After receiving pushback for his initial proposal to establish a new committee to work on rail improvements, Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada is preparing to bring a revised plan to the City Council on Monday.
Much like in the original recommendation, which the council briefly considered on Aug. 19, the proposed Rail Blue Ribbon Committee would be charged with advising the council on both the best options for grade separation — the realignment of rail crossings so that tracks don't intersect with streets — and the best way to pay for these options. But unlike last month, Shikada is no longer calling for the committee to be made up entirely of former elected officials — a criterion that some argued is too restrictive.
If approved by the council on Monday, the Rail Blue Ribbon Committee would operate independently of the existing citizens group, which is known as the Expanded Community Advisory Panel (XCAP). Unlike XCAP, the committee would be subject by the Brown Act, which would effectively prohibit people with property rights next to the rail corridor to participate. The XCAP, by contrast, includes members who live near the tracks and who represent their neighborhoods in discussions on grade separation.
The new committee would not evaluate the technical aspects of various grade separation options, which would remain the purview of XCAP. Rather, it would take the information developed by staff and XCAP, consider funding options and craft recommendations for the City Council to consider, according to a new report from Shikada's office. And rather than prioritize neighborhood impacts, the new group would focus on the big picture, both locally and regionally.
"The RBRC would provide advice to the City Council that reflects an understanding of the political environmental locally and regionally, and the advocacy viability of options in light of these considerations," the report states.
So far, the idea of appointing yet another committee to work on grade separation has met a mixed reception. While the council seemed open to the idea on Aug, 19, some members of XCAP argued that creating a new group would unnecessarily delay the process.
"Why not simply appoint a few more members — former electives or whoever is qualified — to XCAP?" XCAP member Phil Burton asked at the group's Aug. 21 meeting. "Beef it up. Why duplicate and lose a lot of time in the process."
Judy Kleinberg, a former mayor who now serves as president of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, also called the proposed committee "duplicative" and unnecessary. Kleinberg, who serves on XCAP, also suggested that if the new committee is formed, it should not be limited to former elected officials.
While some former mayors and council members may be up to speed on what's going on, most have "moved on to their condo in Maui," Kleinberg said at XCAP's Aug. 21 meeting.
"They are not up to speed on this," she said.
Kleinberg also told the council on Aug. 19 that by limiting membership to former elected official, the city would be "leaving out the younger generation, which really has a stake in what you're deciding."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss agreed and suggested that most former elected officials are not up to speed on the city's grade-separation effort and it would be difficult for them to jump into the process.
"We have a number of people who come here on a regular basis who probably not only would like to serve but would have that important skill set that I think they need to have in order to make a difference," Kniss said at the Aug. 19 council meeting.
Shikada is also suggesting inviting the Chamber of Commerce, Stanford University, Caltrain, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group to participate in the new committee, in a nonvoting capacity.
"It's important to note that because the rail is part of a regional system, we are dependent on VTA and on Caltrain, as it relates to both funding and permit approval, for any concepts that are advanced," Shikada told the council on Aug. 19. "There is an inherent necessity for what's developed locally to fit regionally."
Under his proposal, the XCAP will continue to evaluate the various design options for grade separation with the goal of finishing its work by the end of this year. The new committee would begin working in the fall, with the aim of completing most of its work by spring 2020, around the time that the council is scheduled to make its decision on a potential ballot measure that would raise money for the preferred alternative.
The council has already eliminated more than two dozen alternatives from consideration, including, most recently, a citywide tunnel that was estimated to cost up to $3 billion. Among the options that remain in play are a trench for trains at East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road crossings, a viaduct for trains at this segment and a "hybrid" option that combines raised tracks and lowered roads. The council is also considering closing the Churchill Avenue crossing to traffic and a train tunnel between Oregon Expressway and Mountain View.
If the council agrees to form the new rail committee on Monday, it will have to decide how to pick its members. Shikada had offered several alternatives, including allowing each council member to select one or two individuals; establishing an open application process; or letting Shikada bring forward candidates for the council to approve.