Andrew Bogan on Palo Alto City Council and HSR
Note from Robert: The below post is by Andrew Bogan, who was in attendance at last night’s meeting and offered this very perceptive look at the council and its approach to the HSR project. I’m especially thankful to Andrew for posting this since all I have to go on from here in Monterey are news reports which are not always accurate or useful (I’m looking at you, Gennady Sheyner).
In Defense of NIMBYs?
The Palo Alto City Council met on March 30, 2009 for their second major discussion of High Speed Rail (HSR). The specific focus of the meeting was to approve the HSR scoping letter from City Staff to the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) for the Peninsula’s Project Level EIR/EIS scoping comment period, which expires on April 6 (this date was previously extended one month by CHSRA in response to a written request from the City of Palo Alto). In addition to amending and approving the scoping letter, the City also amended and then formally approved the agreement for their participation in the Peninsula Cities Coalition, which was largely organized by Palo Alto Council Member Kishimoto. The third decision related to Palo Alto’s planned letter with comments and objections to the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (PCJPB) with regard to the Caltrain and CHSRA Memorandum of Understanding that will most likely be adopted on Thursday by Caltrain’s board. After the public meeting session ended, the City Attorney addressed Council in a closed session to update them on the details of the Atherton lawsuit against CHSRA that is trying to invalidate the completed Program Level EIR/EIS. The statute of limitations to become a plaintiff has expired, so the discussion was on whether the City should or should not file an amicus curiae brief in support of the plaintiffs, which includes the Town of Atherton, the City of Menlo Park (the two towns north of Palo Alto on the Caltrain corridor) along with myriad environmental groups and some “rail supporters”. The Palo Alto Daily News had some of the best local media coverage of the meeting.
The Council heard brief comments from City Staff, from Lee Lipert of the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission, and from the Palo Alto Historic Resources Board. Dominic Spaethling and Rod Young from the CHSRA attended the meeting, but did not speak. Mayor Drekmeier stated that CHSRA Commissioner Rod Diridon had apologized that he was in Los Angeles and could not attend and that Quentin Kopp was hospitalized with an unspecified ailment. In addition, 14 members of the community (your correspondent included) spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. This was significantly fewer public comments than the 35 or so made at the first HSR council meeting in early March. The tone of public comments were also significantly more constructive, with the prior session’s rantings largely absent. A majority of speakers specifically stated their support for HSR, although most voiced objections or concerns about how or if it should come through Palo Alto. Two speakers were expressly in favor of HSR and supported having the proposed mid-Peninsula HSR Station located in Palo Alto (including your correspondent).
The Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission added 26 items to the 36 existing items in Palo Alto’s scoping letter, for a total of 62 points for CHSRA to address within the EIR scope. The Commission was not asked to take a stance on HSR in general or on the amicus brief and did not do so, though some members of the Commission clearly support the project. The Palo Alto Historic Resources Board provided a list of historic properties in Palo Alto near HSR’s proposed route, starting with our City’s ancient tree, El Palo Alto, and continuing to include the Southern Pacific Depot (aka University Ave Caltrain Station and underpass), the Green Meadow neighborhood (with its mid-century modern design and architecture), and the possibility of Southgate being a “potential historic district” (whatever that means). Green Meadow’s historic homes were described to be a few hundred feet from the tracks at their closest point, so the concerns are mainly with regard to noise and vibration. A speaker from the Green Meadow community stated that “not a single household in Green Meadow supported HSR above ground”. So the NIMBY concerns have moved beyond Southgate, Palo Alto’s NIMBY capital.
Many of the residents who spoke said the train tracks were adjacent to their property (mostly on Mariposa in Southgate or on Park Boulevard), so as Council Member Burt said, when people complain about Palo Alto NIMBYs, they need to understand the tracks are “literally in their backyard”. Jim McFall’s architectural rendering of an elevated structure for HSR at Churchill was shown briefly, again, though his remarks last night focused on differing views of the width of the Caltrain right of way alongside Southgate and whether or not the correct figure is 75.3 feet wide with a 6 foot rear lot line easement. Some pictures from CHSRA show Southgate’s backyard fences within the defined right of way, suggesting that they might be removed without compensation through eminent domain. In his excellent rendering, McFall should space out the catenary supports correctly and add trees and vegetation to mitigate the structure’s visual impact. William Cutler had the best new visual of the evening, a large cardboard pyramid, representing the size of the ones in Giza, Egypt that showed the amount of dirt needed for a mile long elevated HSR structure. His point was to emphasize that any above ground HSR solution would entail massive scale construction in and around existing homes, probably for several years. Mr. Cutler supports HSR, but is very worried about elevated structures of any significant size in Palo Alto. A petition with about 100 signatures in support of filing an amicus brief alongside Atherton was also presented, although that is a surprisingly small number of signers in a city of more than 50,000 people more than a month after they began collecting signatures. One of the NIMBY speakers stated she was “for high speed rail, but not here, not now”. It was unclear what being “for high speed rail” meant to her, perhaps she likes trains to be safely on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Another NIMBY called HSR an “airport runway in my front yard”. One of the few new opinions shared last night was an older gentleman who spoke strongly in favor of HSR and reminded Council that having a HSR Station in Palo Alto would significantly slow down the speed of many of the trains passing through our city, greatly reducing the total noise produced.
