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Palo Alto calls for collaboration in high-speed-rail design

City's Rail Committee drafts letter calling for more inclusive process in designing Peninsula segment of rail system

High-speed rail is still more than a decade away from making its first run through the Peninsula, but the controversial project is stirring fresh concerns in Palo Alto, where City Council members are calling for a slower and more inclusive design process.

In the latest sign of the increasing sense of urgency, the council has just re-activated its Rail Committee, a group that held monthly meetings to discuss rail issues before disbanding in 2013, when it became clear that the Central Valley would be the focus of the rail project's first segment. The city also plans to hire a rail expert to work on the topics of high-speed rail and Caltrain. The Rail Committee is scheduled to discuss the new position at its meeting in January.

The city's anxiety about high-speed rail is a familiar refrain. In 2009, the project generated intense opposition in Palo Alto and prompted a position of "no confidence" from the City Council after the state rail authority proposed a four-track design for the Peninsula with elevated tracks in the middle for high-speed rail and tracks on the outside for Caltrain. The concept was panned by officials and residents as a "Berlin Wall" that would split the city in two along the tracks. Since then, the rail authority has backed off that plan and agreed to pursue a "blended" system in which high-speed rail and Caltrain would share two tracks along the Peninsula. This change, along with the rail authority's decision to begin construction between Fresno and Bakersfield, relieved many local anxieties and prompted the council to disband its Rail Committee.

Now, the issue has returned to the forefront. This fall, council members were surprised to learn that the rail authority plans to move ahead with its environmental analysis for the Peninsula segment, with the goal of adopting a draft Environmental Impact Report by the end of 2016 and approving the final version by the end of 2017. In October, the City Council voted to reactivate the committee, which consists of council members Marc Berman, Pat Burt, Tom DuBois and Greg Scharff.

In its first official action Wednesday, the committee authorized a letter to the rail authority formally requesting that the state agency adopt an approach known as "context sensitive solution" (CSS), which has been used in the past by the state Department of Transportation to design highways. The letter takes particular issue with the rail authority's proposed deadline for the environmental analysis of the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment.

"The City of Palo Alto feels strongly that trying to complete such a complex process on this timeline is not only rushed but is likely to result in less than desirable results," the letter states.

The city requests in the letter that the rail authority adjust its timeline "so it can include adequate time for the EIR and CSS processes."

Richard Hackmann, a management analyst in the Office of City Manager, described the context-sensitive process as one that results in a shared vision among stakeholders.

Reflecting the new reality, the tone of Wednesday's discussion was markedly different from prior meetings. Rather than defending the city from high-speed rail, today the committee is looking for more engagement with the rail authority. Instead of letters of protest and technical comments about environmental documents, today's council is seeking a more direct conversation with the decision makers.

Councilman Pat Burt, who chairs the Rail Committee, has been participating in policymaker workshops that feature engineers working on high-speed rail. He also recently had a meeting with Sen. Jerry Hill and Dan Richard, executive chair of the rail authority's board of directors. Burt said Wednesday that Richard proved sympathetic, if noncommittal, to the city's call for a "context sensitive solutions" approach.

Burt said he made a point in his meetings with rail officials that the "accelerated" process for the environmental review is unrealistic and that it amounts to "ramrodding this (project) going forward."

Rail officials acknowledged that the context-based process has some merit, Burt said, though they also expressed concerns about its impacts on the timeline. Burt also said Richard agreed to hold an upcoming meeting with Palo Alto officials to discuss the environmental-review process.

"Dan Richard acknowledged, in terms of the timeline for the EIR, that they would not ram it through -- that they would take as long as it took to do it right," Burt said.

In addition to a slower design process, the council hopes to secure the rail authority's cooperation on the subject of positioning the rail tracks either over or under the streets that intersect them, an approach known as "grade separation." The council's preferred option is a trench for the new rail line.

So far, neither the rail authority nor Caltrain have agreed to pursue rail separation, which would have an estimated price tag of more than $1 billion. During public presentations, high-speed-rail officials have proposed installing safety measures along the tracks in the near term while considering more dramatic solutions, like grade separation, in the long term.

Palo Alto officials, for their part, see grade separation as critical and necessary, whether or not high-speed rail ever comes to town. With Caltrain in the process of electrifying the rail corridor and sending more trains up and down the tracks, council members are increasingly concerned about what this will mean for local traffic, particularly near rail crossings.

Grade separation also loomed large in the Rail Committee's discussion of the transportation tax that will likely go to Santa Clara County voters next November. Spearheaded by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the 1/2 cent sales-tax hike is expected to raise about $6 billion for rail projects, highway improvements, street repairs and other measures related to transportation.

So far, the VTA has been soliciting lists of desired projects from every city in the county, with the goal of selecting in 2016 the projects that would actually be funded by the tax measure. Palo Alto, along with other cities in the northern part of the county and in the West Valley area, have been lobbying the agency to give preference to those projects that are most needed rather than those that are most "shovel ready."

The cities have also been calling for the VTA to fund a regional study that would help inform its decisions about transportation improvements. Palo Alto Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello told the committee the VTA is gradually coming around to the idea that such a study should be pursued and has recently drafted a scope of work for that study.

Mello also said there is "somewhat of a consensus" forming around the idea of Santa Clara County establishing a pool of funds that would be used for grade separation around the county -- a system that is currently in place in San Mateo County.

Related content:

High-speed rail shifts focus back to the Bay Area

Palo Alto calls for 'termination' of high-speed rail

High-speed rail hit with legal setback

Comments

6 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 18, 2015 at 9:44 am

Let's turn all transportation projects into art contests, like the bicycle bridge in southern Palo Alto. That will stall them for years and double the price.


