Guest Opinion: Controlling our communities' high-speed-rail future
In November, Californians voted for Proposition 1A, high-speed rail.
Today, Peninsula communities are wrestling with the implications of this enormous project running through our downtowns and residential areas.
Yes, a majority voted for it. But no one gave up the right or responsibility to plan and control our future. We must ensure that community voices are represented. We need to think long-term — 100 years or more out into the future — and make sure this project is done right.
Representatives of several Peninsula cities have been meeting weekly on an ad-hoc basis for since February. These meetings have served as a forum for dialogue with a variety of stakeholders, from rail agency staff to neighborhood groups to innovative and visionary urban-design professionals.
Working together, officials from some cities recently penned a "mayor's letter" to the High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA). The letter captures the hopes and concerns we hold in common. These include maintaining connectivity between areas on either side of the right-of-way, keeping local roads open, protecting the walkable and bikeable nature of the communities, and a desire to work "collaboratively to develop optimal urban design alternatives."
Our approach is similar to Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS), a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach adopted by the Federal Highway Administration that involves all stakeholders in developing transportation projects that fit the physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic and environmental resources while maintaining safety and mobility. CSS considers the total context of a transportation-improvement project.
Cities want scenarios that address these concerns to be studied in the rail authority's upcoming environmental impact report (EIR). Inclusion of agreed-upon alternatives for a balanced and rational analysis is a first step toward creating a sound foundation for future decision-making.
Cities "look forward to working together [with the rail authority] as partners for the duration of the process from design to construction," states the letter, now being reviewed by the various city councils to be signed by their mayors.
In response, the rail authority has, to its credit, agreed to share a draft of the scoping report and early drafts of its EIR, important steps toward increasing transparency during the long and complex environmental-analysis period.
We see all upside and no downside to this dialogue, and to continuing to meet in this forum for education and exchange of innovative urban-design ideas.
So far these meetings have been a great opportunity to set a positive tone, and for city officials, city staff and interested stakeholders to network and communicate regarding high speed rail and its impacts. The alternative would be to cede all the decision-making to the rail authority — an option many view as unpalatable and likely to result in sub-optimal outcomes.
Some of the cities that have attended the meetings are now reviewing a "Memorandum of Understanding" to formalize the ad-hoc group. This will increase local transparency and provide a more structured decision-making framework. The "Peninsula Cities Coalition" will allow city groupings from Gilroy and Morgan Hill all the way up the Peninsula to work with their neighborhood groups, chambers of commerce and one another to pool and leverage our knowledge so we can have an effective voice with the new collaboration between Caltrain and High Speed Rail Authority. The communities must be the third leg of the triangle with the two rail authorities.
Next up on our agenda is the possibility of proceeding with a "design charette" for participating cities. With the participation of world-renowned design professionals, project finance experts and technical staff and consultants as well as various stakeholders, a design charette would be an intensive effort to flesh out ideas for an future urban landscape that would include high-speed rail in various scenarios — including tunnel, trench, at-grade, and elevated options.
A charette increases understanding by developing, visualizing and critiquing alternatives. This will be an opportunity for a true integration of land use, transportation and urban design, to create a long-term vision of sustainable local communities.
The charette will be a collaboration between the cities and the rail authorities and held sometime in the early fall. The High Speed Rail Authority has released an extremely aggressive timeline that calls for conceptual design of alternatives to be developed by fall 2009, a draft report of alternatives analysis by January 2010, and a draft environmental impact report one year later. It will host an outreach workshop in each county, but standard outreach is not enough. The challenge of integrating a speeding railroad down fine-grained, established neighborhoods and downtowns demands the best ideas from all of us. And we need to work closely together across county lines.
The eyes of the nation will be on the Peninsula since High Speed Rail is now a high priority of President Obama. If we cannot build this segment successfully with all the business, design and technical talent in our community, who can?
In preparation for the charette, we plan to host a series of public forums on tunneling, urban design "best practices" from around the world, recent advances in rail technology, and project financing to educate ourselves. We thank our colleagues and all the residents, businesses and design professionals who have worked with the emerging coalition.
Please join us in this effort to bring our communities together to re-assert our control over a future that will provide a modern transportation system without negatively impacting the quality of life we cherish.
Yoriko Kishimoto is a member of the Palo Alto City Council and Kelly Fergusson is a member of the Menlo Park City Council — both are former mayors. They can be e-mailed respectively at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.