Palo Alto Demands Control Over HSR Project Design And Operations; Whines When They Don’t Get It
UPDATE: The council did in fact vote to file an amicus brief in the Menlo Park-Atherton suit against the CHSRA. The vote was 5-3. Kishimoto, Barton, and Drekmeier were the no votes; Espinosa was absent. The original post starts now:
Last night’s Palo Alto City Council meeting showed just how absurd the city’s approach to the HSR project has become. Despite the fact that most residents still support high speed rail, and that even those who want a tunnel are trying to reconcile the city’s design preferences to the need for fast and environmentally friendly passenger trains, the city council seems to be demanding a level of control over the project’s operations and fundamental design that is wholly inappropriate for ANY one city to have, especially a small city like Palo Alto.
According to the San Jose Mercury News report of the meeting:
The city council on Monday voted unanimously to send a letter to Caltrain’s board of directors asking them to change the wording of a memorandum of understanding with the state authority, which is in charge of building a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco rail line. The letter objects to the “level of specificity” of the agreement, which would lay the groundwork for the high-speed trains to share Caltrain’s land. Caltrain’s board of directors will vote Thursday on whether to approve the deal.
These council members are pissed off at the four-track plan contained in the proposed Caltrain/CHSRA Memorandum of Understanding. As the article explains:
The council’s specific objection was to a passage of the agreement stipulating that “ultimate configuration of the Caltrain corridor will be a four-track grade-separated high speed rail system, with mixed traffic from Caltrain commuter rail and the high speed train service capable of operation on all four tracks to enable Caltrain to achieve service levels of no less than eight trains per hour in each direction. In some places the corridor may consist of more than four tracks.”
The city responded, “This level of specificity indicates that options and alternatives will be determined without meaningful public input and consultation. Palo Alto requests removal of any commitment to specific track design or operational condition without public input and required environmental review.”
Translation: Palo Alto believes that a four-track design will make it difficult to build a tunnel, and therefore will almost certainly mean an above-grade structure. Palo Alto doesn’t want that, and even though a four-track design is the best solution from an operational perspective Palo Alto’s city council seems to believe they have the right and the power to impose inferior and inefficient solutions on the rail corridor to suit their own purposes.
Palo Alto city council members who are whining about this are implying that the four-track arrangement in the MOU is the same as saying an above-grade structure will definitely be built. It’s a dishonest stance, as some people tried to explain last night:
Transit officials have said the passage actually does not commit Caltrain or the high-speed rail authority to any specific track design. A four-track, grade-separated system could be achieved through any number of design options, including a tunnel, a trench, or an above-ground structure. The authority has stated for years that its system would be fully grade-separated, which means that cross streets must pass either under or over the tracks.
The agreement does specify a minimum number of tracks, which Caltrain officials said was a safeguard to ensure the high-speed trains don’t squeeze out local service. Council Member Yoriko Kishimoto passed on that message to her colleagues Monday night, but they still felt the three-county transit agency had overstepped.
Several city officials pointed out that High Speed Rail Authority Board Member Rod Diridon had told the council no decisions had been made and all options were still open. They said the agreement the authority was poised to sign with Caltrain contradicted that claim.
With each passing day the Palo Alto city council is losing credibility, and last night’s meeting was a stunning example of this. They were told that no decisions had been made regarding the structure, but proceeded to dishonestly behave as if they had been.
What does the proposed MOU actually say about all this?
Ultimate configuration of the Caltrain corridor will be a four-track, grade-separated high speed rail system, with mixed traffic from Caltrain commuter rail and the high speed train service capable of operation on all four tracks to enable Caltrain to achieve service levels of no less than eight trains per hour in each direction. In some places, the corridor may consist of more than four tracks.
What the MOU lays out are the basic operational requirements of the Caltrain corridor. I don’t see a damn thing that precludes a tunnel. I do not see any clear indication that Union Pacific’s freight demands have been met, but that’s another matter entirely. What the MOU lays out are the conditions that ANY implementation, whether above-grade or below-grade or a tunnel, will have to meet. And what some in Palo Alto are upset about is that the conditions weren’t rigged to ensure a tunnel will be built.
Gennady Sheyner’s recent article in Palo Alto Online is useful in shedding light on this ridiculous attitude on the part of the council:
Councilman Pat Burt, who is a member of a recently formed council subcommittee focusing on the high-speed rail, said the section of the memorandum describing the track design “stuck out like a sore thumb.”
Burt said he was concerned about the contradictory statements from rail authority officials, who have long presented the four-track design as one of several that would be considered.
Is that actually what was promised? And does the proposed MOU actually violate any such promise? I am unconvinced that it does. Sheyner writes:
As recently as March 2, Rod Diridon, member of the rail authority’s board of directors, told the council that the agency would consider every viable option.
“We’re going to look at every alternative that was brought before us,” Diridon told the council. “We’ll do a thorough evaluation of every one of those alternatives.”
Diridon also indicated in October — one month before California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond measure for the project — that Palo Alto staff would be involved in the decision-making process, which will involve a wide range of alternatives, including two-track systems and four-track systems.
“All of those will have to be examined,” Diridon told the council in October. “Whether (the trains) will be in a tunnel, in a trench covered, in a trench open, whether they’d be on-grade and elevated would be studied.”
“Your staff would be deeply involved in that,” he added.