The most elusive part of the meeting, and the most important, was trying to read the positions of individual Palo Alto City Council Members. With one exception, the Council held their views quite closely and were difficult to read, but one observers perspectives are below:
1. Mayor Drekmeier: He generally seems to support HSR, but requested that the 101 corridor be considered again, despite recognizing that CHSRA had already done so and would likely ignore his request. There was no mention of the impossibility of building HSR on 101 since many sections have traffic from sound wall to sound wall with a narrow concrete barrier in between that would not even be wide enough for a pillar supporting an overhead structure, let alone any kind of at grade alignment. 101 would be a good route, except it is not feasible. The mayor is a very rational person and will eventually understand this. His support is critical in Palo Alto for HSR and I hope it continues.
2. Vice Mayor Morton: Our vice mayor was the only Council Member to state his personal positions on HSR openly and it was telling that none of the others did so despite his explicit request to them. Vice Mayor Morton is of the opinion that no above ground solution is acceptable, a tunnel will never get funded, and HSR must terminate at San Jose. He believes a Palo Alto HSR Station would be a disaster and must be stopped. Vice Mayor Morton is prone to odd outbursts, like his public threat to sue the CHSRA at a Community Scoping Meeting last month and his constant inflammatory statements about Stanford University’s dirty tricks and bad faith negotiations with the City. Vice Mayor Morton is dangerous, though his droning style and limited interpersonal skills probably do not pose a huge barrier to the HSR project. He does deserve credit for taking a firm stance, even if it is in favor of NIMBYism. He is a reliable opponent of nearly all development.
3. Council Member Kishimoto: She supports HSR in concept and is originally from Japan, where they built the first HSR in 1964, when she was about 10 years old. Her efforts have largely focused on educating the public about the EIR process and she has organized the Peninsula Cities Coalition, which will likely include Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, and Mountain View. Sunnyvale may also join and some other cities like Burlingame, Redwood City, and Belmont have attended some meetings, but may not join in the end. Kishimoto is trying to organize a small conference with the cities, CHSRA, urban designers, engineers, and project finance experts to try to explore all options to fund a tunnel and other HSR issues on the Peninsula. Her position is clearly pro-HSR, but she recognizes that her most vocal constituents strongly prefer a tunneling option at this point and she is prepared to advocate for it. Supporters of HSR should watch Kishimoto’s lead closely, she can be a terrific ally for the project–but don’t ignore the tunneling option for the mid-Peninsula, or HSR could lose a very savvy and talented supporter. She has plans to run for State Assembly.
4. Council Member Yeh: He seems broadly supportive of HSR, but very poorly informed about the details. He expressed many concerns with the Caltrain/CHSRA MOU and its description of a four track solution. He is also skeptical of Rod Diridon’s ambiguous and sometimes contradictory statements to Council in the past, which is only reasonable. The YouTube videos produced by Palo Alto NIMBYs of Diridon’s remarks to Council at meetings last year and last month do illustrate confusing double speak from CHSRA that has compounded the distrust of the Authority in Palo Alto and neighboring communities. Then again, how anyone thinks HSR could run on the same two tracks as Caltrain is unclear. It does not take long for a 125 mph train to catch a 79 mph train, ruining the efficiency of the entire system. As Clem would say, this is not rocket science (or biophysics for that matter).
5. Council Member Burt: Despite his usual support for HSR, his position has hardened somewhat in the past month and he expressed explicit support for the NIMBY concerns (NIMBY was his language, and it was not intended to be derogatory). The YouTube videos of Diridon saying nothing is final, then that lots of things could not be changed at this stage with regard to alignments and the number of tracks clearly angered Burt, which is understandable. He asked if anyone could imagine supporting 125 mph trains running 20 feet above existing back yards. He was very discouraged by the response he got from Caltrain regarding their MOU with CHSRA, saying that he was assured the PCJPB would represent Palo Alto’s interests, but he felt they had not done so. According to Burt, Caltrain essentially told Palo Alto that it was too late to mention their concerns about 4 tracks and other specifics in the MOU. His statement about the need to build a coalition of cities and to consider “parallel strategies” sounds a lot like growing support for either filing an amicus brief or suing CHSRA in a new lawsuit. The NIMBYs have successfully turned at least one formerly pro-HSR council member into a tunnel or nothing advocate. Rod Diridon’s inconsistent comments were very damaging here.
