Palo Alto considers suing rail authority
High-speed train agency denies city's request to reconsider alternative routes for proposed rail line
Community outrage and City Council skepticism will not stop the state agency in charge of the high-speed rail project from running the line through the Caltrain corridor and along the Peninsula, rail officials said Monday night.
Rod Diridon, a member of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors, told the council that the authority has no intention of revisiting running high-speed trains through the Altamont Pass east of Livermore, despite requests from Palo Alto and other cities.
The council discussed the tunnel projects with rail authority officials while dozens of residents filled the Council Chambers to voice concerns and vent their outrage about the Peninsula segment of the proposed 800-mile $45 billion rail line that would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles.
City staff issued a report last week detailing Palo Alto's concerns and laying out issues the authority should consider in its Environmental Impact Report on the section between San Francisco and San Jose.
This was the first analysis of the proposed high-speed rail project issued by city staff.
In October, council unanimously passed a resolution urging residents to vote for Proposition 1A, which provided $9.95 billion in funding for the project. That resolution, based on a memo from council members Larry Klein and Yoriko Kishimoto, called high-speed rail a "safe, timely, reliable mode of transportation." The proposition passed in November.
But in the last few months, the council, staff and city residents have become increasingly concerned about the impacts of the proposed rail, particularly if the trains are slated to run on elevated tracks.
The top two requests on the staff's list are for the agency to evaluate all track-elevation options with the same level of detail and for the agency to reexamine using Altamont Pass or U.S. Highway 101 and Interstate 280 up the Peninsula before it finalizes its plans.
Both Diridon and the agency's regional manager, Dominic Spaethling, told the council that the rail authority will examine all viable options for track designs. But Diridon made it clear the authority will not revisit its program-level Environmental Impact Review, a broad document it completed last year that identifies the Pacheco Pass as its preferred rail route.
"We're not going to reopen the program-level review," Diridon said after Kishimoto suggested the agency revisit its decision and explain how it chose Pacheco Pass.
Palo Alto isn't the only city calling for a reexamination of routes. A coalition that includes Menlo Park and Atherton filed a suit against the authority in August seeking to get the authority to reconsider Altamont Pass. The group filed its opening brief last month.
But while Palo Alto has not joined that suit, several council members suggested Monday night they may consider suing if the city's concerns aren't met.
The council unanimously agreed to create a council subcommittee focused on the high-speed rail project, to support the creation of a memorandum of understanding between various Peninsula cities to streamline negotiations with the authority, and to direct staff to work on a regional rail plan.
The council also asked City Attorney Gary Baum to research the ongoing litigation and to discuss it with the council in a closed session. Councilman Larry Klein also asked Baum to report publicly on the litigation at a future meeting, after the council's closed session.
Baum said Palo Alto is unable to join the ongoing suit against the rail authority because the statute of limitations had expired. But several members of the public urged the council to step in as amicus curiae, a designation that would allow the city to participate in the lawsuit without being a party in it.
Council members and residents also continued to lobby for deep tunneling and lashed out against a proposal by the agency to elevate the high-speed rail tracks, a move that would require a 15-foot barrier to stretch along the Caltrain corridor.
Resident Helen Sandoval asked the council to take a stand against the wall.
"I urge you to prevent construction of the biggest eyesore and graffiti magnet ever seen in Palo Alto," Sandoval said.
Klein called the wall a "bad, bad, bad idea" and a "nonstarter."
Others lambasted the rail authority for leaving the city with few good choices and described its planning process as one that stultifies local policies and opinions.
Vice Mayor Jack Morton complained that the authority is acting as if some of the most critical questions surrounding the project have already been decided.
"Seems to me they're on an express train and we're on a bicycle trying to catch up," Morton said.
A few speakers expressed enthusiasm for the proposed system, which is slated to whisk passengers through the state in about a decade.
Resident Andrew Bogan called high-speed rail a "fantastic way to travel" and urged the city to support the project.
"It's not a minor effect, it's a transforming transportation project for our state," Bogan said.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at email@example.com.