Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 17, 2010

Palo Alto wants rail funding withheld

City calls for rail authority to reconsider covered trenches

by Gennady Sheyner

Hours after Palo Alto's high-speed-rail consultant released a report critiquing the California High-Speed Rail Authority's latest design plans, a City Council committee called for state and federal officials to withhold funding for the controversial project.

The council's High Speed Rail Committee, which two weeks ago passed a resolution declaring "no confidence" in the rail authority, agreed Wednesday night to ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature not to release funding for high-speed rail until there is a new governing mechanism for the voter-approved project.

The committee's action came just hours after the city's consulting firm, Hatch Mott McDonald, released its own analysis of the rail authority's latest design plans for the Peninsula segment of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line.

The authority had included only three possible high-speed-rail alignments in Palo Alto in its Supplemental Alternative Analysis Report, which was released last month: aerial, at-grade (street level) and open trench.

The report eliminated deep tunnels and covered trenches, citing constructability issues and high costs.

But Hatch Mott McDonald, a civil-engineering firm that specializes in underground transportation, wrote in its analysis that the cost differences between open and closed trenches in the authority's analysis report are "simply not believable."

The "construction process for the covered trench is practically identical to that for the open trench," Hatch concluded. It said the cost of covered trenches would be "slightly higher" than for open trenches because of the additional ventilation, fire and life safety-associated costs.

The rail authority, however, estimated that the cost difference between the two options would be more than $300 million per mile, which the peer review calls not reasonable.

"As the construction requirements and process are so similar, it is not clear how the covered trench can be rejected, and the open trench retained, on this basis," the city consultant's report states. The authority "should clarify the construction issues that resulted in the rejection of the covered trench option."

After receiving Hatch Mott McDonald's report, the High-Speed Rail Committee unanimously agreed to ask the authority to revisit the covered-trench option. The committee agreed, over a sequence of motions and votes, that Palo Alto's letter to the authority should also assert the city's opposition to at-grade and aerial alternatives and its openness to further consider an open-trench design.

The four-member committee voted in unison on most issues Wednesday night, though Mayor Pat Burt and Councilman Larry Klein split over whether the city should formally oppose state funding for high-speed rail. Klein and Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd both argued that it should.

Burt urged his colleagues not to commit to such a position, which he said could ultimately reduce the city's credibility and its ability to influence the rail project. He compared the city's negotiations with the rail authority to a poker game.

"What we're doing is shoving all our chips in," Burt said. "Everyone sees our cards and we have no more chips to play."

But the rest of the committee sided with Klein, who rejected the poker analogy.

"We have few chips," Klein said. "This is not a poker game; this is really a fight over the future of our city and our region and our state."

Klein, who authored the "no confidence" resolution the committee unanimously passed on Aug. 30, said the city tried to work with the authority but has been rejected repeatedly. He called the city's negotiation with the authority a "bare-knuckles political fight" and a David-and-Goliath struggle.

"I don't recall David and Goliath doing a lot of negotiating," Klein said.

He also said Palo Alto's neighbors on the Peninsula are becoming similarly disenchanted with the authority. Menlo Park sent a letter to the Federal Rail Administration earlier this week asking the agency to "withhold additional funding for the San Francisco to San Jose segment until the CHSRA completes a responsible analysis of environmental impacts, a sound long-term funding plan, and gains the support of local communities along the San Francisco Peninsula."

The Mountain View City Council this week rejected the idea of having a local high-speed-rail station. Elected officials from other Peninsula cities, including Atherton, Burlingame and Belmont, also sent letters to the authority criticizing the latest design plans.

The Palo Alto City Council is scheduled to dedicate most of its Monday (Sept. 20) meeting to high-speed rail, including a closed session to discuss possible litigation.

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

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