6. Council Member Klein: A skeptic all along, Klein is very concerned about the Caltrain MOU and worries that Palo Alto’s concerns may not be listened to by CHSRA. He is not, however, an obstructionist or a NIMBY. Klein’s concerns are practical and well thought out, like the need to determine who owns the air rights above the right of way in Palo Alto and who owns the ground underneath. Klein knows this is a long, slow process and that it is very early still. He has talked theoretically about using everything from lawsuits to state legislative action and new ballot initiatives to influence the process in the future, but he is not inclined to do anything rash. He insisted that the language in Palo Alto’s letter to CHSRA say that HSR may go “along or below 3.8 miles” of Palo Alto right of way, suggesting that he supports tunneling, but almost nothing else. Overall, Klein would likely support HSR in a tunnel and he does see the value to California of the project as a whole. He will likely be a formidable opponent of anything elevated, as he knows city politics and the law very well (he is a Harvard-educated lawyer).
7. Council Member Schmid: Soft-spoken and razor sharp, Schmid has kept his views on HSR very close to his chest. He is unsure that a Peninsula Cities Coalition will actually benefit Palo Alto and generally views our City as unique, with different interests from our neighbors. He requested careful study of ground water and toxic plumes under the right of way. He also wants CHSRA to explicitly detail any potential above ground eminent domain for all the possible alignments as soon as possible, seemingly so as to understand the costs of that eminent domain to offset the costs of tunneling, at least by a tiny bit. This would probably create a firestorm of protest, but he is correct that it is better to have that now than later. He wants to explore offsetting tunneling costs with air rights and generally prefers tunneling if it is technically feasible. As one of the most logical and rational Council Members, Schmid will not likely take a public stand on HSR until well into the EIR details. My guess is that he will become a valuable supporter if CHSRA takes Palo Alto’s concerns seriously and a fierce opponent if they do not. He strongly believes in cost/benefit analysis, since his PhD is in economics from Columbia.
8. Council Member Barton: Generally a supporter of HSR and an academic architect and designer himself (at Stanford), Barton has supported HSR strongly in the past and continues to do so. However, his preference is for all the rails to be underground, so that more development can be built using the right of way’s air-rights. He did, however, express concerns about CEQA review and if the Caltrain MOU’s mention of 4 tracks consists of a change that would require reopening the Program Level EIR. That would almost certainly be a mess and create multi-directional legal battles that could take years to resolve. It was a disappointing comment from an otherwise reliable HSR supporter. Barton, like several other council members, appeared to not understand that the MOU’s mention of 4 grade-separated tracks did not rule out tunneling. This misconception is a major problem on the Council, as was pointed out in the Palo Alto Daily article.
9. Council Member Espinosa: Absent last night and always difficult to read. Espinosa, like Yeh, is quite young for a city council member and generally is pretty forward thinking. He seems to be broadly supportive of HSR on the Peninsula and actually asked staff earlier in the month to consider removing any mention of the Altamont alignment from their letter. However, he is politically astute and only did so after midnight, by which time most of the NIMBYs had gone home. It is unlikely that Espinosa would object to HSR if the alignment adequately mitigates Palo Alto’s concerns, but his voice is unlikely to sway the whole Council.
In summary, the consensus view last night of the Palo Alto City Council was to continue working closely with CHSRA on the EIR for High Speed Rail, to pressure Caltrain to be more answerable to their constituent cities and three counties, and to organize a louder voice that includes neighboring cities–all constructive actions. Basically, if a tunnel is feasible then HSR will almost certainly have unanimous support on the Council. If the final alignment is an elevated structure, then a majority of Palo Alto City Council will almost certainly try to block it ever being built, which they may or may not succeed in doing since HSR has bipartisan support at the highest levels in Washington and Sacramento. However, opposing tunneling on the mid-Peninsula will be a high stakes game, since it could derail the entire project. On the other hand, a well designed tunnel would likely be supported not only by Palo Alto, but also by Menlo Park and Atherton, essentially removing the only major organized opposition to HSR in California. That might just be worth the cost of a tunnel, even if it is several billion dollars. After all, every year of delay on a $45 billion dollar infrastructure project is billions worth of construction cost inflation (which has been around 5% in recent years) and lost revenues from operation. Appeasing the Peninsula might pay for itself, if the accounting is done correctly.
Andrew A. Bogan, Ph.D.
Palo Alto, California