By Gennady Sheyner
Hundreds of critics of California's proposed high-speed rail project packed into Burlingame's Caltrain station Sunday afternoon to wave protest signs, chant "Boondoggle!" and vent their anger about the increasingly controversial project.
More than 500 people, including elected officials from most Midpeninsula cities, braved the rain and showed up at the rally to vent their rail frustrations and discuss strategies for protecting the region against aerial viaducts -- one of the designs the California High-Speed Rail Authority is considering for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the line.
Audience members carried signs saying, "Here comes high-speed rail. There goes the neighborhood," and "There goes $$ for schools." Rally organizers wore yellow shirts with the group's logo a crossed-out train on the front and "High Speed Boondoggle" on the back.
Many members of the crowd initially supported the rail project in concept but became alarmed when they learned the details. Residents and officials from several cities, including Burlingame, Belmont, Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto, have called on the authority to reconsider putting the trains into tunnels -- a popular option that the authority discarded earlier this year, citing high costs.
Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt, Menlo Park Councilwoman Kelly Ferguson and Atherton Councilman Jerry Carlsen all attended the rally, as did attorney Gary Patton, who has joined the three cities in a lawsuit against the authority.
"This is a boondoggle, and if they can't do it right don't do it at all," Patton told the crowd.
Patton, a former Santa Cruz County Supervisor, asked members of the audience to lobby their state legislators to oppose elevated tracks. He also called on local elected officials to agree on a set of principles regarding the rail project -- most notably opposition to any overhead design.
The authority decided last week that the construction of the voter-approved San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line will begin in the Central Valley. The decision means it'll be years before Midpeninsula sees any rail construction.
Burlingame Mayor Cathy Baylock said the decision gives the Peninsula some breathing room, but Patton warned members of the audience not to let their guard down.
"The fact that somebody told you that they're going to spend all the money in the Central Valley doesn't mean the San Francisco Peninsula won't be in the cross-hairs of a boondoggle project," Patton said.
Baylock welcomed the audience to her city's historic Caltrain station and warned them about the potential dangers of an aerial viaduct slicing through what she called the "heart of Burlingame."
"There is no wrong side of the trains in Burlingame and we intend to keep it that way," Baylock said. "An elevated structure is the equivalent of a seven-lane freeway through our Caltrain corridor.
"Some people say we should just sit down and let it happen," she continued, prompting jeers of agreement.
The event was organized by High Speed Boondoggle, one of several grassroots organizations that have popped up on the Peninsula to keep track of the project.
Russ Cohen, one of the members of the group, said the strong showing at the rally proves that it's not just a small vocal community that sees problems with the project, which has an estimated price tag of $43 billion.
"There is discontent throughout California, not just Burlingame," Cohen said.