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Guest Opinion: Council needs to set aside agenda for downtown Menlo visioning project

Original post made on Jul 10, 2008

One thing I have learned over the years is that anyone who serves on the City Council has good intentions. They just have prior agendas and tend to promote what they perceive as being good for the city, regardless of what most people think.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, July 9, 2008, 12:00 AM

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Posted by john wilson
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 10, 2008 at 12:15 pm

The thoughtful points in this piece provide further information for the City Council that they don't need to pay for. The central issues facing the Council, in my opinion, are future stability of city finances without additional undue burden on the residents (the recent utility tax comes to mind!), continuing intelligent development of the city in the face of external fiscal and other constraints, and preservation and enhancements of the city's desirability as a place to live.

I think the City Council hasn't done very well with these so far, but everything is a work in progress. A lot more attention is being paid to development, at the expense of the other two issues. The reason, of course, is that development is seen as the way to get the resources to achieve some of the other goals. This is the same affliction that San Francisco is currently experiencing, as they authorize the increase of heights along the Central Subway to try to bolster ridership projections to justify a ridiculously expensive white elephant. The same principles have been applied South of Market, with many new high-rises, but total dithering on transportation improvements to serve them. Bringing CalTrain underground to the planned TransBay Terminal is a daunting and also hideously expensive task, unlikely to be completed on any rational timescale/budget.

Now, the City Council faces the onrushing HSR bond, with its terrible potential for impact on the city. As a person who walks to the train every day to commute to work, I'm sensitive to the issues with El Camino traffic. It's clear that the Ravenswood crossing, with its fast traffic light cycle, is already a bottleneck that will only be made worse by a huge and steep rail underpass that will likely encroach on all surrounding properties. It is rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic to pursue things like the visioning process without taking some of these factors into account.

I believe that this is forcing transportation as the city's major pressing problem, and I am a firm advocate of intelligent mass transportation solutions and development. In spite of the city's Transportation Commission, the City Council appears distracted by other issues. These challenges can only be met with leadership, and the Council needs to be encouraged to lead. It is quite proper to survey the electorate to gather information, but the decisions have to be made by the members of the Council. No survey will provide more than general guidance, and the Transportation Commission was formed to provide more specific advice that can be confidently used to form the necessary decisions. The Council should get on with it. In this environment, they first need to take a strong stand against HSR through the city until and unless the HSR technology decisions are revised by the Authority.

There are technology solutions to the HSR concerns. It is a singular irony that individuals' vanity, cynical perpetuation of employment, and nostalgia for trains should foist such expensive and damaging projects on a nonunderstanding and financially stressed public. The media bears some responsibility for this as well, uncritically printing HSR articles provided by interest groups that contain many inaccuracies. Only the City Council can cut through this, by rejecting the current HSR project.

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Posted by morris brown
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 11, 2008 at 1:52 am

Mr Wilson accurately paints the local disaster if HSR with its 4 tracks and iron curtain wall is allowed to pass through here. Our council should quit wavering and do what Atherton has already done, namely write a letter of opposition to the project.

The time element is short. The 10 billion bond measure, Prop 1, is set for this fall's Nov 4th election. Menlo Park must act now.

City council members, get this on the agenda right now and take a stand of NO to HSR.


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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 11, 2008 at 2:36 pm

John Wilson, your thoughtful speculations about the city council, the commissions and the HSR are much appreciated. Indeed, I urge you to resubmit your comment to the Almanac as a possible guest editorial.

First, a disclaimer: As a member of the Transportation Commission I need to make it clear that I am here writing as a private citizen and do not speak for the Commission.

There are really several issues intertwined here. 1. Is the current conception of the California High Speed Train a good idea or a bad one? 2. Since the bond issue for the train is on the November ballot (and in my mind will probably be supported by our easily seduced voters) we can expect the Caltrain corridor to undergo the largest changes since its original construction over 150 years ago. I have described these changes in the Almanac, and in emails to the city council in the past.

