Palo Alto considers suing rail authority | March 6, 2009 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 6, 2009

Palo Alto considers suing rail authority

High-speed train agency denies city's request to reconsider alternative routes for proposed rail line

by Gennady Sheyner

Community outrage and City Council skepticism will not stop the state agency in charge of the high-speed rail project from running the line through the Caltrain corridor and along the Peninsula, rail officials said Monday night.

Rod Diridon, a member of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors, told the council that the authority has no intention of revisiting running high-speed trains through the Altamont Pass east of Livermore, despite requests from Palo Alto and other cities.

The council discussed the tunnel projects with rail authority officials while dozens of residents filled the Council Chambers to voice concerns and vent their outrage about the Peninsula segment of the proposed 800-mile $45 billion rail line that would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles.

City staff issued a report last week detailing Palo Alto's concerns and laying out issues the authority should consider in its Environmental Impact Report on the section between San Francisco and San Jose.

This was the first analysis of the proposed high-speed rail project issued by city staff.

In October, council unanimously passed a resolution urging residents to vote for Proposition 1A, which provided $9.95 billion in funding for the project. That resolution, based on a memo from council members Larry Klein and Yoriko Kishimoto, called high-speed rail a "safe, timely, reliable mode of transportation." The proposition passed in November.

But in the last few months, the council, staff and city residents have become increasingly concerned about the impacts of the proposed rail, particularly if the trains are slated to run on elevated tracks.

The top two requests on the staff's list are for the agency to evaluate all track-elevation options with the same level of detail and for the agency to reexamine using Altamont Pass or U.S. Highway 101 and Interstate 280 up the Peninsula before it finalizes its plans.

Both Diridon and the agency's regional manager, Dominic Spaethling, told the council that the rail authority will examine all viable options for track designs. But Diridon made it clear the authority will not revisit its program-level Environmental Impact Review, a broad document it completed last year that identifies the Pacheco Pass as its preferred rail route.

"We're not going to reopen the program-level review," Diridon said after Kishimoto suggested the agency revisit its decision and explain how it chose Pacheco Pass.

Palo Alto isn't the only city calling for a reexamination of routes. A coalition that includes Menlo Park and Atherton filed a suit against the authority in August seeking to get the authority to reconsider Altamont Pass. The group filed its opening brief last month.

But while Palo Alto has not joined that suit, several council members suggested Monday night they may consider suing if the city's concerns aren't met.

The council unanimously agreed to create a council subcommittee focused on the high-speed rail project, to support the creation of a memorandum of understanding between various Peninsula cities to streamline negotiations with the authority, and to direct staff to work on a regional rail plan.

The council also asked City Attorney Gary Baum to research the ongoing litigation and to discuss it with the council in a closed session. Councilman Larry Klein also asked Baum to report publicly on the litigation at a future meeting, after the council's closed session.

Baum said Palo Alto is unable to join the ongoing suit against the rail authority because the statute of limitations had expired. But several members of the public urged the council to step in as amicus curiae, a designation that would allow the city to participate in the lawsuit without being a party in it.

Council members and residents also continued to lobby for deep tunneling and lashed out against a proposal by the agency to elevate the high-speed rail tracks, a move that would require a 15-foot barrier to stretch along the Caltrain corridor.

Resident Helen Sandoval asked the council to take a stand against the wall.

"I urge you to prevent construction of the biggest eyesore and graffiti magnet ever seen in Palo Alto," Sandoval said.

Klein called the wall a "bad, bad, bad idea" and a "nonstarter."

Others lambasted the rail authority for leaving the city with few good choices and described its planning process as one that stultifies local policies and opinions.

Vice Mayor Jack Morton complained that the authority is acting as if some of the most critical questions surrounding the project have already been decided.

"Seems to me they're on an express train and we're on a bicycle trying to catch up," Morton said.

A few speakers expressed enthusiasm for the proposed system, which is slated to whisk passengers through the state in about a decade.

Resident Andrew Bogan called high-speed rail a "fantastic way to travel" and urged the city to support the project.

"It's not a minor effect, it's a transforming transportation project for our state," Bogan said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at


Posted by Gary Patton, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 9, 2009 at 10:17 am

I grew up in Palo Alto (and am a graduate of Palo Alto High School, Stanford, and Stanford Law School), and up until recently was the Executive Director of the Planning and Conservation League, the statewide environmental group that has joined the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton in a lawsuit challenging the EIR prepared for the High Speed Rail routing through the Peninsula. The Altamont Route, rejected by the High Speed Rail Authority based on a flawed EIR, would eliminate impacts in the communities between Redwood City and San Jose, and would provide a statewide benefit, as well: the Altamont route would generate more ridership, and would provide a 1/2 hour faster trip between San Francisco and LA. It would also have significantly fewer adverse growth inducing and other environmental effects.

