Palo Alto has a few qualms about Caltrain's plan to electrify the rail corridor, but after a closed-door meeting early Tuesday morning, the City Council decided that the best way to address the city's concerns would be through collaboration rather than litigation.
The council agreed not to move forward with a lawsuit challenging Caltrain's recently approved Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the long-planned electrification of the Caltrain corridor. The $1.5 billion project will allow Caltrain to increase its service, though the additional trains would also worsen congestion at Alma Street intersections with Churchill Avenue, Charleston Road and Meadow Drive.
Caltrain's environmental analysis does not propose any ways to mitigate these problems, which it calls "significant and unavoidable." Caltrain also did not accede to the city's request that the agency set aside funds for design and engineering of grade separations (over- or under-passes) along the rail corridor. However, at a Jan. 12 meeting in Palo Alto, Catrain staff assured the council that the agency is willing to work with the city to address its concerns.
Marian Lee, executive officer for Caltrain's modernization, told the council that she believes the Caltrain board and the city can establish "an effective relationship" on the issue of grade separation, possibly through an memorandum of understanding. Caltrain has a record of such partnerships, she said, including ones with Burlingame and San Mateo.
"It's a true partnership in trying to figure out how to build a sufficient public plan to make it happen," Lee said.
Though council members did not find Caltrain's response entirely satisfactory Tuesday, they agreed this week that a lawsuit would be the wrong way to go at this time. According to City Attorney Molly Stump, the council's decision was based on Caltrain's "stated commitment to work on resolving the issues that Palo Alto has identified as areas of concern."
Adina Levin, representing the group Friends of Caltrain, urged the council before the closed session not to move ahead with litigation, noting that a lawsuit could harm the city's potential bid to build a trench for the train tracks. The most effective way to reach this goal, she said, is to forge partnerships with Caltrain and with other cities along the corridor to raise the necessary money.
After Levin's comment, the council voted 8-1, with Councilwoman Liz Kniss dissenting, to go into closed session to discuss potential litigation. Kniss told the Weekly she voted against going into the closed session because it would send the wrong message. Ultimately, the decision proved moot as the council decided not to move ahead with litigation.
The city did get one positive assurance of cooperation from Caltrain. For months, Palo Alto officials had maintained that one of the locations that Caltrain was considering for a new paralleling station, which boosts power along the rail corridor, is inappropriate and should not be included in further analysis for the project. In a Jan. 15 letter, the city insisted that Caltrain exclude the option that would place a station near Greenmeadow Way. This is both because of the Greenmeadow neighborhood's "historical" status and because the vegetative screening that Caltrain proposed was "clearly inadequate."
On Jan. 22, Caltrain issued a response noting that the agency's technical team had completed its analysis and that it plans to move ahead with a different site, near a commercial parcel on Page Mill Road. This option was the city's preferred option in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
The letter from Stacy Cocke, Caltrain's senior planner, notes that the agency appreciates the city's partnership.
"Outside of the EIR process, we look forward to continuing to work with City of Palo Alto staff on their areas of interest, including grade separation, suicide prevention and service planning," Cocke wrote.