In a dramatic reversal from its position three years ago, the Palo Alto City Council on Monday night (Dec. 19) adopted as the city's official position a call for termination of California's beleaguered high-speed-rail project.
With its 8-0 vote, the council took its most extreme stance to date against the project, which has been gradually galvanizing the community and disillusioning city officials since 2009. The new position, which the council voted to add to its guiding principles for high-speed rail, was prompted by the California High-Speed Rail Authority's recently released business plan, which showed the project's price tag more than doubling from what was presented to the voters three years ago. The project's completion date was also extended from 2020 to 2033.
The vote, while significant, is hardly surprising. The council had urged voters in 2008 to support high-speed rail but has gradually turned against the project as questions began to emerge about the rail line's design, ridership projections and funding plan. Last year, the council took a position of "no confidence" against the rail authority. It has also decided to join Menlo Park, Atherton and a coalition of nonprofit groups in a lawsuit that challenges the rail authority's environmental analysis.
The council's rail committee unanimously recommended earlier this month that the council go a step further and call for the project's termination, though members split over the exact wording the city should adopt to support this position. Committee Chair Larry Klein, who was absent Monday night, and Councilwoman Gail Price advocated for a short paragraph saying that the state should terminate the high-speed-rail project "since it's too expensive, has no credible funding plan, is based on deeply flawed and unreliable data." The paragraph also asserts that the project was brought before the voters in 2008 "on the basis of serious, material misrepresentations."
But the council on Monday chose a longer statement penned by Councilman Pat Burt and Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd. Though their statement, like Klein and Price's, called for the project's termination, it provides a fuller explanation for the city's opposition.
Shepherd said Monday that she still believes America needs high-speed rail. But she maintained that the project the council and city voters supported three years ago is no longer the one on the table.
In 2008, the rail authority had estimated that the cost for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line would be less than $40 billion. The business plan that the rail authority released last month showed the price tag climb to $98.5 billion.
"This particular project as it's going right now is not what I voted for in 2008," Shepherd said. "At this point in time, it's important that our community understand that it's not the same project."
The position adopted by the council states that the city "believes that the High Speed Rail project should be terminated" and that the project in its current form "fundamentally contradicts the measure presented to the voters under Proposition 1A in 2008." That vote, the council's statement asserts, relied on "grossly understated construction costs," "understated fares and overstated ridership" and a requirement that the new system would be operating without a government subsidy.
"Since the revised HSR Business Plan and Funding Plans do not meet the projected ridership, fare, job creation, and other significant requirements, the City believes that the voters were not given accurate information during the 2008 election to make an informed decision on an HSR project for the state of California," the new guiding principle states.
Price argued, as she has at rail committee meetings, that when it comes to guiding principles, shorter is better.
"There will be ample opportunities now and in the future to provide supporting detail in letters, statements and reports to the High-Speed Rail Authority and state and federal legislators," Price said, adding that a shorter statement would give the city more flexibility.
But her colleagues all agreed that the city's position is dramatic enough to justify a fuller explanation. Mayor Sid Espinosa said he expected the statement to be even longer and called the Burt/Shepherd statement a good compromise that has "more gravitas" than the shorter version championed by Klein and Price. Councilman Greg Scharff agreed.
"Typically, simpler and shorter may have a lot of value to it, but in this case we are making a bold statement," Scharff said. "It is important that as soon as other people read this, they understand our reasoning behind it.
"It's really important to set forth what the reason is so that people understand it and not just say that it's Palo Alto making a declarative statement that we don't support it."
Price ultimately joined her colleagues in adopting the longer version.
The Monday vote illustrates the dramatic shift in the council's position toward the high-speed-rail project and underscores Palo Alto's status as the project's leading opponent. It came at a time when the project is facing a storm of scrutiny at both the state and federal levels.
Last week, several members of the U.S. Congress vehemently criticized the rail authority's funding plan, which relies largely on federal grants and on $11 billion in private investment. U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, predicted that the project will be a disaster and said it is "imploding every day." He blasted the project for its cost overruns and questioned the rail authority's choice of a Central Valley segment as the line's starting point.
The Dec. 16 committee hearing also featured testimony from Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of the Palo Alto group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design. The group was among the first to flag problems with the rail authority's ridership methodology and had over the past two years criticized the authority for faulty cost estimates and a lack of transparency. In her testimony at the hearing, Alexis described California's project as "fool's gold" and slammed the rail authority for relying too much on consultants and for low-balling previous cost estimates.
"Do we need high-speed rail in our state? Absolutely," Alexis told the committee. "But the train we're on is on the wrong track, it costs too much and it delivers too little."