I encourage the Palo Alto City Council, at the least, to file an amicus brief in the current lawsuit. The city's future really is at stake.

Posted by Albert K Henning, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 9, 2009 at 11:41 am

I'm in favor of high speed rail. I don't really care whether Altamont or Pacheco is used.

But, I'm only in favor, if tunneling is utilized.

Whether in our back yard, or in the back yards of East Bay communities, tunneling is really the only way to go once the urban corridors are reached.

Yes, it's probably more expensive to build, in terms of direct expense (although in the present economy I question that assumption). But, the expenses and safety issues during construction, and long-term esthetics, are not built into these cost projections. A tunnel allows regular surface commerce to continue unabated, safely and swiftly. The long-term health benefits on abutters along a tunnel route are indirect savings which must be weighed against direct construction cost.

I want the train. I want a station in Palo Alto. And I want the route underground. Diridon has already 'blessed' us with a screwed up and expensive light rail system, which doesn't benefit anyone in Palo Alto, and costs enormous sums to run. I do not want him to screw this one up, too, as his most enduring stamp on Bay Area transit systems.

Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2009 at 11:53 am

The larger point is that no one will use the train given the alternatives, driving, flying.
In a short time Telepresence will be used for most business meetings, eliminating the need for long distance travel in most cases.

Cisco already does this even for senior executive meetings.

Cisco is very bullish on the market for Telepresece and Chambers makes wise bets, look at the track record.

Posted by Concerned Resident, a resident of Community Center
on Mar 9, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Rod Diridon made it perfectly clear that there will be no change at this late date to the decision to run the HSR along the Peninsula corridor. Such a change at this time would cost millions as advanced planning to send HSR up the Peninsula is now well under way.

He pointed out that both Pleasanton and Fremont had objected to the Altamont Pass route BEFORE the decision was made. Meanwhile Palo Alto City Council was passing unanimous resolutions encouraging Palo Alto residents to vote in favor of HSR which they were well aware would come up the Peninsula.

Please don't waste anymore of our City's budget on a fruitless lawsuit.

Posted by James Harrison, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 9, 2009 at 6:23 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2009 at 6:30 pm

Tonights PBS news details the financial disaster of public transportation nation wide, and particularly in the Bay Area.

We run an annual deficit of $200M, in NY it is $1B per year.

On Muni in SF a ticket costs $1.50c but the real cost to provide the ride is $6.00 a subsidy by tax payers of $4.50 per ticket-- that is 3 times the face price of the ticket.

This is crazy and the HSR project is part of the same craziness.

Posted by james Harrison, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 9, 2009 at 7:32 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Rick, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 9, 2009 at 9:01 pm

We voted on this HSR based on a $50/trip ticket cost and that a private company would spend billions also on this project and that it would actually make money.

What is needed is a ballot measure saying that all costs (overrunns, operating costs, interest on the bond and paying back the bond money) beyound the $10 billion would be paid by the riders of the trains or private investors.
The ticket prices could easily wind up costing $200 or more and not $50.

Everyone should write to all of our gov.represtentatives to not loan or give them more money now to continue their spending spree of producing thousands of pages of meaningless documents on this project.
They are out of money until the bonds are sold!!
We need money for schools,education not a project that won't even be operating 20 years from now.

I suspect those who favor this project expect to make hugh salaries,profits and also land speculators along the route.

Posted by Money losing, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2009 at 12:17 am

Both Britain and France heavily subsidize their national rail systems which include money losing bullet trains. Our children and grand-children will be paying for HSR into the forever future.

There is no way they will sell HSR train tickets that will compete with an airline ticket.

Posted by registered user, Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2009 at 5:49 am

Passenger only HSR will never make it. There must be provisions for containers, ideally the standard freight container. With base revenue assured by freight, passenger and even autotrain service could be interleaved.

Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Individualized transit rather than mass transit is better for California.
In a couple of years we will all be driving forms of low emission hybrid vehicles on increased capacity freeways( the cars will be much smaller)

These empty trains would get their electricity from polluting power stations as the green-shirts oppose nuclear plants.

A freight based HSR system up and down 5 makes more sense, the few human passengers could be shuttled to stations on the line for the 1 per day passenger train.

This would also get many trucks off the freeways, less fuel, less wear and less space