Let us skip past the first point about the high-speed train and its impact on the state, to the second. According to our city administration, we have no contingency plans in anticipation of the major construction that will take place in Menlo Park. The city is not at this time prepared to cope with the massive disruptions that will ensue once the first bulldozers show up. No one in the city is doing any due diligence, research, or investigating the impact of such rail corridor construction and transformations in other cities. “ Oh, well. We have lots of time. It will be years until . . ..”

Most people don’t know about the train. Those that do, and don’t live within earshot of the Caltrain corridor, believe that this is none of their business. There are even a few in Menlo Park (some of whom neither live nor work here) who would argue that whatever happens will be good for the city; the HS train will be good for us; the changed rail corridor will be good for us, and an expanded Caltrain will be good for us.

I can only disagree in the strongest possible terms. And, about point #1, I think the HS train will be a financial, environmental, political and transportation disaster. Yes, I know that runs counter to all the spin generated by the train promoters. But if anyone wishes to really do some homework on this project, they will discover that nothing is like what is being presented. Remember, anything that sounds too good to be true, usually is.

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Posted by John Wilson
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jul 14, 2008 at 12:06 pm

Mr. Engel, I agree completely with your final statement. Only cynicism or genuine ignorance of technology on the part of the Authority could have brought us to the present situation. Otherwise, no sane person would have proposed this system in its present form. The current vision for this system puts forward steel wheel technology that has absolutely reached the end of its advantage for high speed transport, and would be fully obsolete before construction could commence. From the standpoint of safety, cost, and environmental consequences, it's over for conventional rail. At least UPRR may understand that this is ultimately no-win for them, and I hope they hold their ground. However, I believe that the Authority is likely to wind up with bonding authority in spite of everything.

So, this leaves us with few choices. The best choice, in my judgment, is to ask the City Council to publicly oppose the system in its current form. My experience with the media has been very uneven, and I doubt they would publish my comments, although I will make the effort as you suggest. I will also ask the Transportation Commission to place this on their agenda, in order to provide guidance that the Council genuinely needs.

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 14, 2008 at 3:48 pm

Recently more attention has been paid to the significance of the El Camino Visioning process and its next steps. However, the professional and residential participants appear to ignore the devastating impact of the changes to the rail corridor, as if El Camino transformation and the rail corridor expansion had no bearing on each other. Worst case scenario: Combined, these two parallel barriers can become the “Great Wall of China,” separating east and west Menlo Park into two separate and distinct communities. Care to speculate about the differences?

Just today, many of us received a document from former Councilwoman Lee Duboc who advocates a viaduct to run above our city, carrying Caltrain and the high-speed train. Talk about intrusive. But, then apparently I lack that vision she calls for.

Her point is well taken however that we cannot, like Cleopatra, queen of denial, pretend that nothing will happen on the rail corridor and that when it does, we can’t do anything about it anyhow.

For several years now, Atherton has had an active rail committee that meets monthly. They have taken quite seriously the possible consequences of the high-speed rail and the disasters that will be visited upon their town. Their members do a lot of homework. No forum like that is in the offing in Menlo Park. Pity.

Let me raise just one issue that merits some concern. Caltrain has two tracks, which it shares with Union Pacific freight. The anticipated high-speed train will also have two, dedicated tracks. That’s four tracks. Now, Caltrain also has passing tracks that permit the baby bullets to pass the locals. The high-speed train will also need passing tracks for the express trains to pass their local trains. That’s a lot of tracks. Where will those passing tracks be located? How wide does the rail corridor have to be to accommodate the tracks? Shouldn’t the people of Menlo Park (and Atherton) know what’s in store for them?

We have about 8500 ft. of train track running through town. What will that look like as a construction site? Will there be additional construction easements? Will there be eminent domain property takings? Just how long will downtown be torn up? Ms. Duboc was rather dismissive about that. I guess she doesn’t run a downtown business that could be terminated because of the construction. Shouldn’t we be talking about this? What will this do to the quality of life in our lovely village-like community that we take such pride in?

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