Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton sue rail authority

Midpeninsula cities, nonprofit groups, claim latest high-speed rail plans violate state environmental law

Palo Alto, Atherton and Menlo Park launched a fresh lawsuit Thursday against the California High-Speed Rail Authority, claiming the state agency violated state laws when it approved a comprehensive study evaluating the Bay Area-to-Central Valley segment of the 800-mile high-speed rail system.

The three cities, which have been among the most vocal critics of the voter-approved rail system, claim in their lawsuit that the rail authority ignored their comments and essentially disregarded new information identifying flaws in the agency's ridership models.

The cities are joined in their lawsuit by the nonprofit groups California Rail Foundation, the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (TRANSDEF) and the Planning and Conservation League; and two citizens' groups -- Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail and the Midpeninsula Residents for Civic Sanity.

This is the second lawsuit filed by Midpeninsula cities that challenges the rail authority's Program Environmental Impact Report (EIR) -- a voluminous document that identifies the Pacheco Pass as the preferred alignment for the voter-approved rail line.

The first lawsuit forced the authority to "decertify" and revise the EIR but did not force it to reconsider the preferred alignment for the Bay Area segment. The authority completed the court-mandated revisions and re-certified the document on Sept. 2.

While Menlo Park and Atherton were both plaintiffs in the initial lawsuit, Palo Alto remained largely on the sidelines. Palo Alto submitted a "friend of the court" letter in support of the plaintiffs, but the court didn't consider the letter in issuing its judgment. The City Council voted unanimously on Sept. 21 to officially join the new lawsuit against the rail authority.

The lawsuit, filed by the coalition's attorney Stuart Flashman, claims that the rail authority's new Program EIR continues to violate the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and asks the Sacramento County Superior Court to invalidate the newly approved EIR.

The authority, the suit states, approved the Bay Area-to-Central Valley segment of the project based on a report that "did not have an adequate description, did not give adequate consideration to the Project's impacts on the environment" and "failed to proposed adequate mitigation measures to address the Project's significant impact."

The authority also failed to "provide a fair and adequate consideration of feasible alternatives" to the project, as approved in the document, the suit claimed. Plaintiffs had persistently lobbied the authority to reconsider the Altamont Pass in the East Bay as the possible alternative to the Pacheco Pass for the Peninsula segment.

The new suit seeks both to reopen the Program EIR and to prevent the authority from releasing and certifying any future environmental reports predicated on the Pacheco Pass alignment. This would include the highly anticipated "project-level" Environmental Impact Report for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment. The detailed and highly anticipated document, which the authority plans to release in December, is expected to analyze and narrow the design options for the Peninsula segment.

The authority hopes to certify the Project EIR later this year and start construction on the Peninsula segment next year. The agency needs to break ground in 2012 in order to qualify for Federal Railroad Administration grants.

The new lawsuit argues that because the broad program EIR violates state law, any project EIR based on it would also be illegal and "will result in irreparable harm" unless invalidated by the court.

The new lawsuit also argues that the authority violated the CEQA when it failed to re-circulate the Program EIR for public comment after "significant new information" emerged about the methodology in the report. The new information includes the discovery earlier this year by the Palo Alto-based group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) that the authority's transportation consultant used ridership models that were neither publicized nor peer reviewed.

The lawsuit claims the "model used to obtain the data contained major flaws that rendered the data obtained from it untrustworthy." The Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, also reviewed the ridership methodology in the program EIR and concluded in June that the numbers in the study are unreliable.

Flashman, who also represented the coalition in the first lawsuit, warned the authority last month that the revised document remains flawed and that a fresh lawsuit would soon be filed. He and other members of the coalition urged the authority on Sept. 2 not to approve the revised Program EIR until the Peninsula's concerns are addressed.

Flashman also wrote in a letter to the authority that while he understands the authority's desire to break ground by 2012, "the desire to meet a deadline is not an excuse to ignore the law."

He asked the authority to "stop, take a deep breath and reconsider its course of action."

"Indeed, if the authority continues forward on its current course, the most likely result will be that it will once again find itself embroiled in litigation and eventually end up, as before, on the short end of an adverse court ruling," Flashman wrote.

"That will require you to waste even more time by having to back up and try again," he wrote.

Related stories:

Rail authority to discuss Palo Alto station Thursday

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Like this comment
Posted by Mildred
a resident of Meadow Park
on Oct 5, 2010 at 1:23 pm

HSR will continue to stonewall any initiative that could serve to delay, or prevent, funding. Funding is the Achilles heal of HSR.

The political fix has been in from the get-go, so HSR leadership has not felt threatened by public comments unless/until public ideas begin resonating with elected officials. Then HSR administrators perk up and do their best to make it look like they are taking public comments/suggestions seriously. They aren't.

HSR and the 49ers are looking more and more alike with each passing week. The Niners acted like they had a plan and the personnel to carry it off, but they are now 0-4. HSR is infinitely more complicated but seems to be in the game with an even weaker line-up and a more inept management, if that is possible.

The BIG difference: HSR relies upon public money (our money) for its life-blood. Ouch.

Like this comment
Posted by Dennis "galen" Mitrzyk
a resident of Ventura
on Oct 6, 2010 at 10:10 am

Make no mistake about it, if we aren't able to stop this insane HSR boondoggle, the Peninsula that we know and love will be ruined for the next hundred years. So too will the future of the entire State of California be ruined by the insurmountable debt that will be incurred if we can't kill this monstrous beast.

Like this comment
Posted by trainlover
a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2010 at 2:55 pm

All of you anti-HSR people go right ahead and block high speed rail in California. Stick you head in the sand if you so desire. That just means more funding for us in the midwest. We'll be smiling in our 150+ mph chicago-to-st. louis trains while you're still fighting over how to get through the Bay area. So go right ahead and fight; all the better for us.

Like this comment
Posted by A sane Palo Altan
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 6, 2010 at 5:45 pm

"Make no mistake about it, if we aren't able to stop this insane HSR boondoggle, the Peninsula that we know and love will be ruined for the next hundred years. So too will the future of the entire State of California be ruined by the insurmountable debt that will be incurred if we can't kill this monstrous beast. "

= A bunch of nonsense.

The Peninsula won't change with HSR except along some section of the train corridor... that is already a train corridor, of all things!

We'll have another way of getting around the state than flying or driving, that will be much cleaner and pleasant.

Infrastructure projects such as HSR are actually smart projects that will help the economy and will "ruin" the state much less than yet more freeways and/or airports.

Like this comment
Posted by Cost!
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 6, 2010 at 6:24 pm

"We'll be smiling in our 150+ mph chicago-to-st. louis trains while you're still fighting over how to get through the Bay area."

And you'll be paying for it for 100 years.

Like this comment
Posted by YayHSR
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 7, 2010 at 9:06 pm

As a Palo Altan, it is sad to see my city joining Atherton in trying to fight off mass transit. I see HSR as a huge opportunity, and it is sad to see PA fighting to move it to the East Bay. I'm sure PA would have fought tooth and nail to prevent Caltrain too if the rails hadn't already been here.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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