Palo Alto may soon take a formal stance against California's proposed high-speed-rail line and begin lobbying state legislators to kill the voter-approved project.
Councilman Larry Klein suggested Monday that the city join the growing chorus of cities and agencies that now oppose the proposed high-speed-rail system, which would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Klein, who chairs the council's High-Speed Rail Committee, said at the Monday evening committee meeting that he believes it's time for the city to throw its weight against the rail project.
The four-member committee didn't vote on Klein's informal proposal but may do so Thursday morning, at its next scheduled meeting.
But other committee members shared Klein's growing skepticism over the project. Mayor Pat Burt and Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd said they expect the controversial project to die because of lack of funding and predicted that the Peninsula segment of the line would not get constructed any time in the near future.
Klein said the city should formally declare that it has "no confidence" in the California High-Speed Rail Authority under the current process and with the current board of directors in place. He also said the city should begin lobbying the state legislature to halt the project.
Klein's proposal is a stunning turnaround for a council member who less than two years ago joined the council in passing a resolution that urged Palo Altans to support Proposition 1A, which authorized $9.95 billion for the rail line. Since then, the council's enthusiasm for the rail line has gradually waned as members struggled to get answers from the rail authority or to exert influence over the project.
Klein was one of several committee members who said he was concerned about the rail authority's Aug. 6 application for federal funds, which outlines a "phasing" plan for construction of the rail line. Under the plan, the rail authority would build four-track systems in the north and south portions of the Peninsula segment and leave the Midpeninsula with the existing two-track, at-grade system. Rail authority's CEO Roelof van Ark sent Peninsula cities a letter last week claiming that despite the application, the rail's design has not been predetermined, but the letter did little to ease the council's anxiety.
The city, Klein said, should now consider high-speed rail as a "threat to our community -- not just our community but the region and indeed the state." He also painted a "nightmare" scenario in which the rail authority forces the city to either pass a bond and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build underground tunnels for the trains or find itself burdened with an "unacceptable" rail design, which could include at-grade or elevated tracks.
"My patience is exhausted," Klein said. "We tried to work with the High-Speed Rail Authority -- we and the other agencies are just finding that we're being stonewalled by the Authority."
Mayor Pat Burt also said he was worried about the project's impact on property values along the Caltrain corridor. The rail authority is scheduled to release a long-anticipated environmental impact report for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the line in December. Burt considered a scenario in which the report gets certified, but the project never gets implemented because of inadequate funding. This, he said, would drive down local property values even if nothing gets built.
"We need to consider what Larry is proposing and really anticipate that our next important battle and most achievable one is to unite as Peninsula cities to insist that the project EIR not race ahead when there are no dollars on the horizon to implement it," Burt said.
City officials also indicated Monday that they were unsatisfied with the responses they received from the authority on a different environmental document -- a "program-level" environmental impact report that the rail authority initially certified in 2008 but had to revise after a lawsuit from Menlo Park, Atherton and a coalition of nonprofit groups. The rail authority plans to recertify this document on Sept. 2 and Palo Alto officials are expected to submit a letter alleging that the rail authority's failed to respond to their concerns.
The city asserted in its comments that the rail authority's revenue and ridership projections are "flawed" and that the agency has failed to adequately circulate and publicize its new environmental document. The rail authority disagreed and claimed in its response that the modeling used in the document "provides an appropriate tool for the environmental analysis for which it has been used."
The city's letter would make it possible for the city to sue the rail authority for failure to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.
The committee's next scheduled meeting is at 8 a.m. Thursday in the Council Conference Room at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.