A letter may not be enough to let Caltrain know how upset Atherton is over the proposed electrification of the Peninsula train service. On Wednesday, Jan. 21, Atherton's City Council approved a letter to Caltrain, but also asked for a closed-session meeting with the town's attorney to discuss a possible lawsuit over the environmental report recently approved by the Caltrain board.
Council members said they want to meet in closed session at 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 27, before they meet at noon to interview the two architects who are finalists to design the town's new Civic Center.
The council also asked town staff members to contact their counterparts in Palo Alto to see if Palo Alto might want to join in a lawsuit.
Town officials will also ask Caltrain to extend the 30-day time limit on appeals to the environmental report, which ends Feb. 6, in order to give the town more time to negotiate with Caltrain to avoid a lawsuit. They were told that Palo Alto had already asked for such an extension and was turned down.
But City Attorney William Conners said it was worth a try. "My attitude is, if you don't try, you don't know," he said. The town should ask Caltrain to "give us some time to talk to them and discuss" the issues, he said.
Caltrain spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann said Caltrain believes it has offered plenty of time for discussion of the environmental report. She said that while the environmental report was being prepared, Caltrain gave the public two weeks longer than required to respond to the initial document. When the final report was released "we made it available for public review for 30 days, three times longer than the required 10-day minimum review period," she said. "We took these additional steps to ensure that Peninsula cities and members of the public had ample to review the documents and respond to the findings," she said.
The letter approved by the council, which will be signed by Mayor Rick DeGolia, says the town considers the approval of the environmental documents as putting "high speed rail one step closer to reality in Atherton." It says the town has concerns about the project to transform Caltrain to electric locomotives related to noise, project timing, tree removal and pruning, and locations of wires and poles.
Council members asked to have two points added to the letter, one concerning how often trains will stop in the town. Caltrain had promised that with the increased number of trains that could be run using the electric locomotives, Atherton's train station could reopen. But town officials fear that Caltrain will schedule only one train in each direction for an Atherton stop. They asked that the letter include the statement that "the minimal service level is not sufficient."
They also asked to have a statement added saying they feel the environmental report did not look closely enough at alternatives to the electric locomotives, such as high-tech diesel.
Caltrain's Ms. Ackemann said the California High Speed Rail Authority will have to prepare its own environmental reports "before it can ever operate rail service on this corridor." "Until that time comes," she said, the electrification will mean "a cleaner, quieter system and more frequent service for more riders at more stations, including restored service in Atherton."
"Caltrain is bursting at the seams due to its unprecedented ridership growth and electrification offers the only path for a true expansion in the amount of service Caltrain can offer," Ms. Ackemann said.
The council was urged to consider a lawsuit by several speakers during the time set aside for public comment at the beginning of the meeting.
"If you don't file a suit they're going to laugh all the way to the next step. They'll be thrilled that no one called their bluff and there will be no negotiation," Rail Committee member Jim Janz said. "You might be able to put up with a few negative environment impacts that electrification might cause if they were really going to provide good service."