Palo Alto's newest rail consultant will have a tough, two-fold task on its hands when it makes its public debut Wednesday morning: engage the community on the complex topic of grade separation. And do it fast.
The City Council voted 6-0 on Monday night to approve a $1.3 million contract with the Los Angeles-based firm AECOM, which is now charged with helping the city reach a decision on a preferred alternative for separating the rail corridor from local streets. The council committed in February to reaching a decision on grade separation by the end of this year.
Consultants from the group are scheduled to make their public debut Wednesday morning, when the council's Rail Committee is set to narrow down design options for grade separation from more than 30 to about 16.
Despite the unanimous vote (with Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Tom DuBois recusing themselves and Vice Chair Eric Filseth absent), the contract faced intense scrutiny from Councilman Greg Tanaka, who, after grilling staff about the need for additional consulting, ultimately joined his colleagues in supporting the proposal. Others sought assurances that AECOM's history in consulting for Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority constitutes a conflict of interest.
Herb Borock, a longtime government watchdog, flagged the latter issue in a letter to the council, which referred to AECOM's 2008 contract with the rail authority to work on environmental analysis in the Central Valley portion of the proposed rail line. And in 2017, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (which operates Caltrain) awarded a $4 million contract to AECOM for planning support for grade-separation projects.
"AECOM should not be working for the City of Palo Alto on rail issues related to Caltrain and related to CHSRA, because AECOM receives funding from both of these organizations," Borock wrote.
The council considered Borock's case but was ultimately swayed by repeated assurances from City Manager James Keene and City Attorney Molly Stump that the firm will not be conflicted in its work for Palo Alto because there will be a "firewall" between those employees who represent Palo Alto and those who represent the two transportation agencies.
The council was also persuaded by Keene's argument that the city needs additional resources to meet its goals on grade separation. The city has recently severed ties with its prior consultant, the engineering firm Mott MacDonald, and Keene said the city made an effort to find a new firm that has a strong record of public outreach.
Now, Palo Alto is trying to catch up to Mountain View and Sunnyvale, two cities that have their own plans for grade separation and that are vying with Palo Alto for funds from Measure B, a 2016 county measure that allocated $700 million for grade separation.
Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada noted that AECOM has worked with Menlo Park and Burlingame on their respective grade-separation studies, among others.
"This is a team that's been involved directly with cities along the corridor in exactly the type of work that we're engaged with," Shikada said.
Tanaka questioned the need for another consultant and grilled staff on the differences between the city's agreements with Mott MacDonald (which was under a $1.1 million contract, of which about $400,000 was spent) and with AECOM, as well as other details. He also complained that the staff report didn't clearly lay out the difference between the two contracts, notwithstanding the fact that they have different scopes of services.
"It's very important that we treat our residents' money like our own money," Tanaka said. "If we paid rent on our house, we'd definitely know what our rent was last month."
Others stressed the importance of getting the new consultant on board as soon as possible to avoid further delays.
"I think it's important that we continue to have conversations with the community about the severity of the traffic nightmare we'll face if we don't make some decisions in next few months," said Councilman Cory Wolbach, who chairs the Rail Committee. "It will be a disaster for Palo Alto if we overly delay."
Councilman Adrian Fine, who sits on the Rail Committee agreed.
"The only word I can think of if we don't approve this tonight is 'derailment,'" Fine said, minutes before the vote.