Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 5, 2010

Palo Alto raising new high-speed-rail concerns

City officials, watchdogs await re-release of key environmental document well-armed with knowledge and ammunition they lacked in initial 2008 EIR process

by Gennady Sheyner

As the California High-Speed Rail Authority prepares to release a major report on impacts of the proposed high-speed-rail line, Palo Alto officials are compiling a fresh list of questions and concerns about the controversial project.

The rail authority is scheduled to unveil its revised environmental-impact report (EIR) — a comprehensive document that projects ridership and revenue figures and analyzes the impacts of the $43 billion project — on March 11.

The authority had completed the 1,200-plus-page document in July 2008, but had to decertify and revise it after a court challenge from Menlo Park, Atherton and a coalition of environmental and transportation groups.

A Sacramento County judge ordered the agency to revise the sections on the rail system's vibration impacts and on Union Pacific's opposition to sharing tracks with the new system.

Jeffrey Barker, the authority's deputy director for communication, said the new document would also have an expanded description of the overall project.

But even though the authority's revisions are expected to focus only on the sections singled out by the court, Palo Alto City Council members and staff have indicated that they will use the environmental-review process to scrutinize the entire document.

Last week, members of the council's High-Speed Rail Committee agreed that the entire document needs further scrutiny and scheduled a study session for the council's March 15 meeting to give residents a chance to voice their concerns about the report.

Palo Alto officials have repeatedly pressed the rail authority in recent months to release more information about the project and its impacts on the Peninsula. Last week, members of the council's High-Speed Rail Committee expressed frustration at the committee's inability to get detailed right-of-way maps of the Caltrain corridor, where the rail authority plans to stretch the new system.

City officials and members of the group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CAARD) have also peppered the rail authority with questions and concerns about the authority's alignment preferences, revenue estimates and the cost estimates for the design alternatives for the rail line.

Mayor Pat Burt said Palo Alto will resubmit concerns it included in the amicus brief it filed in support of Atherton, Menlo Park and their coalition partners and will add fresh items to the list.

"There's a variety of other things we've come to understand about shortcomings in the EIR since it was completed (in 2008)," Burt said.

Nadia Naik, co-founder of CAARD, said the group is particularly interested in the rail authority's ridership figures and its outreach strategies. The group discovered last month that the authority's ridership projections were based on models that had not been reviewed by a peer group.

"We hope the information about ridership will be clarified," Naik said.

She also said she is concerned about the authority's outreach strategies for the new environmental report.

The council committee had initially planned to use the March 15 meeting to discuss the authority's "alternatives analysis" — a document analyzing costs and benefits of various design options, including underground tunnels, elevated tracks and trenched trains. But the rail authority announced that document, which was initially scheduled to be completed in December but then rescheduled to March, now will not be released until April.

Meanwhile, state officials have their own list of questions and concerns about the project. The state Legislative Analyst's Office released a report Tuesday recommending that legislators acquire more information about the authority's contracts before approving the agency's budget request for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

The analyst's report said the authority's business plan and status reports offer inadequate details about existing contracts and lack milestones against which progress can be measured.

The authority has requested $203 million for various contracts and $250 million for right-of-way purchases in 2010-11, according to the report. Last October, the authority planned to request $750 million for right-of-way acquisitions. Barker said the authority has since determined that it won't need that much money for right-of-way in the next fiscal year and reduced its request by $500 million.

"We realized that we're not there yet and that we won't need to spend that much at this time," Barker said.

California voters approved $9.95 billion for the project in November 2008. In January, the project received another $2.25 billion in federal stimulus funding.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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