Almanac

Viewpoint - September 29, 2010

Time for new approach to rail project

by Steve Schmidt

It's been just over two years since City Council members Rich Cline and Kelly Fergusson voted to make Menlo Park a party in a lawsuit against the San Francisco to Los Angeles high-speed rail project. The vote was 2-1.

On that night, Aug. 5, 2008, council member John Boyle asked that the resolution by Mr. Cline and Ms. Fergusson regarding high-speed rail's impacts in Menlo Park be set aside until the council could hear a presentation from the High-Speed Rail Authority.

Unfortunately, legal action prevailed over a decision to set aside the Cline/Fergusson resolution, which might have been the first step in crafting a city policy on high-speed rail. Does our joining a lawsuit define our official position on this issue?

The city voted in favor of high-speed rail in November 2008 by 57 percent. I concede that many who voted yes have changed their minds. However, there are probably many Menlo Park residents who still believe that there are benefits to this project, benefits that override the inevitable negatives.

While the city has joined lawsuits, I suggest another approach, one more positive and more realistic. The council should follow through on a suggestion from Martin Engel to set up a city high-speed rail commission or officially constituted advisory committee composed of residents willing to realistically follow the Peninsula Cities Consortium's position statement: "Final design should minimize the impacts, improve the quality of life in local communities and incorporate the best urban design ideas."

I believe that legal action is now little more than tilting at windmills and that the consortium should be spending its time developing a sustainable operating plan for Caltrain. If the city feels it must, it can both pursue lawsuits and join PCC's opposition while a new deliberative body does its work.

Nearly two years have passed since Prop 1A passed in California. Thanks to our home-grown critics we know much more today about the project. They have told us much more than just of their frustration of living next to an active railroad.

Major problems with assumptions, projections and expectations have been revealed, analyzed, and written about in every newspaper and on every blog. We have learned that the rail authority is made up of flawed human beings; their ridership and project costs are flawed; the state is in financial trouble; the impacts to Menlo Park are significant.

Hats off to Martin Engel and his allies for their diligence and determination in exposing all the unpleasant reality of the project planning.

However, none of this wisdom will make the project go away. Rather than only spending our resources fighting high-speed rail, the city should prepare for the probable scenario that this 21st Century system is going to use the Caltrain tracks and yes, travel through our city. How it does that needs to be dealt with now.

The benefits to Caltrain are many: electrification, reduced noise and pollution, and grade separations that mean less traffic congestion and increased safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

I encourage the council to use a rational and realistic approach. 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.

Steve Schmidt is a former mayor of Menlo Park.

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