Palo Alto officials have scheduled a closed-door meeting for Sept. 20 to discuss whether the city should file a lawsuit against the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
The city is considering litigation that would challenge the validity of a comprehensive environmental impact report that the rail authority certified last month.
Members of the Palo Alto City Council complained in recent weeks that the new document fails to address the city's comments and, as a result, violates the California Environmental Quality Act.
The Program Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which the authority certified at its Sept. 2 meeting, lays out the rationale for the authority's decision to build the voter-approved rail line along the Pacheco Pass and through the Peninsula, rather than through the Altamont Pass in the East Bay.
The rail line, which California voters approved in November 2008, would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles in its initial phase.
The authority initially certified the program EIR in 2008, but had to reopen and revise it after a legal challenge from Menlo Park, Atherton and a coalition of nonprofit groups. Palo Alto filed a "friend of the court" brief in support of the plaintiffs, who called for the authority to reevaluate an Altamont Pass alignment.
Earlier this month, Palo Alto had sent the authority a letter claiming that the new EIR fails to meet the state law. The Sept. 1 letter, written by Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie, states, "The City has concluded the Authority has failed pursuant to California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to adequately respond to comments made by the City of Palo Alto."
The city included its comments on the new EIR in a 29-page letter, which alleges (among many, many other things) that the rail authority's ridership and revenue projections are "flawed"; that the project description in the new document is incomplete; that the document fails to identify grade separations and the rail line's right-of-way requirements; and that it fails to address the construction costs of the project.
The authority, in its response, stated that it disagrees with many of these comments, including the city's critique of its ridership and revenue modeling, which the agency said "provides and appropriate tool for the environmental analysis for which it has been used." The agency's models have also closely scrutinized and largely rejected by the local rail watchdog group, Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, and by the Institute of Transportation Study at University of California, Berkeley.
Palo Alto also said in its EIR comments that the document "does not include a tabulation of expected funding sources for the project." Other state officials, including the Legislative Analyst's Office and State Auditor Elaine Howle, and various state Legislators have also criticized the project for failing to provide a clear strategy to fund the voter-approved project, which has a current price tag of about $43 billion.
The authority addresses the city's comment about project funding by directing the city to a one-paragraph response pertaining to the project's compatibility with schools. In his Sept. 1 letter, Emslie noted that this response "in no way addressed the comment."
"CHSRA needs to provide a detailed breakdown of funding sources, as the type of information provided to the public thus far is too general and inadequate, and does not provide the City with the ability to assess whether the project would have access to adequate funding."
Councilman Larry Klein, who chairs the council's High-Speed Rail Committee, said at the committee's Aug. 30 meeting that by submitting a letter disputing the new EIR the city essentially reserves the right to sue the authority over the document.
"We still have a number of concerns with no responses," Klein said.
Klein had also authored a resolution expressing "no confidence" in the new system and stating that the Palo Alto would consider litigation against the authority to protect the city's self interests. The committee passed the "no confidence" resolution at its Sept. 2 meeting, but agreed to delete the language pertaining to litigation.
Councilwoman Gail Price said at the Aug. 30 meeting that city officials are "preserving our legal options" by filing a letter challenging the new EIR.
"It doesn't mean we'll necessary go to court," Price said. "That's a major decision for the council to make because it obviously has all kinds of ramifications and considerations."