. 21, to join neighboring cities in a lawsuit against the state high-speed rail authority.

Councilman Andy Cohen recused himself due to a conflict of interest — his home may be impacted by the project's construction.

Palo Alto and Atherton decided last week to file the suit, which challenges the project's environmental impact report (EIR) certification.

An earlier lawsuit filed two years ago also attacked the project's environmental impact report. A judge ruled in August 2009 that the rail authority did need to revise the portions evaluating land use, right-of-way impacts, and vibration effects.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority revised the report to address those areas and released a new version Aug. 20, which is now facing another legal battle.

Attorney Stuart Flashman, who represents the cities, said this lawsuit examines different aspects of the project from the previous one, such as widening its right-of-way and eliminating tunnels as an option for the Peninsula segment.

"Most important of these is the discovery that the published ridership model was not the model used in the prior EIR, and the flaws subsequently found in that ridership model that make its validity very questionable," Mr. Flashman said. "All of this should have changed the impact analysis, but the authority chose to ignore the information."

He will file the suit in Sacramento Superior Court by Oct. 4, he said.

Mayor Rich Cline and Councilman John Boyle agreed the ridership model's flaws demand correction.

"It's critical that we have a realistic estimate of ridership levels," Mr. Boyle said in a press release. "If the Program Level EIR says the system MUST support an unrealistically high number of riders on the Peninsula, then we'll be precluded from considering Design Alternatives (i.e. grade separation options) that might be far less impactful on our community than what is really necessary."

Not everyone believes another lawsuit is the right way to go. Former Menlo Park mayor Steve Schmidt suggested forming a high-speed rail commission, describing the city's latest legal action as "little more than harassment of the high-speed rail authority."

At the council meeting, Mr. Schmidt thanked the project's critics for highlighting problems that the planning process needs to address, but also discussed the benefits of high-speed rail.

Those benefits include reduced pollution and traffic, and increased pedestrian safety, he said.

"How it travels through our city needs to be dealt with now. I encourage the council to use a rational and realistic approach," he said.

"Being litigants and part of a negative chorus is not good enough. We need also to be positive, creative and eventually prepared for a likely outcome that can benefit the region and Menlo Park."

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