Faced with a new set of challenges and opportunities, as well as a transformed political landscape, the Palo Alto City Council's Rail Committee is embarking on a new mission.
Once a premier venue for criticizing California's proposed high-speed rail, the four-member group is now dedicating its efforts toward a far more popular idea: rebuilding the city's four rail crossings to fully separate Caltrain from local streets.
On Monday night, the City Council is scheduled to adopt a new charter for the committee, with a greater focus on grade separation. And on May 20, the city plans to host a community meeting in which residents will be asked to weigh in on the best way to achieve this goal -- an early step in what promises to be a long and intense outreach process. The Rail Committee, which consists of Chairman Tom DuBois, Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilmen Eric Filseth and Adrian Fine, approved the first phase in this process on Wednesday morning.
The new charter won't shift the committee's focus so much as underscore its recent efforts and acknowledge the new political realities. On the one hand, both the high-speed rail system and Caltrain's electrification effort are now facing significant financial and political hurdles, including the federal government's recent decision to withhold from Caltrain an expected $647 million grant for electrification. On the other hand, Santa Clara County's passed Measure B dedicates $700 million for grade separations in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale -- money that has brought a sense of hope and urgency to Palo Alto's rail-improvement dreams.
At its recent meetings, the rail committee acknowledged both of these shifts when it unanimously endorsed a new charter and began to map out the outreach process to get community buy-in for grade separations. So far, the process involves setting up a Technical Advisory Committee consisting of experts from various transit organizations (including the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and Caltrain), holding community meetings and working with Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit that specializes in getting the public involved in designing large-scale projects.
The first big meeting, the committee decided Wednesday, will take place on May 20 and will stretch from 10 a.m. to about 2 p.m. Feedback from the workshop would be analyzed and used for crafting future steps. Concurrently, city staff will try to set up the new committee and hold a meeting to gauge feedback from partner agencies.
City Manager James Keene said Wednesday that the May 20 event will give staff a good idea of the public's level of interest in grade separation, as well as give the city a chance to tap into the community's expertise.
"A community workshop is the fastest way to get it out and get a sense of scale and scope," Keene said Wednesday.
The charter change, which the council is expected to approve on its consent calendar, doesn't entirely eliminate reference to high-speed rail. It does, however, signal that the fighting project is no longer a top priority. The preamble, which was proposed by Keene and accepted by the committee states: "While the Committee in the past has focused on High Speed Rail, Caltrain grade separations and electrification will be the essential focus of the Committee for 2017-2018."
"That makes really clear that, on staff side, we will be compelled to devote the necessary attention and resources," Keene said at the March 22 meeting.
Members of the committee generally agreed at that meeting that the new guiding principles should clearly declare Palo Alto's strong support for Caltrain improvements; the city's desire to improve east-west connectivity and traffic circulation; its plan to "advocate strenuously" for Measure B funding and other external funding sources for grade separation; its desire to work with neighboring communities on this issue; and its support for Context Sensitive Solutions, an intensive public-outreach process, for grade separations.
There was some debate, however, as to whether opposition to high-speed rail should remain the city's official position, which DuBois argued that it should, even if the project isn't likely to happen, and his three colleagues leaning the other way.
Fine noted that Palo Alto has always been clear about how it views high-speed rail.
"But the high-speed-rail situation has certainly changed and I don't see it on the radar at the moment," Fine said. “I'm not sure how it helps us to bring it into this charter."
Scharff and Filseth generally agreed with Fine, with Filseth saying that the project is "unlikely to be a factor any time soon."
"We really need to figure out what we're going to do on grade separations," Filseth said. "That should really be the focus on the document."
The committee ultimately agreed to retain some references to the city's opposition to high-speed rail, noting in one of its guiding principles that the project "should be terminated."
"If the project proceeds, CHSRA (California High Speed Rail Authority) should provide funding for affected cities to analyze potential impacts," the new guiding principles state. "Palo Alto believes that CHSRA should fund grade separations and should not commence service until they are complete."