Local friction could halt High-Speed Rail progress

Atherton and Menlo Park subsection of the proposed high-speed rail line

Atherton and Menlo Park subsection of the proposed high-speed rail line

SAN CARLOS – Tensions flared at a California High-Speed Rail Authority meeting on Sept. 20 during discussion about a proposal to use the Caltrain corridor for the track line north of San Jose. Stakeholders met to discuss design alternatives for the Peninsula section of the $45 billion rail project that will travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two and a half hours.

Duncan Jones, Director of Public Works in Atherton, one of the communities that joined Menlo Park and a band of environmental organizations last summer to sue California High-Speed Rail Authority, spoke out against the proposed plan. He criticized the Authority for not considering alternatives to using Caltrain tracks for the rail section north of San Jose.

Jones said the Authority had failed to explain why the rail couldn’t go up Highways 280 or 101 and avoid the neighborhoods. “It’s easy for the Authority to just say no and go with the Caltrain corridor,” he said, “but I want a real study done to clarify why [these alternatives] won’t work.”

Residents of Menlo Park and Atherton are among three south Bay Area cities concerned over raised tracks bifurcating their communities without the benefit of a stop.

Instead they favor tunneled tracks or a route along highway corridors. A video simulation of high-speed rail in Palo Alto played at the meeting, showed tracks four lanes wide and elevated 21 feet above street crossing through the city.

For planning purposes, the line from San Francisco to San Jose was broken down into ten subsections for residents and those involved with the project to view each section of the rail. The 2.3 mile design snapshot for Atherton and Menlo Park include options for raised, trenched or existing Caltrain level tracks.

Under all these designs, two-lane street crossings would serve residential areas at Fair Oaks, Watkins, Encinal, Glenwood, Oak Grove and Ravenswood Avenues.

The group that sued the Authority has looked into the possibility of tunneling sections of the rail running through their communities, but overall they disagree with the actual route of the design options set forth at this meeting.

Last summer, Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny upheld the Caltrain corridor as the train’s route from San Francisco to San Jose, but ruled that the Authority re-evaluate its route from San Jose to Gilroy. In a past draft of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the Authority mistakenly assumed it could use Union Pacific tracks from San Jose to Gilroy.
The Authority is correcting this error in the EIR but does not plan to reconsider its route from San Jose to Gilroy since the track rights north of there have already been secured with Caltrain.

Jones wants the Authority to open up other aspects of the lawsuit and reconsider the entire San Francisco to San Jose corridor. The group that filed the lawsuit against the Authority also wants Altamont Pass re-evaluated as a route from the Central Valley. By reopening these options, Jones hopes the Authority will find a route with less impact on Atherton and Menlo Park.

Authority representatives said the meeting wasn’t the appropriate place to bring up this concern because Judge Kenny had already accepted the use of Caltrain tracks and the route from the Central Valley over to the Peninsula. However, Kenny did rule that the environmental review’s mistake about Union Pacific track rights meant the Authority needed to do more studies before proposing a revised EIR.

Jones’ discussion about unearthing “already settled” issues, detracts from the consensus needed to make the Peninsula competitive with the rest of California for high-speed rail funding, some said at the meeting.

With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s steps last week to sweep up $4.7 billion of the $8 billion in federal stimulus funding for high-speed rail, grant money may become more readily available to communities with final plans. Without all Bay Area communities on board, it may be hard for the region to compete with the rest of California for the money
In mid September a court rejected the plaintiff’s wish to halt work on the high-speed rail project. On Oct. 9 involved parties will present their arguments to Judge Kenny, who will issue a judgment on whether or not the high-speed rail project can move forward.

Caltrain Operations Manager Bob Doty said the Peninsula shouldn’t loose momentum on this project now. “We need to work together for a solution so we can go out with a united picture or you’re going to get default solutions. The last guy in gets what’s left over. I want to be early.” He pointed out that the Central Valley and Southern California are already pushing ahead with plans.