Almanac

News - April 9, 2014

Menlo Park starts drafting comments on train electrification draft EIR

by Sandy Brundage

The Menlo Park City Council weighed in on the draft environmental impact report for Caltrain's electrification project when it met on April 1.

The transit agency is backing a $1.5 billion plan to switch to electrified trains to benefit both the environment and Caltrain's financial state, as well as provide the capacity to share the tracks with high-speed rail, even as that project struggles to maintain momentum. Caltrain estimates the project would be completed in 2019, according to the staff report.

According to the draft EIR, however, electrification carries some disadvantages, such as the elimination of thousands of trees, and the construction of safety walls, substations and 50-foot-tall poles to carry power along the tracks. The Menlo Park Caltrain station has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, so the proposal to have poles sprouting around such a landmark is giving the city some pause.

Given the project's ties to high-speed rail, the council is taking pains to ensure that everyone remembers which controversial design features will not be welcome within Menlo Park.

"The City is only interested in a two-track blended system in Menlo Park within the existing Caltrain right-of-way or the system in an underground configuration. The City is not supportive of any system (that) is on an elevated structure, and any system which would allow track expansion for any phase of the project unless in an underground configuration," the council's latest comment letter states.

As for the draft EIR, it was found wanting on several fronts, including a mismatch between the way the report evaluates traffic impacts and the methodology used by the city, leading to "additional impacts that are not currently disclosed," according to the letter.

Commenting on an issue is one thing, solving it quite another, as Councilman Rich Cline noted during the meeting. "We have our way of studying these impacts that we have to use ... and it feels like an unresolved issue to put in the letter (that) we need to use our own measuring stick on that," he said. "How will Caltrain solve that when every city uses its own methodology?"

That also impacts the report's proposed mitigations, some of which, such as one proposed for El Camino Real at its intersections with Oak Grove and Glenwood avenues, the letter pronounces "unacceptable" for their failure to completely resolve traffic problems.

Other elements the council would like to see further explored include alternatives to running power poles alongside the tracks; it's been suggested that placing them in the center instead could spare some of the 629 Menlo Park trees that would otherwise be pruned or removed. The safety of the electric wires and poles powering the electric trains was not addressed in the DEIR despite the city's request early in the report process that it be studied.

The discussion did not, however, lead to a final draft of the city's letter to Caltrain. Instead, the council subcommittee, composed of Rich Cline and Kirsten Keith, will hold a public meeting and incorporate additional comments as needed.

Go to tinyurl.com/kso8gtv to review the proposed comment letter and associated staff report.

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