Last Tuesday, January 15th, the Menlo Park City Council was scheduled to vote, at the behest of staff, to abandon the city’s two-track limit for the CalTrain right-of-way, in order to allow staff to apply to the San Mateo Transit Authority for a $750,000 grant to study grade separations. At the Council Meeting, staff announced that the TA had now dropped their requirement that Menlo Park change their two-track policy as a condition for applying for the grant so long as they included a three-track option in such study. They went on to tell Council that studying a three-track option is was what they are going to do.
My sense is that Council thought this change to be a good thing; however, I don’t think so. There are a number of very bad things happening here.
1) Since when does staff dictate to City Council what it (staff) is going to do? Staff works for our elected City Council, not the other way around. Further, not one Councilmember objected to staff’s assertion that it was going to study an option that is specifically contrary to Menlo Park’s two-track policy (a policy established by City Council). Everyone on Council sat meekly silent and let it pass.
2) Suppose TA accepts Menlo Park’s study application, and that application contains (as staff intends) a three-track option. And then suppose TA awards Menlo Park the millions of dollars needed to build the grade separation for the three-track option. Staff will then be demanding that Council accept those millions of dollars to build a grade separation designed to accommodate three tracks. Will Council then find its courage and have the backbone to stick with its (and the citizen’s) two-track policy when faced with a multimillion dollar bribe? I can hear the arguments now, “If we build a grade separation that can accommodate three tracks we get the TA to pay for it, and that doesn’t mean we can’t still limit CalTrain (and HSR) to two tacks.
Please note, this isn’t about Menlo Park’s need for grade separation; that need is real and great. Nor is it about electrification which does not require three tracks. This is about doing the right thing for our city. Three tracks is solely a creature of High Speed Rail. Selling Menlo Park’s birthright of a peaceful bucolic community in exchange for several million dollars is a devil’s bargain. TA is in bed with the High Speed Rail Authority in order to get some of its bond money for electrification, and it seems the quid-pro-quo is for TA to help HSR break through Menlo Park’s two-track limitation on the CalTrain right-of-way. HSR is still planning and pushing for a three or four track system up the Peninsula, and if we give way we’ll degrade our lovely city and devastate property values. We’ve already been through this before.
It’s not even clear that TA’s bid to get some of HSR’s bond money is legal. For Menlo Park staff to design for three tracks is a way to undermine Menlo Park’s two-track policy. Further, it’s interesting that last Tuesday’s scheduled vote to set aside the two-track policy was not advertised widely in advance. In fact, it seems that much of staff’s discussion of transportation matters occurs behind closed doors, i.e., staff is trying to help HSR achieve, by back-door means, what it failed to achieve directly.
I believe it’s time for City Council to assert itself and give clear and unequivocal direction to staff, and require that they drop the three-track option from its application. Also, they should fire from staff all persons who fail to accept that City Council (by way of the citizens) runs the show. It is unacceptable that staff is doing the bidding of TA and HSR in an effort to end-run the well-considered two-track policy of Menlo Park.