Atherton Rail Committee members are backtracking on their recommendation to add service to the Atherton Caltrain station in light of the recent introduction of a state bill that could require new housing to be built along busier transit corridors.
During a joint study session between the Atherton City Council and the 10-member Rail Committee on Jan. 9, officials from both groups expressed concern that if Caltrain services in Atherton were expanded, the town could be on the hook to allow more housing near the station.
a bill introduced in December by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco. The bill would require cities to allow new apartment buildings in any place that is either: within a half-mile of a rail transit station, within a quarter-mile of a high-frequency bus stop or within a "job-rich" neighborhood.
The committee came up with its recommendations in the fall, asking the council to support expansion of train stops in Atherton. This is as Caltrain reviews and plans its service schedules as it prepares to electrify the rail service from around San Francisco down to San Jose.
Caltrain suspended weekday stops in the town in 2005 due to low ridership. The train now stops at the Atherton station only on the weekends.
The council and the committee - which meets the first Tuesday of every other month to examine the impacts of rail service in town - discussed the various pros and cons of adding weekday Caltrain service stops in Atherton during the meeting. The town is examining the issue as Caltrain forecasts its future service up until 2040. Caltrain has final say on the schedule.
The committee had made the following recommendations before SB 50 was introduced:
• Caltrain must restore full weekday service.
• Caltrain must complete a capital project to remove the "hold out station" designation in town. Atherton's station has this designation because it has a center boarding platform only, meaning passengers can cross the tracks in multiple places to reach the center boarding platform. To change this, Caltrain would have to build separate platforms for northbound and southbound passengers and a fence separating the tracks.
• Ensure that any long-term rail corridor plan limits the number of tracks to two through Atherton.
• Modernization of the rail system must minimize and fully mitigate any environmental impact to the town.
• The town should advocate designating the Watkins Avenue crossing a "quiet zone," adding quad gates at the crossing.
SB50 could force Atherton to allow new housing, and take on the growth from other nearby jurisdictions that have growing job markets and populations, council member Cary Wiest said at the meeting.
"They're already pushing off their traffic problems to us," he said. "Do we want Marsh Road to be the conduit to the Facebook campus? Do we want to be the station that's going to mitigate the growth of other decision-makers?"
"It (expanding Caltrain service in town) is a serious risk with the potential for state-driven housing mandates, which override local zoning," Vice Mayor Rick DeGolia said before council and committee members agreed that the committee should re-examine the issue at its February meeting. "It will come to bear where there are train stations... . I conclude the costs are greater than the benefits."
Caltrain has indicated that rather than adding an additional stop in the overall train schedule (adding time), it might eliminate a stop in either Redwood City or Menlo Park to accommodate an Atherton stop, according to a staff report. Caltrain "doesn't want to forego stops in Redwood City or Menlo Park to service the Atherton station," DeGolia said.
Everyone can agree that the public transit in the Bay Area "stinks," but Atherton would ultimately hurt the transit system by demanding a weekday stop in town since it would take away service from one of the more populated cities, said Wiest.
Others at the meeting showed support for expanding Caltrain service in town, including council member Elizabeth Lewis.
"With congestion increases over the last 12 years, people will ride the train rather than drive," she said. "You can't underestimate the level of service our station will garner."
Lewis wasn't keen on the suggestion of a Caltrain shuttle from the Atherton station to the Redwood City or Menlo Park stations, noting that most people don't want to have to take a shuttle to the train.
Rail Committee member Malcolm Dudley also wants more service at the Atherton station.
"It's important for the aging population to have the train," he said at the meeting. "We need transit; we have a serious problem with traffic and the answer is not just driving cars."
The council will vote on service recommendations from the committee in March, at the earliest, town officials said.