Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - September 24, 2010

On the wrong track

Midpeninsula cities charge that plans for state high-speed rail are headed off course

by Gennady Sheyner

Last week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sojourned to Asia for a brisk, three-nation tour of high-speed rail systems.

Before boarding Japan's widely acclaimed Shinkansen bullet train, Schwarzenegger marveled at the technology around him. Surrounded by reporters and aides, he praised the nation's rail infrastructure, including its tunnels and double-decker trains.

"The ingenuity is really unbelievable," said Schwarzenegger, whose tour also included stops in China and South Korea.

At one point, he took 10 minutes out of his busy schedule to dial into a San Diego conference, where about 30 officials from various parts of state voiced their frustrations about California's own high-speed rail effort. The meeting, sponsored by Palo Alto, was scheduled in conjunction with the annual League of California Cities conference. City leaders from northern, southern and central California participated.

According to Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt, who hosted the meeting with Councilman Larry Klein, Schwarzenegger told the city leaders that he understands their concerns about the rail system's potential impacts. He then asked them to subordinate these concerns for the greater good of the state.

Klein, who has recently emerged as Palo Alto's fiercest high-speed-rail critic, characterized Schwarzenegger's remarks as "condescending" and said he wasn't the only conference attendee to feel that way. One "grandmotherly" councilwoman from Southern California held up a note while the governor was talking inscribed with the letters "BS," he said.

The sign, in many ways, epitomized the feelings of Midpeninsula city officials about California's high-speed rail project, which state officials hope will connect San Francisco to Los Angeles by 2020. Voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the rail system in November 2008, when they passed Proposition 1A.

This week, Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto councils all voted unanimously (in Menlo Park, one council member abstained) to sue the California High-Speed Rail Authority, claiming the agency has failed to address their concerns in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act. Burlingame and Belmont are both scheduled to consider lawsuits in closed sessions next week.

Suing is one of many tools Midpeninsula officials are using in their quest to slow down the $42.6 billion project. In recent months, city officials have attended rail authority meetings in Sacramento to criticize the most recent plans and have sent letters to state and federal officials complaining about the process. The Peninsula Cities Consortium, which consists of Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto, Belmont and Burlingame, also issued a public statement in July claiming the rail authority has "an enormous credibility problem" and challenging the authority to "build right or not at all."

Palo Alto city leaders this week took their firmest stance to date against the project in its current form. The council, which voted to support the high-speed rail project back in October 2008, unanimously passed a resolution Monday night declaring "no confidence" in the project. The city also voted 5 to 4, with Mayor Pat Burt, Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa, Councilman Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd dissenting, to send a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration requesting that the agency to stop its $1 billion funding of the project.

Espinosa, who was on the council when it supported Proposition 1A, said he has "gone through every emotion" over the past two years when it comes to the rail project.

"Like so many Californians, I started with excitement, then confusion while on the council, then frustration with the authority and finally to anger," Espinosa said. "Like so many Californians, I was excited by the prospect of being able to jump on a train and being able to get to L.A. in a quick manner.

"I soon realized like so many of us that the High-Speed Rail Authority was in fact not a good partner."

Klein, who chairs the city's High-Speed Rail Committee, was also once a rail supporter. Two years ago, he co-authored a resolution with former Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto urging Palo Alto voters to pass Proposition 1A. The two council members called high-speed rail a "proven technology" and argued that it "will provide a faster, far better environmental solution to the problem of moving our state's growing population from one part of the state to another."

Now, Klein is the council's fiercest critic of the project. At a Sept. 15 committee meeting, he described the city's negotiations with the rail authority as a "bare-knuckles political fight" and a David-versus-Goliath struggle.

"We have a serious problem facing our city which we have little power over," Klein said.

Palo Alto officials have expressed a litany of concerns about the project, including (but not limited to) the rail authority's estimation of how many people will use the rail line; its elimination of deep tunnels and covered trenches as possible design options; its failure to provide any information about potential property seizures along the Caltrain corridor; its virtual abandonment of the "context-sensitive solutions" model, which gives stakeholders a say in the design of the line; and the speed with which the design work is proceeding.