As I read Diridon’s quote, he didn’t make absolutely clear whether a two-track or four-track implementation would be among the items Palo Alto would be involved in. Nor is it clear what “involved” would include – and we do not know what meetings were held between Caltrain, the CHSRA, and city staff. Sheyner and some of those that he quotes appear to believe that “deeply involved in” a process meant that Palo Alto would get to help decide the outcomes, which would be an interpretation they chose to make and not one that is inherently truthful or accurate.
In fact, if one read the actual proposed MOU, they’d find that it does indicate that local governments like Palo Alto will continue to be involved and consulted:
III. C. High speed rail must be designed, constructed and operated in a manner fully consistent with the operational requirements of the Caltrain commuter rail rapid transit service and with consideration of the cities on the Peninsula through which the high speed rail system will be constructed and operated….
IV. A. Formulation of a plan for community outreach to the affected community, counties and governmental and regulatory agencies, and other operating entities in the corridor
That looks to me like they’re planning to involve Palo Alto.
As Sheyner’s article makes abundantly clear, however, to some members of the Palo Alto City Council, it’s not involvement or consultation they way – but veto power over the basic conditions of the HSR system. It is neither right nor democratic to give ANY city that power, and it is extremely bad planning to fit the system around Palo Alto’s own demands, instead of fitting Palo Alto’s requests around the system’s needs. But some in Palo Alto insist on going right down that road:
But even at that time, Councilman Greg Schmid warned that an above-ground line could hurt the community and made it clear that he was only supporting the proposition because of the possibility of running the rail underground.
“I think of high-speed rail lines going down the Peninsula and dividing the communities the way rivers used to divide communities in the Middle Ages,” Councilman Greg Schmid said at the October meeting. “It’s not necessarily in our interests to have this division take place in an area where the networking of ideas is the key to success.”
This comment is both absurd and revealing. Absurd, because rivers were until the 19th century indispensable to civilization as they were THE primary method of transportation, offering the cheapest and fastest and most efficient movement of goods and people for most of the history of human civilization. Communities usually formed around and because of rivers, not in spite of them. I’m not sure that Londoners who had to cross the Thames in the 1590s to attend the Globe Theater would see the river as a barrier, but of course, some dude in the 21st century obviously knows better than they do about their own lived experience within their communities.
Which shows how ignorant Greg Schmid appears to be about Palo Alto’s own history. In the 19th century and for some of the 20th century as well, railroads played the same role as rivers – providing the basis for communities. Palo Alto exists because of the railroad and was built around it.
The comment is also revealing because it shows that, in fact, members of the City Council were aware of the plans for the HSR line to be built above-grade before the November election, despite the claims of many residents that “omg we had NO idea!” Schmid’s comment shows that those who say they didn’t know about the above-grade possibility were not paying attention – and I don’t see how that’s the CHSRA’s fault.
Other city officials made clear that they believe they should have the ability to determine the operational requirements of the system, a totally inappropriate demand:
Burt said he was concerned about the inclusion of the four-track design in the memorandum between the two agencies.
“We thought it was inappropriate,” Burt said Friday. “It’s a cart getting ahead of the horse.”…
“I think the point we’re trying to make to the HSRA (High Speed Rail Authority) is that they should not predetermine the outcome,” Kishimoto said. “We expect that it will be a truly open process.”
The city has also drafted a letter to Don Gage, chairman of Caltrain’s board of directors, asking that the section specifying the four-track design be removed or altered.
“This level of specificity indicates that options and alternatives will be determined without meaningful public input and consultation,” the letter reads.
I’m sorry folks, but Palo Alto doesn’t get to determine alone what the entire state needs and deserves in terms of passenger rail capacity and service. You just don’t. That’s not democratic, that’s bad planning, and it’s just ridiculous. The CHSRA has shown it is willing to give the city the opportunity to participate in the process of deciding how the system and the service will be implemented. But folks like those quoted here are playing a different game entirely – thinking that if they want a two-track solution that they should get it, even if that is not practical or reasonable from an operational standpoint.
And when we see Palo Alto city council members making inflammatory and dishonest statements like these, from last night’s meeting:
“We think that’s a duplicitous message, and we intend on pointing that out,” said Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie. Council Member Larry Klein added, “There are decisions being made, decisions have been made by Caltrain, and I think that taints the process.”
Council Member Pat Burt said he was disappointed with Caltrain’s approach. “I’m less hopeful than I was that we’re going to have our voices listened to by just being persuasive and collaborative,” he said.
Well, it doesn’t speak very highly of the city council, which appears to have slid into outright HSR denial – just 5 months after unanimously endorsing Prop 1A, and in spite of their constituents’ desire to see HSR built and integrated effectively with Caltrain. And the council even went into closed session last night to discuss filing an amicus brief in support of Menlo Park and Atherton’s suit against the HSR project.
I’ll leave it to Palo Alto residents to explain what exactly the hell is going on with their city council. From my perspective they seem to have taken leave of common sense, honesty, and reality. They’re upset that Caltrain’s board did its job by ensuring Caltrain can continue to expand its operations under the Caltrain 2025 plan by signing the MOU. They’re willfully misinterpreting CHSRA statements and trying to poison the well – especially in the media and therefore in the public mind – with their deliberate distortions of the truth.
Their behavior makes it difficult for sensible and practical solutions to be delivered. There are some good people in Palo Alto pursuing tunnel solutions, and others who want to find ways to build an above-grade structure more effectively and in line with what the city needs.