The council voted unanimously on Feb. 20 to form an ad hoc subcommittee to meet with staff and Caltrain on the future of the Atherton station. The subcommittee is tasked with crafting changes to the town's rail policy based on the Rail Committee's recommendations and return with a recommendation for the City Council.
This follows the town's Rail Committee vote of 4-3, with two abstentions and one absence, at a Feb. 5 meeting to recommend that Caltrain restore weekday train service in town. 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.
"We shouldn't make a hard-and-fast decision right now," said Mayor Bill Widmer.
The town is examining the issue as Caltrain reviews and plans its service schedules in preparation of rail service electrification from San Francisco to San Jose. Caltrain has indicated that rather than adding a stop in the overall train schedule, it might eliminate a stop in either Redwood City or Menlo Park to accommodate an Atherton stop, according to a staff report. Caltrain has the final say on the schedule.
Council member Elizabeth Lewis has expressed support for restoring weekday train service in town, but agreed that Atherton should carefully study the matter.
"It is a really, really big decision and we shouldn't make it lightly," she said. "I think that we need to work really hard to do the best we can to get all the information, and I think by working in a subcommittee we can do that."
Other council members said they don't see as much of a need for weekday train service in town.
"I think train service to the town of Atherton is an asset to the town, it's been in the town for almost 150 years," said Vice Mayor Rick DeGolia. "But I also think that times have changed and people don't commute principally to San Francisco from our community, like they did 30 years ago. People go south much more for their commute today."
DeGolia noted he has gotten more emails on the topic of train service in town than any other subject this year.
In the fall, the Rail Committee recommended that the council restore full weekday train stops in Atherton, but it backpedaled on the recommendation at a Jan. 9 joint council and committee meeting before going back to its original recommendation. The concern: SB 50, 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 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 council is asking the town's existing League of California Cities and City/County Association of Governments subcommittees to study SB 50.
The bill comes as state housing officials estimate that 180,000 homes need to be built each year to keep pace with population growth, according to a League of California Cities report cited in the town staff report. Over the last decade, on average, fewer than half that number have been constructed annually, according to the report.
At past meetings, some residents and council and Rail Committee members said they fear that SB 50 could force Atherton to allow new housing, and take on the growth from other nearby jurisdictions that have growing job markets and populations.
DeGolia said that the town should prioritize safety around the rail station. High up in the town's rail policy should be the requirement that Caltrain must take all necessary steps to make rail transit through the rail corridor as safe as possible, including the maintenance of quad gates at Fair Oaks Lane and the establishment of quad gates at the Watkins Avenue crossing.
The town plans to host a study session on SB 50 to better understand the legislation and what position the town should take on it, Widmer said.