Though the lawsuit isn't expected to stop the project, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton officials hope it will at least slow it down. They also hope the suit will force the rail authority to reopen its voluminous Program Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the second time and re-evaluate its selection of Pacheco Pass as the preferred route rather than the Altamont Pass in the East Bay.

Stuart Flashman, the attorney who represented Atherton, Menlo Park and a coalition of nonprofit groups in a 2008 lawsuit against the Rail Authority, said he believes the revised Environmental Impact Report (EIR) remains inaccurate, particularly when it comes to projected ridership numbers. These estimations are critical because they provide the basis for the rail authority's choice of Pacheco Pass over the Altamont. Flashman said the rail authority probably would have reached a different decision had it made its projections correctly.

"The message we're sending to the High-Speed Rail Authority is that we're going to keep making you do it until you do it right," Flashman said.

The coalition's initial lawsuit forced the rail authority to de-certify the EIR for the Bay Area-to-Central Valley segment of the line and revise chapters relating to vibration impact, project description and Union Pacific's opposition to sharing its tracks with the new high-speed trains. Palo Alto was not a plaintiff in that suit but filed a "friend of the court" brief in support of its Midpeninsula neighbors.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny did not require the rail authority to revisit the issue of route selection. Flashman hopes the new lawsuit — along with a recent report by UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) that found the ridership projections "unreliable" and recent evidence that the rail authority's ridership models weren't publicized or peer reviewed before the EIR was issued — will change that.

The new lawsuit also seeks to slow down the rail authority's design process for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the 800-mile line. The rail authority is scheduled to release a highly anticipated Project Environmental Impact Report in December that would analyze the various design options — including trenches, aerial viaducts and at-grade tracks — along the Peninsula.

Flashman said the group wants to make sure the rail authority doesn't certify this new document until it resolves the outstanding issues with the broader document and proves that the Pacheco Pass is indeed the proper alignment for the new line.

"They haven't made the basic decisions about the Program EIR but they're going ahead with the new (Project) EIR," Flashman told the Weekly. "It's kind of like putting on your coat before you put on your shirt."

Jeffrey Barker, the rail authority's deputy director, declined to comment on the cities' planned litigation other than to point out that "this kind of thing is not unexpected for an infrastructure project of this size and scope."

The authority's goal, he wrote in an e-mail, is "to work with every community to help shape the best high-speed rail project possible, and (the authority) would hope that elected officials choose to engage meaningfully in that process."

The Midpeninsula's gradual insurgence against the rail project has not gone unnoticed by rail proponents, both in Sacramento and in the Bay Area. Authority CEO Roelof van Ark recently joined officials from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and Mountain View for a tour of the Caltrain corridor, where the rail officials hope to place the new system. Van Ark, who did not respond to a request from the Weekly for comment, also wrote a letter to Peninsula officials on Aug. 24 assuring them that "the trench option through many Peninsula cities remains an option to be further studied and evaluated," despite recent analyses indicating that it's an unlikely option further south along the Midpeninsula.

Schwarzenegger's phone call to the San Diego conference also struck Klein and Burt as a sign that Sacramento is finally hearing (though not addressing) the cacophony of complaints from local officials.

"I was very glad to have the governor try to hijack our meeting," Klein said at the Sept. 20 council meeting. "It was a confession that we're being taken seriously."

The volunteer group Californians for High-Speed Rail is also trying to quell the Peninsula storm. On Sept 13, the group launched a "Peninsula Reset" campaign, aimed at changing the tone of the conversation. The San Francisco-based group wrote an open letter urging, among other things, that Peninsula officials to "publicly acknowledge the benefits that HSR will bring to their communities in terms of necessary upgrades such as improved pedestrian safety and traffic conditions due to grade separations."

The group also calls for the rail authority to commit to "better communications with Peninsula cities and to provide a new staff member that is dedicated solely to resolving all the complex issues along the Peninsula."

