Palo Alto could move ahead with plans to transform its rail corridor without a formal community stakeholder group to provide feedback on the project if the City Council approves its Rail Committee's recommendation, which runs counter to what the city's Planning and Transportation Commission supported last week.
The council Rail Committee unanimously agreed on Wednesday that it would be better to rely largely on community workshops, focus groups and other methods to gather public feedback as it considers alternatives for separating the railroad tracks from local streets at the city's four rail crossings. The committee directed staff to explore developing subcommittees and expanding the Technical Advisory Committee as ways to add community representatives to the group of experts typically called on to answer technical questions and present its recommendations to the council.
The city could have 200 people involved in a more hands-on way over the next eight months rather than a single committee with 10 people on it, committee members said as they discussed various ways the city could effectively include the community in project discussions without slowing down the process.
The decision to omit a community stakeholder group from the process came after a vigorous debate at the Aug. 9 Planning and Transportation Commission meeting on whether the process should prominently feature a formal stakeholder group of residents and experts. The commission supported a new stakeholder group by a 4-2 vote, saying the group would be in sync with the city's Context Sensitive Solution (CSS) process, which places a premium on continuous stakeholder involvement for major projects.
Creating a stakeholder group, however, would have added months to a process already facing a tight deadline.
Santa Clara 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.
Palo Alto Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello said to stay on equal footing with Mountain View and Sunnyvale, Palo Alto needs to be prepared to propose its grade-separation plans to the VTA by March.
"We are currently on schedule if we continue along the path we're on," Mello said. "Each decision takes around two months and that's being somewhat ambitious. If we were to have a stakeholder group, we're estimating it would add another two weeks -- potentially four weeks -- to the process every time you want to make a decision. That doesn't sound like a lot, but cumulatively, when you make multiple decisions in the process, we could be adding months to the decision-making process."
Members of the Rail Committee, which includes councilmen Eric Filseth, Adrian Fine, Tom DuBois and Mayor Greg Scharff, agreed that expanding the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) to include community members wouldn't create delays and would be in sync with the CSS process.
"Having these additional viewpoints, isn't going to add any more time, and we're going to get much richer recommendations on what the community is willing to accept," DuBois said. "I think the TAC should be more CSS, and not purely engineering-type decisions, but engineering with some community context."
Committee and staff also recognized that expanding the TAC to include community members could have negative impacts. TAC is typically used on an as-needed basis when the city needs technical advice from experts, such as Caltrain and the High-Speed Rail Authority, and meetings are not generally public. This could change under the committee's proposal.
"Tying everything all together is risky," City Manager James Keene said."There are lots of important conversations that have to take place with other peer agencies. Some may benefit from being open in public, but some may be debilitated by that. I guarantee that if every conversation we had on the San Francisquito Creek was public, we still wouldn't have some things done because we have to be able to get together with some other jurisdictions at times with some big arguments without it all being out there.
"I guarantee you a lot of other agencies outside of us aren't going to want to go to a meeting with us with our citizens ... nothing against them," Keene added. "Then, they're going to say, 'Wait, I guess we should bring our citizens, too' and all of a sudden you have a whole different meeting. We just have to remember that other agencies and jurisdictions see the world differently than we do."
The council is scheduled to consider the rail redesign process on Monday, Aug. 28.