High-speed rail officials seeking to gauge Palo Alto's interest in a local rail station received an unambiguous message from the community Thursday when not a single resident voiced support for the idea.
Officials from Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority asked about 30 residents and local officials at the Thursday night meeting to raise their hands if they think a rail station would be compatible with downtown Palo Alto.
Not a single hand went up.
The lightly attended meeting, which coincided with the San Francisco Giant's playoff opener, underscored earlier signals from City Council members that the city probably will not be seeking a high-speed-rail station on University Avenue. Palo Alto is one of three cities on the Midpeninsula, along with Redwood City and Mountain View, that the rail authority is considering for a station. Rail officials said it's also possible that none of the three cities will end up with one.
The authority also plans to build stations in San Francisco, Millbrae and San Jose.
Officials from the Peninsula Rail Program, which is charged with designing the Peninsula segment of the 800-mile rail line, said a local rail station could bring significant improvements to downtown Palo Alto, including improved transit connections, higher property values and greater business development downtown. Bruce Fukuji of the Peninsula Rail Program (a collaboration of Caltrain and the state authority) said the project could also potentially improve connections between Stanford University, Stanford Shopping Center and downtown Palo Alto.
Domenic Spaethling, whose firm Parsons Brinckerhoff is managing the Peninsula program for the rail authority, told an audience that Palo Alto was chosen as a possible station destination because it already has a vibrant downtown, a reputation as a destination city and a large number of train riders. The city's Caltrain station at University Avenue is second only to San Francisco when it comes to ridership.
"The idea is to have stations in activity centers where you can really take advantage of transit-oriented development," Spaethling said.
The goal, he said, is to design the station in a way so as "to make it a win-win both for the cities and the High-Speed Rail Authority." The rail authority has also offered to help participating cities revise their planning and zoning guidelines to enable construction of a rail station.
The authority would build the station, but local officials are expected to build enough parking structures to house 3,000 parking spaces within three miles of the station. Last month, members of the City Council expressed major reservations about the parking guideline, which Palo Alto officials estimate would require six 50-foot tall garages and would cost the city $150 million.
Councilman Larry Klein, who chairs the council's High-Speed Rail Committee, said at the committee's Aug. 24 meeting that these parking structures would constitute a misuse of land and said he doesn't see how a station would ever benefit the community.
Residents also raised alarms at the Thursday meeting about the traffic congestion a new high-speed rail station would bring to Palo Alto. The rail authority estimates that the station will attract 15,600 people to the station by 2035.
Though no one voted to support a station, several people said they would like to learn more about the possible benefits of a local station. Seven people at Thursday's meeting raised their hand and said they were undecided, while 11 said they believe the station would be incompatible with Palo Alto.
Dennis Struecker, the rail authority's traffic consultant, said traffic impacts could be mitigated by locating parking structures further away from the station and by shuttling people in from other parts of the city. This strategy could, however, reduce the number of riders using the rail system.
Struecker said the authority's Project Environmental Impact Report for the Peninsula segment would evaluate both centralized and scattered parking. The report is also expected to provide more details about the system's proposed design. The authority has previously said that high-speed rail could pass through Palo Alto at-grade (street level), along an aerial viaduct, or through an open trench.
The council's High-Speed Rail Committee is scheduled to discuss a potential rail station at its Oct. 21 meeting.