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.