With plans for California's high-speed rail system accelerating on the Peninsula, Palo Alto officials on Tuesday ramped up their opposition to a process that they argue is moving too fast and in the wrong direction.
In a special meeting devoted exclusively to transportation, the City Council criticized the California High Speed Rail Authority's recent decision to launch an environmental analysis for the Peninsula segment of the proposed rail line a review that the state agency expects to conclude in 2017.
This schedule, the council argued, would unnecessarily expedite the planning process for the hugely controversial line, precluding any real collaboration between the state agency and the communities on the northern portion of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line.
For the council, the discussion was the first full hearing on a project that galvanized a torrent of opposition in 2009, and that culminated in the council adopting a position of "no confidence" in the project and calling for its termination in 2011.
Back then, the proposed design for the rail system featured four tracks, with Caltrain on the two outside tracks and high-speed rail on the inside, running along a set of elevated tracks. Today, the design is a "blended" approach in which high-speed rail and Caltrain would share the same set of tracks.
Tuesday's conversation indicated that Palo Alto's apprehensions about the $68-billion rail project remain entrenched. To address these concerns, the council voted 7-0, with Councilwoman Liz Kniss absent and Councilman Eric Filseth recusing himself, to reconstitute its defunct Rail Committee and to lobby the rail authority to commit to "context sensitive solutions" (CSS), a process that involves extensive collaboration with community leaders and other stakeholders.
The council also agreed to pursue the same process in its own plans for the future of the Caltrain corridor.
Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of the local watchdog group Californians Advocating for Responsible Rail Design, urged in her public comments to pursue the CSS process, which is commonly used in highway construction and which emphasizes continuing communication between stakeholders and a "shared vision."
"There's always time to do CSS if you want your project to get to the finish line especially when you deal with a situation like we have here, where there's a lot of complexity and where in order to make all the pieces fit together you may have to change the process," Alexis said.
The proposals to pursue CSS and to recreate the Rail Committee were made by Councilman Pat Burt, a former committee member and one of the founding members of the now-defunct Peninsula Cities Consortium, a coalition of elected officials from various Peninsula cities.
Both groups were dissolved two years ago as the rail authority shifted its plans from the Peninsula to the Central Valley. Now, Burt said, is the time to reconstitute the council's committee and to re-engage other cities.
"I think what they are planning to do is a prescription for failure," Burt said of the rail authority. "It is the sort of process that resulted in the horrendous backlash on the Peninsula previously.
"We need to recognize this is not a four-track system, it's a hybrid 'blended' system, so eventually the impacts aren't so great, but they are making the same process errors. An 18-month cycle time for this complex of an EIR (Environmental Impact Report) is not realistic."
His colleagues agreed and said they were surprised by the shift in the rail authority's plans. City Manager James Keene said he and city staff were shocked to see the rail project "back on the scene" on the Peninsula while the Central Valley segment remains far from completion.
Councilman Marc Berman agreed, saying, "It's baffling. It really does lead to a lot of distrust from our end, which was something that I thought they were trying to remedy after what happened previously."
The rail authority, which is charged with building the rail line, kicked off the environmental-analysis process last month with a series of community meetings throughout the region (though none in the Midpeninsula area).
At a meeting in San Francisco last month, the rail authority's Northern California Regional Director Ben Tripousis called the series of meetings the "beginning of the conversation" with the Peninsula communities and stressed that the goal is to make high-speed rail an asset, "not an eyesore," for the cities along the proposed line.
He also told the audience that as a safety measure the rail authority plans to install quad gates at each grade crossing to limit auto access. Eventually, Tripousis said, the agency plans to consider grade separation (an under- or overpass) for the rail line and to work with each community individually to discuss this long-term change.
In Palo Alto, however, grade separation remains a critical priority, whether or not the rail line actually gets built. With Caltrain now embarking on the long-awaited electrification of the rail corridor, a project that will increase the number trains, council members are advocating for a Caltrain trench and scouring for funding to make the project possible.
On Tuesday night, they discussed several sources of funding, including the transportation-sales tax that the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority plans to put on the November 2016 ballot and various state grant programs that could partially fund the project.
Councilman Tom DuBois recommended talking to other cities, including Redwood City and Mountain View, about forming a joint effort to create a trench along the Caltrain corridor. He pointed to other examples in the state and across the country, including in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Reno, Nevada, where tunnels and trenches were successfully built.
"I'd really like us to learn from examples of how other cities and areas pulled this thing off," DuBois said. "I think we really need to think big and consider all sources of funding (and) cobble everything together. Should we go for minor changes on Churchill? Sure. But I'd like to see us think big and really think about a Midpeninsula trench that could really impact a lot of people."
According to the city's preliminary estimates, a trench for Caltrain would cost between $500 million and $1 billion in the southern half of the city alone. But given the rising demand for Caltrain and future rail improvements, the council agreed that grade separation should be pursued regardless of high-speed rail.
"The challenges remain whether they're coming or not," Burt said, referring to high-speed rail. "It really behooves us to re-engage on this and to begin trying to take the bull by the horns ourselves so that we really are moving as much as possible away from a reactive mode."