Caltrain has joined a growing swell of Peninsula critics of California's proposed high-speed-rail system.
But Caltrain isn't opposing the system; it wants it to start first on the Peninsula. It is calling for the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) to take a fresh approach to designing the controversial, 800-mile system, currently estimated at $43 billion.
Caltrain believes that "below-grade alternatives are achievable and constructible" through communities "where strong opposition to aerial structures has been expressed," Caltrain CEO Michael Scanlon said in a Sept. 1 letter to rail authority CEO Roelof van Ark.
Scanlon urged the authority to "refocus" its environmental-review process for the project, Caltrain's chief spokesman Mark Simon told the Palo Alto City Council Monday night in presenting the letter officially to the council.
Scanlon specifically requested that the authority consider building an "initial operating segment" of the rail line on the Peninsula. The authority's environmental review has thus far only considered a fully built-out system between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
"We remain concerned that all of the alternatives presented as a part of the CHSRA environmental review contemplate only the full-build-out system." Scanlon wrote.
"To date, the CHSRA environmental review has not included analysis of how project construction could be phased or how a phased approach could result in an initial operating segment.
"Such a segment could be cleared for construction to modernize and electrify the corridor and accommodate sufficient capacity for initial high-speed and Caltrain service levels," Scanlon wrote.
Caltrain's appeal to the authority to change its environmental-review process cites the growing concern in Palo Alto and around the Peninsula about the state's process for building the system.
In Palo Alto, a council committee has adopted a "no confidence" stance on the project and city officials have scheduled a meeting for Sept. 20 to discuss a possible lawsuit against the authority for failing to fulfill California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements.
Caltrain's relationship with the authority has been more collegial, despite Caltrain asserting itself last May in a bid for a share of federal stimulus funds in the face of opposition to the move by the authority. Caltrain owns the Peninsula right-of-way that the authority plans to use for the new system and has been working with the authority on its design.
The two agencies signed a memorandum of understanding in April 2009 stating that "it is the intention of the parties to incorporate high speed rail in the Caltrain rail corridor on a phased basis."
Scanlon also alluded to the authority's recently released Alternative Analysis, which evaluates possible design options for the rail line. The document essentially eliminated the locally popular deep-tunnel and covered-trench options on the Peninsula and identifies aerial, at-grade and open-trench designs as the most viable approaches.
Scanlon wrote that "below-grade alternatives are achievable and constructible through a number of communities where strong opposition to aerial structures has been expressed."
The best way to achieve these acceptable alternatives and to defer the "more controversial elements of the full build out" is to adopt a phased approach to the 800-mile system, he wrote.
"We believe these options are available," Simon told the council. "They're viable and we're advocating with the HSR that they proceed and refocus their environmental report so they reflect these options as still viable."
Simon presented Scanlon's letter at a lengthy council meeting that featured a detailed staff presentation and comments from skeptical residents and council members, several of whom told Simon they appreciate Caltrain's position.
Rob Braulik, the city's project manager for high-speed rail, shared the latest staff analyses, which indicated that the rail authority's proposal to reduce lanes on Alma Street in Palo Alto would have "significant impacts" on northbound and southbound traffic along the busy artery.
Staff's traffic analysis also showed that if the rail authority elects not to grade-separate the tracks and to run the new trains along the two existing Caltrain tracks, local drivers seeking to cross the tracks would have to wait for up to 10 minutes before crossing.
"People will be sitting at these crossings for an indeterminable number of time," Braulik said.
He said much of the data coming from the authority is murky or inconsistent, which makes the task of analyzing the system's impacts particularly tricky. The city is in the process of hiring consultants to analyze the impact of the system on property values along and near the Caltrain corridor.
Council members, meanwhile, continued to express sometimes harsh skepticism about the project.
Mayor Pat Burt accused the authority of "strategic misrepresentation of the project," pointing to van Ark's recent assertion that the new system would increase property values along its segments. He also challenged the authority's assertion that its ridership numbers are valid despite a critical independent review from the Institute of Transportation Studies in the University of California, Berkeley -- commissioned by the state Legislature.
Burt, a member of the council's High-Speed Rail Committee, said he is more than skeptical about the project.
"Our skepticism is based on what we believe to be realism," Burt said. "There are very prominent academics who have studied mega-transportation projects throughout the world and what they found -- what we are experiencing now-- is a pattern: the projects are grossly understated in capital costs and grossly overstated in projections of ridership.
"You can't build, within their budget, anything close to what this community thinks is acceptable."
The council plans to continue its discussion and possibly vote on the High-Speed Rail Committee's "no confidence" resolution at its next meeting Sept. 20.
The council is also scheduled to hold a closed session at the end of the meeting to determine whether the city should sue the authority.