Palo Alto takes great pride in being a worldwide leader in technology and conservation, but when it comes to transportation improvements the city has always relied on the kindness or mercy of strangers.
The rule is particularly true today, with Caltrain preparing to go electric, with the California High-Speed Rail Authority shifting its focus back to the Bay Area and with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) approaching a decision on Bus Rapid Transit, which would dedicate two lanes on El Camino Real exclusively to buses between Palo Alto and San Jose. In all three cases, the project pursued by outside agencies would have a profound, if not transformational impact, on Palo Alto. Yet in each case, the city has struggled to find a voice in the decision-making process and has found plenty of reasons for concern, if not alarm.
On Tuesday night, in a special meeting devoted to transportation, the City Council will consider the rapidly changing transit landscape and mull its options for influencing these projects. Over the course of the discussion, the council is scheduled to re-evaluate its heretofore adversarial stance toward high-speed rail; discuss the prospect of building a trench for Caltrain; and consider for the first time the prospect of a local tax measure for transportation improvements.
Councilman Greg Scharff, who suggested exploring a local tax measure, told the Weekly that the main reason why he thinks the city should consider the tax is to make sure the city has funding for local transportation projects. The proposed VTA measure has been causing some consternation among local officials and residents, with many pointing to a recent analysis by the office of county Supervisor Joe Simitian, showing that about 80 percent of the funds from the last two countywide measures were absorbed by the BART-to-San Jose project.
Scharff said the city has several options if it wants to pursue a local measure. It could go for a 1/4 cent tax that would supplement the countywide effort. It could also pursue a 1/2 cent tax, which could pre-empt and potentially derail the VTA proposal for November 2016. Scharff said he would favor the former approach.
"You'd hate to mess up a countywide transportation measure for things that need to be done," Scharff told the Weekly. "However, if all the money is going to BART, that would be unacceptable to us."
Another local alternative that Palo Alto can pursue is a business-license tax, which most cities in California have but which Palo Alto does not. In 2009, the city tried to impose such a tax based on gross receipts before voters rejected the proposal. Burt has suggested on several occasions in recent months that the city needs to once again consider a business-license tax, though this time specify that the revenue would be used exclusively for funding transportation programs.
During last month's discussion of the proposed VTA measure, council members stressed the importance of making sure that a good share of funds is allocated to the northern part of the county. Council members have also repeatedly called for some of the funds from the measure to be used for grade separation (an under- or overpass) on the Caltrain tracks. According to an engineering analysis that the city commissioned last year, digging a trench for Caltrain in the southern half of the city would cost between $500 million and $1 billion, depending on the elevation.
Despite the steep price tag, council members have been adamant about the need to pursue grade separation by digging a trench for Caltrain. Tom DuBois called grade separation "an opportunity to improve Palo Alto in a way that no other option really offers." Councilman Pat Burt argued at the Sept. 15 discussion of the VTA measure that grade separation is not an expensive perk so much as a lifeline.
"On the horizon, we don't have a choice or a preference for grade separation," Burt said. "It's a necessity. And if we don't have it, we're going to choke off the cities that are the crown jewels of the valley and destroy not only our communities but our economies."
So far, the city has not taken an official position on the VTA tax measure, which is yet to be finalized. The council has, however, been critical of the process used by the VTA to come up with a list of projects that would be funded through the measure. The agency had asked all of the cities in the county to submit a list of projects they want to see funded. It plans to narrow down that list in the coming months, before making a decision on the ballot measure.
The Tuesday discussion will also offer the City Council its first chance in nearly four years to reconsider the city's opposition to the high-speed rail project and the "no confidence" position that the council adopted toward the controversial project in 2011. The discussion will come at a time when the High Speed Rail Authority is preparing to move ahead with an environmental analysis for the Peninsula segment of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line.
The council's hearing on high-speed rail could signal another change of direction for the city on a project that has received significant scrutiny and opposition in the Midpeninsula. While the council encouraged voters in 2008 to support Proposition 1A, which approved $9.95 billion for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles rail line, local opinions about the project shifted the following year. Council members and residents specifically objected to the rail authority's proposed four-track design, which would have high-speed rail occupy the two inner tracks on the corridor and Caltrain run on the two outer tracks. They also blasted the rail authority's plan to build elevated tracks for the new rail line, a design that many referred to as a "Berlin Wall."
Since that time, however, the project has undergone several key changes. The four-track design is now off the table and rail authority officials stressed at a public meeting last month that they are fully committed to the more palatable two-track alternative known as the "blended system." First proposed by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, former state Sen. Joe Simitian and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, the design calls for the new rail system to operate exclusively on Caltrain's existing tracks. As a result, the project's price tag has gone down to $68 billion from $90 billion, though the rail authority is scheduled to revise that figure in its new business plan next year.
Last month, the rail authority began to host outreach meetings in preparation of putting together an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the line's Peninsula segment. Under the newly adopted timeline, the agency hopes to have the draft of the report completed by the end of 2016 and the final report to be certified in late 2017.
At a Sept. 15 meeting, City Manager James Keene voiced some concerns about the new timeline. The rail authority, Keene said, had "previously implied that they would not begin high-speed rail (on the Peninsula) until Caltrain modernization was complete or close to it." By setting a late 2016 target for a draft EIR, the rail authority makes it very difficult to pursue extensive collaboration between the transportation agency, residents, city leaders and other stakeholders in designing a project.
"We are concerned that it will provide very limited opportunities for community review and input," Keene said.
Some of the council's concerns from 2011 still apply, including questions about where the money to fund the line will come from. Rail authority officials told the Weekly last month that they are still planning to tap into private investments (which to date have not materialized) and grant funding to make the $68 billion project possible. And while the council remains largely skeptical about the project, Scharff noted that some good things have already come out of it. These include the new "blended" design and the rail authority's commitment of $705 million to support Caltrain's electrification.
At the same time, he said he remains concerned about the potential for gridlock around the tracks if grade separation does not become a reality. Would he support high-speed rail today?
"I think it depends," Scharff said. "If high-speed rail was to pay for the trench, where we would trench the tracks, I'd support it."