As Palo Alto moves ahead with plans to transform the rail corridor, city officials are struggling to reconcile two seemingly competing goals: catching up to other communities in a race for Santa Clara County funds and engaging in the type of prolonged deliberative process that has long been synonymous with City Hall culture.
The two objectives collided on Wednesday night, when the Planning and Transportation Commission considered the best way to engage the community in a new planning process for what many consider to be the city's most critical infrastructure priority: the separation of Caltrain from local streets at the city's four rail crossings. In discussing the new effort, known as Connecting Palo Alto, commissioners clashed over how far the city should go in engaging the community, with some arguing that the process should prominently feature a stakeholder group consisting of residents and experts and others saying that City Council and staff should be in the driver's seat.
After a vigorous debate, the commission supported a new stakeholder group by a 4-2 vote, with Chair Michael Alcheck and Commissioner Susan Monk dissenting and Eric Rosenblum absent. Its recommendation deviated from the approach favored by planning staff, which omits the stakeholder group and relies largely on community workshops and surveys to gather public feedback.
The commission generally agreed that the city should rely on the Context Sensitive Solution (CSS) process, which places a premium on continuous stakeholder involvement for major projects such as highways. Yet there was plenty of disagreement about what this process entails, with several residents arguing that a stakeholder group is a critical ingredient in the CSS and planning staff countering that it's not.
For those who opposed the formation of the group, time was the critical factor. County voters approved Measure B last fall, which allocates $700 million for grade separations in north county, which includes Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority plans to come up with an implementation plan next year to determine how the money would be doled out over the 30-year life of the tax measure.
So far, the VTA hasn't set out any deadlines for the cities to propose their grade-separation plans, the city's Chief Transportation Officer Joshuah Mello said Wednesday. Even so, he acknowledged that the other cities are much further along in planning for future improvements.
"We're in jeopardy of falling behind our peer cities in the Peninsula," Mello said.
To move the process along, Mello proposed a process that includes a technical committee consisting of transportation officials from the relevant agencies (including the VTA and Caltrain) and a series of workshops in which residents will be invited to clarify the problem, lay out the city's objectives and identify the preferred alternatives. The process got off to an auspicious start in May, when about 130 people attended the first such meeting, which focused on existing conditions along the city's 4-mile rail segment.
But the proposed approach also has its detractors. Members of the advocacy group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design argued that by excluding a stakeholder group, the city is effectively reneging on its commitment to pursue an inclusive CSS process. Nadia Naik, one of the group's co-founders, contrasted the CSS process with the approach used for high-speed rail, a project that voters supported in 2008 and that became deeply unpopular locally in 2009.
"It failed because the decision-makers ignored everything that was going on," Naik said. "There was no buy-in and the people who participated were not involved in many decisions."
Planning Director Hillary Gitelman suggested that the outreach process can work even without a stakeholder committee. But Elizabeth Alexis, also a member of CARRD, said she is unaware of any CSS approach that does not include a "permanent, specific program team."
"It's just an integral part of this that you have a set of people with different perspectives and different knowledge bases that go deep into something," Alexis said.
Others who favored the new stakeholder group include former Mayor Pat Burt, who submitted a letter calling for the group's establishment, and former planning commission Vice Chair Arthur Keller, who attended the Wednesday meeting to lobby for the new group.
"The public participation proposed in this document is broad and shallow," Keller said, referring to the staff proposal. "The stakeholder group includes a process that is narrow and deep. I think that's critical. You need both."
Their arguments swayed the commission majority, with Commissioners Ed Lauing and Doria Summa both supporting the formation of a stakeholder group to guide the planning process along. The more expert opinions are involved, the better the outcome is likely to be, Lauing reasoned.
"It's such a significant thing in Palo Alto and if we can keep from making mistakes because we have experts in a real stakeholder group, I think it's worth the investment," said Lauing, who made the motion to support the creation of a new committee involving both residents and technical experts.
Summa agreed and said that active participation from residents is critical.
"I'm very worried about a process that doesn't involve resident stakeholders," Summa said. "It's not something we can rush or do incorrectly."
But Alcheck and Monk both supported staff's approach. Monk said she was "concerned about falling behind and losing Measure B funding." Alcheck argued that a project as technically complex as grade separation will necessarily require expert opinions.
"I think using a process that more heavily relies on experts, planning staff, PTC and council is more appropriate, especially because we have to deal with technical issues," Alcheck said.
Whether or not the City Council ultimately agrees to form the new group (it will consider the question on Aug. 28), everyone agreed that staff should move along with community meetings to keep the broader community involved. The next such meeting is set to take place on Sept. 16 at the Palo Alto Art Center auditorium.
For many in the community, the problem is far from new. In 2013, a citizen task force debated potential improvements along the rail corridor and released a report that recommended new east-west connections and that favored a below-grade design for rail. And even as the council and planning staff maintain that they don't want to predetermine the outcome of the community conversation, residents have repeatedly voiced a preference for putting Caltrain in a trench or tunnel -- alternatives that are very likely to win the popularity contest once again.
Gitelman cited the earlier efforts on Wednesday, but noted that the community conversation could evolve as more details emerge in the coming months.
"My expectation is that although there's been a lot of thought given to the corridor and a clear preference expressed in a number of forums about a below-grade solution, it will be more complicated than that when we start talking about cost and constraints and impacts on other grade crossings and other aspects around the train that bisects our community," Gitelman said.