The more Palo Alto officials learn about California's proposed high-speed rail, the more their opposition swells.
On Monday night, in its first discussion of the project since the California High Speed Rail Authority released its new business plan, an already skeptical City Council weighed its toughest stance against the project to date. The council was considering a proposal by Councilman Larry Klein to adopt as the city's official principle a request that legislators either kill the controversial project or send it back to the voters.
The council ultimately took a more cautious route and decided to let its Rail Committee deliberate the topic further. In doing so, however, members made it clear that their patience with the project, like Klein's, had been pretty much exhausted.
"This is an issue that has concerned our community for two years," said Klein, who chairs the city's Rail Committee. "It's time for our voices to be heard on this."
The council's opposition to high-speed rail has been accelerating since 2008, when the council adopted a resolution urging voters to support Proposition 1A -- a state measure that authorized a $9.95 bond for the rail system. Since then, Palo Alto and its neighbors, Menlo Park and Atherton, have grown increasingly skeptical about the project, questioning its ridership projections, panning its business plans and vehemently opposing the rail authority's preferred design options.
The Palo Alto council last year took a stance of "no confidence" toward the California High Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the rail line, and has participated in a lawsuit with Menlo Park, Atherton and a coalition of nonprofit groups that challenged the rail authority's environmental analysis. A Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled last week that the rail authority has to decertify and revise its Environmental Impact Report for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line.
Monday's vote, coming weeks after the rail authority had released its latest business plan, marked a new low in the city's faith in the project. The business plan (which will be the subject of a public hearing in Palo Alto tomorrow) showed the price tag for high-speed rail spiking from about $37 billion at the time of the bond's passage in 2008 to $98.5 billion today. Klein said the dramatic increase in the projected cost is reason enough to give voters another say on the project.
"The city should go on the record as being opposed to high-speed rail, period, and we urge our legislators to terminate the project," Klein said.
If they feel that's going "too far," Klein said, the legislature should put the matter before the voters in November 2012. Councilwoman Karen Holman supported Klein's position.
Others on the council, including Pat Burt and Gail Price, shared Klein's concerns but urged more discussion. Klein's proposed principle, he said, would put the city in the forefront of opposition. The council, he argued, shouldn't be too precipitous on this subject.
"It's a big step -- we should be very deliberate in our thinking on this," Burt said.
His view ultimately prevailed. Councilman Greg Schmid, Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh and Price, who also sits on the rail committee, all said the council should further consider the city's principles on high-speed rail -- particularly in light of the new business plan. Price, a former city planner, said her faith in the project has been undermined by analysis of the information from the rail authority.
"It has been extraordinarily painful for me to see this project implode," Price said. "It will continue to be painful for me to watch this continue to happen."
The council voted 8-1, with Klein dissenting, to send the discussion back to the committee.
Burt also proposed including in the council's principles a finding that the rail authority's ridership numbers are "fundamentally flawed," -- a proposal that his colleagues accepted.
The council's Rail Committee will now analyze the guiding principles further and issue a recommendation to the council -- a recommendation that will likely include a strong statement against the project. Mayor Sid Espinosa and Councilman Greg Scharff both said they share Klein's sentiments, though they also advocated further deliberation.
"I support terminating this project unless we get other advice based on other information," Scharff said.