Guest Opinion: Controlling our communities' high-speed-rail future | May 1, 2009 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 1, 2009

Guest Opinion: Controlling our communities' high-speed-rail future

by Yoriko Kishimoto and Kelly Fergusson

In November, Californians voted for Proposition 1A, high-speed rail.

Today, Peninsula communities are wrestling with the implications of this enormous project running through our downtowns and residential areas.

Yes, a majority voted for it. But no one gave up the right or responsibility to plan and control our future. We must ensure that community voices are represented. We need to think long-term — 100 years or more out into the future — and make sure this project is done right.

Representatives of several Peninsula cities have been meeting weekly on an ad-hoc basis for since February. These meetings have served as a forum for dialogue with a variety of stakeholders, from rail agency staff to neighborhood groups to innovative and visionary urban-design professionals.

Working together, officials from some cities recently penned a "mayor's letter" to the High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA). The letter captures the hopes and concerns we hold in common. These include maintaining connectivity between areas on either side of the right-of-way, keeping local roads open, protecting the walkable and bikeable nature of the communities, and a desire to work "collaboratively to develop optimal urban design alternatives."

Our approach is similar to Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS), a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach adopted by the Federal Highway Administration that involves all stakeholders in developing transportation projects that fit the physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic and environmental resources while maintaining safety and mobility. CSS considers the total context of a transportation-improvement project.

Cities want scenarios that address these concerns to be studied in the rail authority's upcoming environmental impact report (EIR). Inclusion of agreed-upon alternatives for a balanced and rational analysis is a first step toward creating a sound foundation for future decision-making.

Cities "look forward to working together [with the rail authority] as partners for the duration of the process from design to construction," states the letter, now being reviewed by the various city councils to be signed by their mayors.

In response, the rail authority has, to its credit, agreed to share a draft of the scoping report and early drafts of its EIR, important steps toward increasing transparency during the long and complex environmental-analysis period.

We see all upside and no downside to this dialogue, and to continuing to meet in this forum for education and exchange of innovative urban-design ideas.

So far these meetings have been a great opportunity to set a positive tone, and for city officials, city staff and interested stakeholders to network and communicate regarding high speed rail and its impacts. The alternative would be to cede all the decision-making to the rail authority — an option many view as unpalatable and likely to result in sub-optimal outcomes.

Some of the cities that have attended the meetings are now reviewing a "Memorandum of Understanding" to formalize the ad-hoc group. This will increase local transparency and provide a more structured decision-making framework. The "Peninsula Cities Coalition" will allow city groupings from Gilroy and Morgan Hill all the way up the Peninsula to work with their neighborhood groups, chambers of commerce and one another to pool and leverage our knowledge so we can have an effective voice with the new collaboration between Caltrain and High Speed Rail Authority. The communities must be the third leg of the triangle with the two rail authorities.

Next up on our agenda is the possibility of proceeding with a "design charette" for participating cities. With the participation of world-renowned design professionals, project finance experts and technical staff and consultants as well as various stakeholders, a design charette would be an intensive effort to flesh out ideas for an future urban landscape that would include high-speed rail in various scenarios — including tunnel, trench, at-grade, and elevated options.

A charette increases understanding by developing, visualizing and critiquing alternatives. This will be an opportunity for a true integration of land use, transportation and urban design, to create a long-term vision of sustainable local communities.

The charette will be a collaboration between the cities and the rail authorities and held sometime in the early fall. The High Speed Rail Authority has released an extremely aggressive timeline that calls for conceptual design of alternatives to be developed by fall 2009, a draft report of alternatives analysis by January 2010, and a draft environmental impact report one year later. It will host an outreach workshop in each county, but standard outreach is not enough. The challenge of integrating a speeding railroad down fine-grained, established neighborhoods and downtowns demands the best ideas from all of us. And we need to work closely together across county lines.

The eyes of the nation will be on the Peninsula since High Speed Rail is now a high priority of President Obama. If we cannot build this segment successfully with all the business, design and technical talent in our community, who can?

In preparation for the charette, we plan to host a series of public forums on tunneling, urban design "best practices" from around the world, recent advances in rail technology, and project financing to educate ourselves. We thank our colleagues and all the residents, businesses and design professionals who have worked with the emerging coalition.

Please join us in this effort to bring our communities together to re-assert our control over a future that will provide a modern transportation system without negatively impacting the quality of life we cherish.

Yoriko Kishimoto is a member of the Palo Alto City Council and Kelly Fergusson is a member of the Menlo Park City Council — both are former mayors. They can be e-mailed respectively at and


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Posted by ResidentSince'65
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 1, 2009 at 10:54 am

"We need to think long-term — 100 years or more out into the future — and make sure this project is done right."

Then let professional transit planners do it. Unless you have the special knowledge, skill set and experience to engineer such a system, the statement "We must ensure that community voices are represented." only ensures that time and money will be wasted. What we must ensure is that qualified voices are heard.

If Palo Alto, Menlo Park and the other cities trying to engineer their own segments want the train underground, then plan to pay the additional expenses with local tax increases. And plan to have it completed within the same time frame.

