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Palo Alto to fight high-speed-rail 'betrayal' bills

Proposed bills could allow controversial project to bypass environmental regulations

Palo Alto is girding for battle against proposed legislation that could make the California high-speed-rail project exempt from environmental regulations.

"There is great concern that this is a real betrayal of the commitments made to this city and this council and the communities up and down the Peninsula," Mayor Pat Burt said during a City Council discussion Monday night.

He cited statements made by both state and rail-authority officials -- even as the authority was quietly working on legislation to nullify the review requirements.

The city has hired consultants and a lobbyist to help it obtain and analyze information relating to the project, currently estimated at $43 billion. The initial line would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles and pass through Palo Alto along the Caltrain tracks, prompting creation of a five-city Peninsula Cities Consortium.

One of the city's goals would be to oppose a series of state bills that exempt the project from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), city officials said at a Monday night discussion of the project.

Several council members said they were concerned about the prospect of the controversial rail project being exempted from CEQA, which mandates detailed environmental reviews and public hearings for major projects. Over the past year, Palo Alto and other Peninsula cities used the CEQA process to send comments to the rail authority and challenge the agency's decisions.

Burt, who represents the city on the consortium, said the CEQA review is the cities' primary avenue for communicating with the rail authority. Burt said a number of state officials have referred to CEQA as the "principal way in which our concerns will be protected."

The proposed bills would exempt "critical infrastructure projects" from review. The bills would enable the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency to select projects to be exempted from environmental review.

Burt said that would undermine the few legal protections communities currently have against the rail authority.

Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa said the new CEQA exemption bills are the most interesting new development pertaining to the rail project.

Palo Alto recently hired Ravi Mehta of Capitol Advocates to lobby for the city on high-speed-rail issues in Sacramento. City staff is working with Mehta to "oppose any legislation which would diminish or circumvent the current protection or in any way create exemptions from CEQA and court review for major infrastructure projects each year, including but not limited to the California High-Speed Rail Authority," according to a city staff report.

Palo Alto and its neighbors on the Peninsula have aggressively used the environmental-review process to challenge the authority's plans and assumptions. City officials have been reviewing recent reports from the authority and attending public hearings on the project.

The authority recently revised its program Environmental Impact Report -- a comprehensive, 1,200-plus-page analysis mandated by CEQA -- because of a lawsuit from Menlo Park, Atherton and a coalition of nonprofit groups. The authority completed the report in July 2008, but had to decertify it last year after a Sacramento County Superior Court judge ruled that there are flaws in the analysis

On Monday, Palo Alto officials said they intend to send the authority a fresh list of concerns about the environmental review, including criticism of the agency's recently released ridership and revenue projections, which showed sharply lower ridership estimates and substantially higher fares than earlier reports.

Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie said the EIR for the project "is not based on sound financial analysis and therefore makes it difficult to ascertain what the options are." Emslie is scheduled to bring the list of comments back to the council April 12. The comment period for the revised EIR ends April 26.

Nadia Naik, co-founder of the local rail-watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), urged local residents to comment on the revised EIR. She said the entire document, not just the revised sections, is subject to public comments. Naik also pointed out that some of the rail authority's most controversial decisions, including its choice of the Pacheco Pass over the Altamont Pass as its preferred Peninsula route, were based on the program EIR.

"Now is your chance to get in there and make comments that you would've made back in the day if you had awareness of it," Naik said.

The city also plans to submit a separate list of comments on the "alternatives analysis" that the authority is scheduled to release next month. The analysis evaluates various design options for the Peninsula segment, including at-grade tracks, elevated tracks, trenched tracks and deep tunneling.

But even though the analysis won't be out for at least three weeks, several council members said the city should lobby the authority for underground tunnels. Council members Greg Scharff and Nancy Shepherd both said the city should firmly oppose any plan to build an elevated rail line and demand tunnels. Councilwoman Karen Holman urged her colleagues to avoid committing to any design options until a fuller analysis is available.

"It's premature because we don't have the EIR," Holman said. "We don't know what any of the impacts are."

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