As they seek a greater say on the state's proposed high-speed rail system, Palo Alto officials are finding allies both within and beyond the city borders.
On Wednesday, the city's effort to form a coalition of Peninsula cities came to fruition when Atherton became the fifth member to sign on to a memorandum of understanding written by Palo Alto City Attorney Gary Baum. Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Belmont and Burlingame previously signed on to the document, which establishes the Peninsula Cities Consortium -- a coalition devoted to dealing with state agencies on high-speed rail issues.
The consortium, which needed at least five member cities to be officially recognized, will be able to speak in negotiations with the High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the 300-mile line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
At the same time, city officials have been getting a plethora of free assistance from a group of city residents who, over the past few months, immersed themselves in rail-related issues. One of the group's leaders, Sara Armstrong, has been reaching out to neighborhoods both inside and outside Palo Alto to strengthen the citizen coalition. Residents Rita Wespi and Elizabeth Alexis have been tracking the web of rail-related bills passing through the state Capitol, while Nadia Naik has joined Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto in advocating a "context-sensitive solution" to the design of the new system.
"They've really become this informed and effective spokesperson for the community," Kishimoto said at Monday night's council meeting. "Not just for Palo Alto, but they're extending their reach to other communities as well."
The residents recently formed a new group -- Citizens Advocating Reasonable Rail Design -- which lobbies for more transparency for the $40 billion project and for the context-sensitive approach, which requires outreach to stakeholders before development of a transportation project and a focus on local context when designing the project.
Dominic Spaethling, project manager for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the proposed line, said the rail authority and Caltrain are both sensitive to the concerns of the various communities. But he warned that cities could have different ideas for how to collaborate with the rail authority on design ideas.
"It's important to acknowledge the need for collaboration in design, but it's not a 'one size fits all' situation," Spaethling said. "Charrettes may be fine for Palo Alto, while other cities may have other approaches."
The High-Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain are currently working on an outreach plan for the project, said Seamus Murphy, Caltrain's manager for government affairs. The agencies, which are working jointly on an electrified rail system, expect to release the plan in the end of June.
"We've been pretty diligent about meeting with the community," Murphy said. "We felt it was really important for Caltrain and high-speed rail to have a more transparent process than is required by law."
The trains on the proposed system would run through Palo Alto along the Caltrain corridor at about 125 mph before accelerating to 220 mph when they hit Central Valley. California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the new line in November, and the high-speed rail authority plans to have the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles segment in place by 2020.
In October, the Palo Alto City Council approved a resolution supporting the proposed high-speed rail system. But since then, council members and residents have grown concerned about the impacts of the proposed rail line, which could include an elevated barrier stretching through the city along the Caltrain corridor. Many have called for more transparency and dialogue between the rail authority and residents within the communities along the line.
On Monday, the City Council attempted to make this dialogue smoother by adopting a set of guiding principles for its newly established ad hoc committee. The committee, which includes Kishimoto and councilmen Pat Burt and John Barton, is authorized to speak on behalf of the full council on rail-related issues whenever the city's input is needed on short notice.
The principles proclaim the city's support for consideration of alternative alignments (other than the Caltrain right-of-way). They also call for a collaborative approach to urban design, more transparency in the design process and an economic study that would help determine which design alternatives are feasible.
Councilman Greg Schmid, who wanted the principles to explicitly state the city's concern about elevated trains, was the only council member who voted against adopting the principles (Barton and Vice Mayor Jack Morton were absent).
Councilman Sid Espinosa, who voted with the majority, praised the new document for encouraging more openness and information and for giving the city a greater power to communicate with state agencies implementing the project.
"It engages us in a real-time manner in discussions," Espinosa said. "There won't be the delays we often have of things coming back to the council three weeks later. We'll be able to stay on top of things."