10 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 18, 2015 at 10:33 am

How can you have a design process that is slower than the one already underway?


10 people like this
Posted by Be realistic!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 18, 2015 at 10:59 am

Hurry up with the Speed Rail! It's a good thing to have to help ease the heavy traffic we experience more and more each day, throughout the day and everywhere in the high economy and high tech CA!


5 people like this
Posted by juan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 18, 2015 at 11:04 am

My wife's cousins are building a solar propelled rocket to travel to the moon. If you help, we promise it will be ready by 2020 and not cost more then 9 million.
We all want and are entitled to a better and cleaner world.
Think of your children's future.


6 people like this
Posted by Norman
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 18, 2015 at 12:01 pm

Let's just run Mega Buses between SF-SJ-LA or wherever and be done with this foolish waste. I'm guessing the cost will be 2% of the cost of ripping up our state. And the High Speed won't be that door-to-door. Man, are we stupid or what?


2 people like this
Posted by Yo
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 19, 2015 at 4:54 am

With 4 tracks elevated we get the grade separation and lots of traffic problems eliminated. We could plant beatiful majestic redwoods along the sides with bike paths and tunnels connecting the two while also sparing our histIric landmark El Palo Alto from root impingement due to a trench. That is unless you want to demolish the Stanford Park Hotel and pay the price of over a billion. The new tree canopy all on the tracks would bring more wildlife like hawks...owls...and other native species. Too bad PA Rail Committee thinks so narrow mindedly. Berlin wall ? Get real. The blended aproach was dead on arrival before Joe ever got this blend vision of coherence.


8 people like this
Posted by Joe Bloe
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 19, 2015 at 6:01 am

If Californians are smart, HSR will be voted down this coming June and will cease to exist.

Web Link


3 people like this
Posted by PAmoderate
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 19, 2015 at 3:45 pm

PAmoderate is a registered user.

"Hurry up with the Speed Rail! It's a good thing to have to help ease the heavy traffic we experience more and more each day, throughout the day and everywhere in the high economy and high tech CA!"

Uh, no. HSR won't alleviate local traffic. That's a blatant lie proponents have been claiming since the beginning.

HSR is a system between LA and SF, not SJ and SF. It will be even less convenient than Caltrain and likely more expensive. You won't be taking HSR to commute within the Bay Area.

As for elevated tracks - that noise people hear from Caltrain will propagate beyond Middlefield. I'm sure those folks who support HSR on that side of Palo Alto will be in for a nasty surprise.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 19, 2015 at 5:22 pm

Can I use my Clipper Card?


2 people like this
Posted by Willow Freeway 2.0
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 19, 2015 at 7:24 pm

To Yo,

I guess you're not aware that all the redwood trees along the train tracks are sickly, stressed and currently being removed.

Nice greenwashing attempt about "owls, hawks and native species". They just love to nest near humming transformers and gusts of high speed shreiking machines, which in reality will lined at most by a few freeway vines.

But the two-legged wildlife will find the megastructure most attractive shelter for all sorts of activities.


5 people like this
Posted by Ned
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 19, 2015 at 9:09 pm

The HSR Authority has not changed their message much since they came to Palo Alto a few years ago and told everyone to F*** off. Their words may be different now, but the message hasn't changed much. The 'blended' Caltrain system gets a lot of pr, but the 4 track system is still the plan of record, until it is removed from official documents. Maybe this new EIR may reflect the 'blended' system, maybe not. Regardless, HSR is desperately trying to get as many parts of the system underway so when Jerry Moonbeam is out of office and support for the fraud wanes in a few years, HSR will be 'too big to fail' and continue to siphon billions of tax dollars annually that should be spent on just about anything than a ego stroking train.


Like this comment
Posted by Grumpy Old Guy
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Dec 20, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Grumpy Old Guy is a registered user.

Recall HSR.

HSR is nothing more than huge financial subsidy for the commerical business centers of LA and SF by CA taxpayers. It helps protect their commercial centers rather than having those centers move to affordable areas of California. (And don't forget the benefits it'll bring to those areas in terms of market value, yet Prop 13 protects those property owners in downtown SF and LA who benefit from market value increases in value and rent; but they won't have to share any of it for the burdens they create). HSR doesn't benefit the rest of California, creates an employment boondoggle by State Employees and will require annual subsidies that we'll pay for the glorious idea that we can go to LA in a few hours by train.

I would personally rather spend the money on local schools and the state colleges.


1 person likes this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 20, 2015 at 3:49 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Just get Kraftwerk to make a catchy video of HSR the way the did with the TEE. With plenty of trains and overdubs complete with plenty of electronic noise.

Web Link

But what really should happen before HSR hits the SFBA IS BUILD THE PROPER BART SYSTEM WITH THE EXISTING CALTRAIN ROW WE WERE PROMISED 40YEARS AGO!

Then HSR can terminate in SJ and not make a mess of the SFBA.


Posted by Video on Demand
a resident of another community

on Dec 20, 2015 at 4:08 pm


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Like this comment
Posted by Please just build it.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 21, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Please just build it. We have badly needed a functional bike/pedestrian bridge at this location for years. I don't care what it looks like. We need a bridge!


Like this comment
Posted by Dan Tucker
a resident of another community
on Dec 21, 2015 at 5:00 pm

[Portion removed.] We have too much debt to build a boondoggle like high speed rail. I already have problems with noise from Caltrain (which I firmly believe is a public nusiance and needs to go). This isn't the same Bay Area I fell in love with when I moved here in the 50s. [Portion removed.]


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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