The Atherton City Council pushed back a vote on a plan to shut down Caltrain service in town for good in the coming months to ensure the rail service is responsible for funding needed to close the historic station. The council will consider a revised version of the item during a special meeting on Monday, Oct. 26.
During a Thursday, Oct. 21, meeting the council debated the merits of approving a memorandum of understanding which effectively would shut down the station on Dec. 1. Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis said she didn't think the document was "ready for prime time" so long as it is not clearly stipulated in the agreement that Caltrain is on the hook to cover fencing needed to close off the station, along with other improvements to the space. Council member Bill Widmer added there should be a revocation clause if Caltrain doesn't carry out the projects.
The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB), which owns and operates Caltrain, consists of representatives from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, would seek approval from the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (TA) for at least 50% match funding for the installation of $800,000 worth of permanent safety fencing and $5 million Watkins Avenue crossing safety improvements. The council would also ask the transportation agency to cover 100% of the costs for site improvements.
Sebastian Petty, Caltrain's deputy chief of planning, clarified that the memorandum is a binding obligation and that Caltrain can fund the basic shutdown of the station, with safety fencing that would separate the platform from the tracks. He noted Caltrain is seeking a grant in December for some of the projects and the Transportation Authority would handle the balance of project funding. Petty stressed the urgency of approving a memorandum, as Caltrain plans to discuss station project funding at the Transportation Authority's next meeting, which takes place the first week of November.
"Under terms of the JPB (Joint Powers Board), local projects like this are typically funded by the county," he said. "We (Caltrain) are in fact planning to ask for funding at the TA's November meeting. We have reason to believe the TA would support that allocation."
Council member Mike Lempres said it is time to sign a memorandum of understanding and close the station.
"We're trying to get a lot of certainty, but the truth is we're not going to get 100% certainty of this," he said. "How will this agreement be materially better than it is today?"
Town Rail Committee member Greg Conlon said the council should continue the item to the next meeting because if Measure RR, an eight-cent sales tax dedicated to Caltrain operations and capital improvements, does not pass on Nov. 3, "they'll (Caltrain) cut and run" on funding the station projects.
"I hate to say the obvious, but if they (Caltrain) go broke, we're not going to have a station," said City Attorney Mona Ebrahimi, noting that the various projects related to the station's closure might not get completed.
The council received several public comments, including from former council member Jim Janz, who had concerns about what will happen to the station when it closes.
Resident Anthony Wynne voiced his support of closing the Atherton train station. The biggest benefit of the closure is expanding the train quiet zone within town, he noted.
Resident Hamid Zarringhalam wrote to the council that the station "still provides an essential service to workers, disabled, and the elderly on the weekends" and the closure "will contribute to climate change because people won’t be able to use it on the weekends."
The council signed off on a Caltrain proposal to permanently close its historic train station in January because of years of minimal service and low ridership, and a desire to safeguard the town from legislation similar to the recent Senate Bill 50, which would have put cities on the hook for allowing high density housing near public transit. But the town's agreement of how to close the station with the rail service has been delayed as officials have focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The special meeting will take place at 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 25 on Zoom.