Chairman Robert Cruickshank, who founded the California High Speed Rail Blog, said the group is "generally pleased" with the project's progress thus far. He called the Institute of Transportation Studies report's criticism of the authority's ridership numbers "an argument between academics over how you study ridership" and said the project has come a long way since voters approved Proposition 1A. Most people on the Peninsula continue to support the project, he said.

For evidence, the group points to a poll conducted by the firm Fairbank, Maslin, Mullin and Metz in April for a political candidate in the 21st Assembly District. The poll showed 77 percent of Democratic and independent voters taking part in the Democratic primary as supporting the project.

"What we're seeing on the Peninsula and what we're not seeing around the state is a much more organized and concerted effort to undermine the project," Cruickshank told the Weekly. "We see a lot of public support that's not been mobilized."

Daniel Krause, co-founder of the Californians for High Speed Rail, said he helped found the group in 2005 largely to urge legislators in Sacramento to provide funding for the project. Late last year, he and other group members realized they would need to become more active to counter the organized opposition on the Peninsula.

He acknowledged that mobilizing supporters is always a challenge — it's the people who oppose the project who are more likely to attend meetings and get involved. But his group remains hopeful that the "silent majority" of rail supporters will soon speak up.

"High-speed rail provides a lot of opportunities, not just problems," Krause said. "We're really encouraging people to re-look at benefits of the project."

In Palo Alto, at least, the benefits of the rail system have been largely overshadowed by fears and anxieties. Over a series of emotional public hearings in August and September, council members and residents slammed the latest design plans for the planned system, which the rail authority unveiled last month.

The plans, outlined in the Supplemental Alternatives Analysis Report, eliminate the locally popular deep tunnels and covered trenches from consideration on the Midpeninsula and narrow the design options to at-grade (street level) tracks, aerial viaducts and open trenches. The rail authority is scheduled to release a fuller analysis of the remaining design options in December, as part of its Project EIR for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the line.

Palo Alto officials are already gearing up for a battle over the new report. The city has hired the civil-engineering firm Hatch Mott McDonald to review the Alternatives Analysis, and representatives of the firm said they have already uncovered a number of flaws and inconsistencies in the document.

Hatch Mott McDonald concluded in its review earlier this month that the rail authority's hasn't been clear about the depth of the open trench in its cost projections; that its plan to switch from at-grade to aerial alignments in Palo Alto "does not appear to be consistent with the CHSRA policy to avoid a 'roller coaster' configuration"; and that the rail authority's rejection of the covered-trench option is questionable, given that the construction process for open and closed trenches is "nearly identical."

Palo Alto's traffic engineers, meanwhile, have completed their own analysis of high-speed rail's possible impact on traffic and concluded that the effects would be substantial if the tracks run at street level as Caltrain does now. These impacts would be particularly significant if the rail authority chooses to build the project in phases, a plan it laid out last month in an application for federal funds.

In that application, the authority proposed a scenario in which the high-speed trains and Caltrain would use four grade-separated tracks between San Francisco and Redwood City, then switch to a shared street-level two-track system along the Midpeninsula before going back to the four-track system in Mountain View. Staff has estimated that if this option were to materialize, it would take 10 minutes for traffic on Alma Street to recover after each train passed through.

The city is also preparing a series of studies of the Caltrain corridor, including an analysis of a high-speed rail system's economic impact and a property-value analysis for land near the corridor. These studies, the council hopes, will help the city acquire the answers it's been seeking (and not getting) from the rail authority.

Burt said the city plans to continue to "work constructively" with the rail authority over its plans, the new lawsuit notwithstanding. Klein also said the city should remain engaged in the design process for the new system, though urged his council colleagues to take a firmer tone with the rail authority during these negotiations.

"We tried to be nice guys — that's our style in Palo Alto," Klein said at the Sept. 15 meeting of the high-speed rail committee. "We've been rejected over and over again by the High-Speed Rail Authority.

"That's a view clearly shared up and down the Peninsula," he added. "We're not acting alone."

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

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