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By Diana Diamond

Seven, not five, council members need to decide this major issue

Uploaded: Apr 30, 2019

We need a seven, not a five-member Palo Alto City Council to decide on what the city should soon do about grade separations at the four traffic crossings over Caltrain tracks. Right now, two of the members can’t participate in any discussion concerning these separations because they each own property near the tracks.

That’s a decision that the state’s FPPC (Fair Political Practices Commission) has made that needs to be changed. It handicaps the council having a full and knowledgeable discussion about these grade crossings – a major significant decision that will affect the city for decades to come.

The grade separations are really needed, and each possible proposed “solution” involves complicated engineering and structural problems. Caltrain, after its electrification, will at least double the number of trains that run on their tracks daily (an estimated 20 trains an hour during commute times (one every three minutes). That number of trains will impede cars (and people) from crossing the tracks without long waits.

So that’s why I think we need all seven council members decide on the best grade separation solution for this city.

Right now both Mayor Eric Filseth and Councilmember Liz Kniss must recuse themselves from all discussion on the topic because of a potential conflict of interest – they each own property within 500 feet of the tracks (Filseth, his home in Downtown North; Kniss owns a multi-family rental apartment building).

City Attorney Molly Stump said the FPPC has ruled in this case that both members have a financial conflict of interest and the city must abide by that decision unless the situation of grade crossings somehow changes in the near future.

However, I think the FPPC is ruling on the trees and not seeing the forest, so to speak. These grade separations may affect these two properties, but also many more in town. And the grade crossings also will create a visual impact – trees and bushes adjacent to the tracks will have to be torn down; if the tracks are raised it will mean a several-foot high berms which will visually separate the east-west sides of the tracks; we all will be inconvenienced for a couple of years, including a possible three-year shutdown of Alma for temporary tracks, traffic patterns will be changed, some houses may be torn down – the reasons are many why seven people need to decide on this issue. Kniss has been apprised of it for years, and Filseth has followed it closely.

Stump said as of now, there were not enough reasons to appeal the decision, but circumstances may have changed, so perhaps in the next couple of months the city will ask the FPPC again to consider the broader impact of the grade separations. How long would it take the FPPC to make a decision? About four weeks, she said.

The council has imposed an October deadline to finalize the kind of grade separations it wants (tunnel, trench, raised tracks with traffic going underneath, or way overhead).

It’s fine for the FPPC to decide in its traditional manner whether council members should recuse themselves, but this time the issues are much greater than one house and one apartment building, particularly since the current five deciding council members are already split on which approach they prefer (two want a tunnel).

So, Palo Alto, get going and ask the FPPC to change its decision. And FPPC decision makers, stop being so rule bound. This issue has to be an exception to your usual way of thinking.