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Posted by my observation
a resident of Midtown
on May 1, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Anhyolne that believes the project as presented represents work from professional transit planners has not done their home work. This project was first anf foremost planned byh politicians, Diridon from San Jose and Kopp from SF along with all the land developers in the central valley.

Its a terrible project and the problems along the peninsula only begin to scratch the surface.

Rather than a charette, why don't we construct a temporary stretch of what the Rail Authority wants to give us. Why not build a 1/4 mile long, 100 foot wide and 20 feet high hollow wall with wires another 15 to 30 feet above and let the pubic see just what it will look and feel like.

It would make for a great graffiti canvas.

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 2, 2009 at 4:08 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

The proposal is to improve an existing facility. People who talk affirmatively or negatively as if it were a new development are being disingenuous. In my opinion the catenary curve of overhead wires is one of nature's beauties just as beautiful as the fractal art of other natural attractions. Eliminate the ugliness of grade crossings, add the performance enhancement of electrification and stage in the rest of the improvements as traffic justifies. No amount of pious blathering about "Berlin Walls" will make the corridor go away.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 2, 2009 at 11:59 am

Walter, good news for you then. Overhead catenary, and elimination of grade crossings can happen on the Caltrain row without the widening to 4 tracks, solid walls, or the massive increase in train volume HSR will bring. All these improvements can be made by Caltrain for local caltrain services.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 2, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Sorry to CHSRA - if they thought that this route would be anything less than this complicated, and this expensive (ie: sky's the limit in terms of preserving quality and character of these Peninsula neighborhoods - then they made severe miscalculations in their route PREFERENCE decisions. Now, the fact is CHSRA is State of California tax payer funded, and that's EXACTLY who will pay for doing HSR right. Bravo for the community groups for insisting on a seat at the table, and not taking no for an answer.

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Posted by Too much traffic
a resident of College Terrace
on May 3, 2009 at 7:30 am

Kishimoto has yet to explain why she urged voters to vote for th measure and also co-authored a councilmembers memo urging the PA city council to also supportthe measure.
Too bad that kishimoto did not consider the implications when she put her green glasses on and urged a yes vote.
Kishimoto also states: "protecting the walkable and bikeable nature of the communities"--let's not forget that during her tenure on the council we have last two neighborhood shopping centers.
Kishimoto appears to be trying to cover her behind and prepare the way for her assembly run by glossing over her incompetent actions in urging approval of the HSR tax measure.
Also I have long wondered about the fact that although Kishimoto is a ocuncil member she wants people to use her private e-mail from correspondence--is this to prevent her city related correspondence from becoming part of the public record? I think the city attorney needs to look into this matter because it says much anout her ethics also.

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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Too much traffic: You are absolutely right about Kishimoto. She’s quite the nimble politician.

She says, “We must ensure that community voices are represented.” Is that part of the civic engagement song? Too bad she didn’t get the community involved before last November’s election when she urged us all to vote YES on HSR.

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 4, 2009 at 3:39 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Kishimoto's demand for reduced traffic rings hollow when considering her failure to take my suggestion, to establish a teleconferencing center at city hall and stop city participation in any organization that does not offer teleconferencing option. Obviously us peons an walk but important folk still need to ride.

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Posted by George
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 4, 2009 at 2:34 pm


You were either ill informed or operating without Palo Alto's best interests in mind. If you had any honor, you'd resign your position immediately.

It's unfortunate that you didn't hold a "fact charrette" PRIOR to urging citizens to vote for this project that WILL NOT meet its financial, ridership, or community goals. Have fun at your "CYA charrette charade".


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Posted by David Lieberman
a resident of Professorville
on May 8, 2009 at 5:08 pm

This is a letter to the editor regarding this Guest Opinion which the weekly was too cowardly to print. Read it before it disappears:


Your Guest Opinion of May 1 by Yoriko Kishimoto and Kelly Fergusson ("Controlling our communities' high speed rail future") was truly amazing.

By randomly selecting from a list of bureaucratic buzzwords ("dialogue", "stakeholders", "visionary", "optimal", "collaborative" "interdisciplinary", "scenarios", "scoping", "upside", "sub-optimal", "impacting", ad nauseum) they were able to create a column which appeared to mean something but didn't. Was it satire or incompetence? Alas, we will probably never know. In any case, I recommend it to every high school English teacher as source material to be used with George Orwell's Politics and the English Language.

Halfway through the piece they indicated that we were going to be saved by a "charette." Since they did not explain what a charette is and since it appeared to be a French word I went to my trusty Larousse French-English dictionary.

It turns out that "charette" is a misspelling of "charrette" which is a small wagon. The tumbrels used during the French Revolution to transfer the condemned from prison to the guillotine were called charrettes. Now that's an interesting idea. The clueless members of our City Council who led the cheers for high speed rail through Palo Alto (chief among them Yoriko Kishimoto) and who now claim that they didn't know what that meant probably don't deserve beheading. But its a close call.

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