Rail options get gruff response in Atherton


It wasn't even two minutes into his planned half-hour presentation that Dominic Spaethling appeared to abandon all hope of reaching the 30-minute mark.

His job was to give Atherton residents and officials an overview of high-speed rail alternatives for laying tracks along the Caltrain right-of-way in and near Atherton. It was a very tough job.

Mr. Spaethling, a regional manager for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, was nearly shouted down from the podium during the May 4 informational meeting in Atherton's Holbrook-Palmer Park by residents who demanded hard facts about the rail authority's intentions for the local portion of the rail system, which will run from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The residents' shouting and catcalls were a clear sign that confidence in the rail authority's openness and willingness to abide by community wishes is minimal at best.

About 60 to 75 people from Atherton and nearby communities attended the meeting, and before the presentation began, they studied displays showing alternative methods of running the tracks through the Midpeninsula, which include an aerial viaduct, at-grade-level tracks along the existing Caltrain grade, a covered trench and tunnel, and a deep-bore tunnel.

The meeting was billed as a review of the rail authority's Preliminary Alternatives Analysis Report, which found that a four-track, grade-separated rail system shared by the high-speed train and Caltrain "is feasible and the preferred (high-speed train) alternative between San Francisco and San Jose on the Peninsula," according to a summary presented at the meeting.

A number of residents challenged the rail authority's assertion that the Caltrain right-of-way, rather than other routes such as along Interstate 280 or U.S. 101, is the best way for the high-speed trains to traverse the Peninsula.

As Mr. Spaethling attempted to explain the reasoning behind choosing the Caltrain route, one resident angrily demanded that the program presenters "treat us like adults and intelligent people. Tell us why the 101 is not being considered. Tell us why the Altamont Pass (between the Livermore and San Joaquin valleys) is not being considered."

Other routes, Mr. Spaethling responded, were ruled out due to constrained right-of-way and environmentally sensitive land, among other factors.

To the question about why the train couldn't stop in San Jose for riders to board Caltrain and continue to San Francisco, Mr. Spaethling noted that state Proposition 1-A, which in 2008 authorized the spending of $9 billion to launch the high-speed rail project, specified that the train would run from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Residents appeared to be unhappy with prospects of at-grade, aerial and shallow-trenched tracks running through their town. The cost of the deep-bore tunnel is projected at seven times the cost of at-grade tracks, according to the rail authority.

Juan de Leon, a resident of nearby North Fair Oaks, noted that the rail authority, in a presentation to his community, presented only one possibility for laying tracks in that portion of the Peninsula: at-grade.

Turning to the rest of the audience, Mr. de Leon said, "I'm here to ask for your help." He called the lack of options in the North Fair Oaks community, "where poor people live," a social justice issue.

Residents expressed concern about the amount of right-of-way the train would need, and about how the value of the properties would be calculated in reimbursing residents for taking their land. Mr. Spaethling said the rail authority will have "a much better idea of which properties will be affected" when the draft environmental impact report is completed in December.

Although there was no real enthusiasm by residents for any of the options presented, when asked for a hand-show of support, the deep-bore tunnel option won out. But another alternative of stacking high-speed rail and Caltrain tracks through a covered trench sparked some interest when Atherton resident Loren Gruner suggested creating a park-like covering that would include paths for bicyclists and pedestrians, connecting towns along the Peninsula.

Go to High-Speed Rail Web site for the full Preliminary Alternatives Analysis Report and, under the Library tab, click on the San Francisco to San Jose link.

E-mail to be put on the project mailing list or to comment on the report.

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Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 13, 2010 at 2:19 pm

I attended that meeting in Atherton. I expect that there will be one on the Alternatives Analysis here in Menlo Park. Yes, people were angry. Why? Because they are afraid; afraid of losing their homes; afraid of having their communities destroyed; afraid of the devastation to be brought by ten years of construction. They (and I) are afraid because the rail authority already knows what it wants, and what it is going to do, but we don't. And, what they want isn't good for us.

Having said that, it is also the case that these meetings (there was also one in Palo Alto) are about the Alternatives Analysis stage of the CEQA project-level process. The people who run these meetings are contractor employees charged with one thing; that is, design and do the legally required paperwork for the high-speed train alignments on the Caltrain corridor. That's what they get paid to do. That's their job.

Many people raised all sorts of questions and issues that are totally out of the control of this group of PB and HNTB employees. By that, I mean Dominic Spaethling, Tim Cobb, John Litzinger and Mike Garvey. They are not decision-makers. They are not even messenger boys. Nonetheless, people persist in pressing them to consider alternative routes that are totally out of their jurisdiction.

Most questions on peoples' minds must be answered by the CHSRA. They are responsible for decision-making, such as ignoring alternative routes even though the Program-Level EIS/EIR has been de-certified.

What we should be asking the PB and HNTB representatives, is about their decision-making on the Caltrain corridor, such as why they are stacking the deck, so to speak, for elevated train alignments when they know that is our least desirable alternative. And that is their business. They are shunning tunneling solutions and biasing all the draft language and diagrams to favor elevated rail. That sucks!

Want to get angry? That's what to get angry about at these meetings.

Like this comment
Posted by bigoldchildren
a resident of another community
on May 14, 2010 at 4:29 pm

What gall...asking to be treated like adults then scream and yell and
demand??? spolied rotten babies..YES you are Atherton and menlopark1
As far as the CAHSRA they have given you babies more than enough time and meetings and all you do is yell.

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