Nearly 200 people packed the Menlo Park City Council Chambers on Tuesday, Sept. 9, sending a clear message to state officials that the California High Speed Rail Authority has a lot of work to do to convince Menlo Park and Atherton residents that high-speed trains zooming up and down the Caltrain corridor would be a good thing for either town.
The council-led study session, devoted to plans to connect Northern and Southern California with the all-electric passenger trains, quickly took on the life of a television courtroom drama.
State officials fervently defended plans to shoot the trains up the Peninsula, and opponents of the project — including Menlo Park and Atherton council members, a coalition of nonprofit groups and local residents — either questioned or downright blasted the project as too expensive, and too harmful to local communities.
As currently planned, northbound trains from Los Angeles would connect to Gilroy from the Central Valley, then shoot up the Caltrain corridor — through Menlo Park and Atherton — to connect to San Francisco. Proponents point to the short ride times (Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 hours and 30 minutes) and low cost (one-way tickets are estimated to cost $55) of riding the system as motivating factors to get trains up and running by 2030.
"The technology is dazzling, the dream is great, but I don't believe what I'm being told," said Don Barnby, a resident of Menlo Park's Forrest Park neighborhood, which is adjacent to the Caltrain tracks.
Barnby questioned claims by Rod Diridon, a California High Speed Rail Authority Board member who spoke in favor of the project, that the estimated $45 billion rail system would be profitable, and that the authority would properly mitigate impacts of the new rail system on towns it passes through.
The project would likely require adding tracks to the existing Caltrain corridor, and constructing grade separations — separating the train tracks from the roadway — at local intersections.
The portion of the Caltrain corridor that cuts through Menlo Park and Atherton is narrow, meaning local residents and businesses could see property values drop, and the cities would have to endure years of construction, noise, and traffic impacts as the system is built.
Diridon, invited by the city to talk about the project, emphasized that the rail authority would work closely with Menlo Park and Atherton to "figure out a way to meet the needs" of the two cities if the $9.95 billion high-speed rail bond measure is passed by a majority of voters on Nov. 4. The bond measure would provide the first stage of funding for the project.