Almanac

News - April 23, 2014

Atherton challenges Caltrain electrification report

by Barbara Wood

Less than a mile of train tracks runs through Atherton, but that hasn't stopped the small town from making an outsized effort to fight changes in rail service.

In its latest effort to derail proposed train service modifications, Atherton's City Council unanimously approved on April 16 a four-page letter pointing out problems in the draft environmental impact report for Caltrain's plan to electrify its trains.

The letter, signed by Mayor Cary Wiest, but prepared mostly by the town's rail committee, asks Caltrain to change the draft report so it looks at more alternatives to electrification and to "respond to the questions and concerns that we have outlined in this letter."

The letter says the report is incomplete because it does not include analysis of the entire high-speed rail project, even though one of the stated aims of the electrification project is to make the Peninsula tracks compatible with HSR.

It also faults the environmental review for not looking at alternatives that aren't compatible with HSR. "The project objectives: to improve train performance, increase ridership, service and revenue, while reducing environmental impacts, improving regional air quality and reducing green-house gas emissions and noise can be achieved by other means, and a failure to examine and analyze feasible alternatives that might reduce environmental impacts is a fatal deficiency," the letter states.

Atherton has a 10-member rail committee (one seat is currently empty) which meets monthly. The committee has been active in fighting the proposal to bring high-speed rail through the Peninsula.

Paul Jones, committee chair, told the council that two attorneys believe the town will "have grounds for litigation" if the environmental report is approved as written. He disputes claims in the report that electric trains will decrease greenhouse gases, that noise will decrease and that vehicular traffic will not be greatly impeded by additional trains.

Greenhouse gas emissions will increase during construction, Mr. Jones said. Removing trees would exacerbate the problem. Noise from train horns and the rails will still be present. "The actual traffic will have to increase," he said, because more trains means more time with crossing gates down. The committee also fears the amount of electricity the trains will use could mean "additional transmission facilities will be needed."

Committee member Rosemary Maulbetsch urged Atherton residents to write their own letters to Caltrain asking that the report be changed. The current plans would remove 142 Atherton trees, Ms. Maulbetsch said, and 206 more trees could be severely pruned. Those trees reduce noise and air pollution as well as providing a visual screen, she said. "We've got to say ... find another way to do this electrification if electrification's got to be done."

Greg Conlon, also a member of the rail committee, said one of the alternatives to be considered should be putting the tracks below ground level. "We should consider doing some kind of a trench," he said.

Council members praised the committee for its work. "The content of this letter is really powerful," said Councilman Rick DeGolia. "Everybody should read it."

The town's letter is a response to the draft environmental impact report for the Caltrain electrification project, part of the review process required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). By law, all comments made about the draft report must be responded to before the agency can approve the final environmental report. The deadline for submitting comments is April 29.

Go to tinyurl.com/Caltrain-416 to read the letter and the staff report.

Go to tinyurl.com/EIR-217 to see the draft environmental impact report.

Comments on the report can be emailed to electrification@caltrain.com with the subject line, "Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project"; or mailed to: Caltrain, Attn: Stacy Cocke, Senior Planner, P.O. Box 3006, San Carlos, CA 94070-1306.

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