Anger, confusion and frustration about California's proposed high-speed rail system dominated a tense informational meeting Thursday, where dozens of Palo Altans demanded underground tunnels and one City Council member threatened to sue the state agency in charge of the project.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority, an agency charged with building the 800-mile rail line between San Francisco and San Diego, organized the meeting to solicit the community's suggestions about the proposed rail line.
The authority is preparing an Environmental Impact Report on the San Francisco-to-San Jose section of the line and wanted to hear residents' thoughts about what issues the report should cover.
The message from the roughly 200 residents crammed inside the Mitchell Park Community Center was clear: Any high-speed rail line that runs through the city must run through an underground tunnel.
"What will it take for us to get this train underground?" asked Judith Wasserman, member of the city's Architectural Review Board.
Another resident received a round of applause from the crowd when he said the train should run "quietly and invisibly" through the city.
Dominic Spaethling, regional manager for the project, said the tunnel is one of several options the agency plans to look at. He asked residents not to limit their options and warned them that they may not like all the plans they see throughout the design process.
"We will look at the tunnel and we will put that through the process," Spaethling said. "But keep in mind, there will be other options you will see."
The turnout for Thursday's meeting was the highest to date for meetings on the project, rail-authority officials said. Residents filled every available chair, crowded against the back wall and spilled out into the hallway.
While opinions in the crowd ranged from enthusiastic endorsements to outright opposition, most speakers argued in favor of building the rail tracks underground. Some said they had always assumed the trains would run underground and were shocked to learn that the rail authority is considering building rail lines over the existing Caltrain tracks.
The high-speed rail line would have to be grade separated, which means it would have to run either above or below existing roads and train tracks.
If the rail authority chooses to build the tracks above the ground, they tracks would have to be elevated by about 16 feet. In recent weeks, residents in the Southgate and Charleston Meadows neighborhoods in south Palo Alto launched a movement opposing the construction of this new barrier, which Councilman John Barton referred to as the modern "Berlin Wall" at a recent community meeting.
Some residents also said Thursday they were worried about the possibility of having their properties seized by eminent domain, which the agency has the authority to use.
"How do we register this community under the Endangered Species Act?" south Palo Alto resident Hinda Sack asked rail-authority officials.
Vice Mayor Jack Morton, meanwhile, blasted the rail authority for not giving the city more time to study the issues surrounding the proposed line, which would run along the Caltrain corridor. The HSRA had previously set a March 6 deadline for comments regarding the environmental report, but extended the deadline to April 6 after requests by council members.
But Morton said the extension is not enough and hinted that the city may oppose the project in court. Menlo Park and Atherton recently joined a lawsuit against the rail authority, arguing that the agency failed to properly evaluate the possibility of running the train through the Altamont Pass in East Bay. The rail authority chose the Pacheco Pass as its preferred route last summer.
"Shouldn't we join other cities in suing you guys and stopping this thing?" Morton asked HSRA officials.
But others said they support the high-speed rail. David Solnick, member of the city's Architectural Review Board, said he would like to see a high-speed-rail station built in Palo Alto. Solnick asked rail-authority officials what criteria they would use to determine whether the station should be in Palo Alto, Redwood City or at neither city.
"I'm hoping you won't include how many public officials might be threatening to sue you," he said.
The rail authority hopes to conclude its EIR in 2011 and Spaethling said the community would be kept informed about the project's progress along the way. The rail authority hopes to have the high-speed-rail line running by 2020, he said. It would travel through the Peninsula at about 125 mph before reaching speeds of up to 220 mph in the Central Valley.
The authority ultimately plans to have about 240 trains run through the Peninsula, including 10 during peak hours in each direction. Once the high-speed rail is in place, trains from the two systems would run along corridor at a rate of about one every 3 minutes, Spaethling said.
Meanwhile, city officials are putting the finishing touches on a staff report evaluating the high-speed rail's potential effect on Palo Alto. The City Council is scheduled to discuss the report at its March 2 meeting.