Palo Alto straddles HSR resistance, acceptance
It’s becoming clear that Palo Alto, my hometown, is straddling two differing approaches to the high-speed rail project.
On one side, city officials and most residents appear to be coming, albeit slowly, to the realization that high-speed rail is happening, and that when it does, California won’t be paying for it to be in a deep tunnel or covered trench. On the other side, a small number of residents, fearing any change to their community, continue to aggressively fight the project.
[There’s a middle group — the majority of residents who support the project, including many who live near the tracks. I’ll save that group for a later post.]
This played out on Tuesday, as the Palo Alto City Council’s High Speed Rail Subcommittee met to discuss the latest developments in the high-speed rail project in front of a packed audience.
Unhappy Either Way
Members of the Palo Alto City Council and a small number of residents have called for the high-speed rail project to be stopped, slowed down or drastically modified so as to have no impact on Palo Alto. Recently, California High Speed Rail Authority officials announced plans that, in effect, may delay all construction most HSR infrastructure.
In an updated grant application, the CAHSRA announced that it will prioritize building two new HSR-only tracks from San Francisco to Redwood City, and then from Mountain View to San Jose. In this scenario, Palo Alto and neighboring cities would remain largely untouched at first, with the only major improvement being electrification of the entire corridor.
This may satisfy the desire of project critics and opponents to avoid major construction impacts and minimize the need for additional land. Yet, it does not resolve the fact that once HSR service commences, there will still be traffic and safety impacts due to the additional rail traffic HSR will bring on tracks that are not grade separated. These same impacts will occur with the inevitable increase in Caltrain service in the future, notwithstanding the temporary funding crisis.
Palo Alto officials expressed concern at the idea of this new approach. As an Aug. 26 Palo Alto Online News article reported,
[Palo Alto Mayor Pat] Burt mentioned this scenario at Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council High-Speed Rail Committee when he referred to the possibility of the rail authority taking the ‘phasing’ approach for the Midpeninsula — an approach he said would leave the city with the existing two tracks. He said this could impact the city’s traffic, safety and emergency response and called it one of the most critical questions facing the Midpeninsula cities.
Continued opposition to the project from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton has, it seems, led to the Authority building other phases first.
Palo Alto and other cities need to confront reality and understand that more train service will be coming to the Peninsula, whether its from HSR or increased Caltrain service. They ultimately will have to find a way that allows for the grade separation of the corridor.
It is fantasy for Peninsula residents and leaders to believe they can just hope rail service will stay the same and they will never have to invest in grade separation. What better time to solve their problems then now, with HSR bringing billions of dollars of state and federal money to finally get this essential work done. For Palo Alto to now worry that it will be left with more trains, while not pursuing grade separations, is a head-in-the-sand approach.
Despite the latest complaints, officials and residents do seem to be coming to accept that the project is going to happen, and they’re not going to have total control over the project without putting up funds. Burt told the meeting,
I think the chance of the rail authority funding either cut-and-cover or deep tunnel are highly unlikely. We should focus our discussion around that.
It’s easy to predict how this dichotomy will play out when it comes time for the Midpeninsula station location to be chosen. If history is any indication, Palo Alto will fret over the downsides to a Palo Alto high-speed rail station and then express dismay and betrayal if Redwood City or Mountain View is chosen as the Midpeninsula stop.
Upset Over Parking
City officials and residents also spent much of the meeting dwelling on the 3,000 parking spaces that HNTB rep John Litzinger previously told the city they might be asked to build.
Larry Klein, responded to the issue with more mixed messages.
Parking spaces are far from the best use for any community. Taking up valuable space to create 5 or 6 parking buildings, at 50 feet high, I really don’t think that’s what our community would want to develop. This isn’t my vision of Palo Alto. This isn’t what the plan should be for any particular city, unless they have no economy at all. We should be very clear that we don’t’ want to participate in a process that has no benefit to our community.
Klein makes it clear that he understands the value of urban spaces, and why you prioritize development of other uses, like residences or shops, around a transit station, before you build parking. Yet, he’s also a member of the PCC, and it’s rare that you hear him talking of the value that vibrant transit corridors and transit-oriented development can bring — aside from when it comes in handy to fight construction of parking garages.
For the moment, Palo Alto seems to be stuck going in two directions. Fighting high speed rail, yet bemoaning the outcome of doing so.
Let’s hope they choose the right path – utilizing the HSR project to solve the existing and future problems along the Peninsula associated with rail service..