Palo Alto City Council Attacks HSR Project – Without Public Support
Last night the Palo Alto City Council, which once made a name for itself by innovating policies to favor alternatives to driving (particularly with bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, but also with its support for passenger rail), voted unanimously to pass an anti-high speed rail resolution. They went further by approving, by a 5-4 vote, an amendment to the resolution calling for the HSR system to be defunded. To top it off, they then voted to sue the California High Speed Rail Authority.
The council’s embrace of these resolutions and the lawsuit was done against the will of their constituents. As expressed on November 4, 2008 by their widespread support for Prop 1A, and reconfirmed by the independent AD-21 poll from earlier this year, Palo Alto residents want the HSR project to happen. They also want their elected officials to work constructively to build the project in a way that meets the needs of taxpayers, riders, and community members. Yet their city leaders, systematically ignoring this widespread public support, have decided to attack the HSR project rather than follow the lead of their neighbors to the south, in San José, where city leaders expressed their very strong opinions on the project, but found a way to reach a compromise solution that enables the HSR system to move forward.
Palo Alto’s city council can’t actually stop the HSR project on their own, nor can they force it off the Peninsula or even off the Caltrain corridor. But they can delay the badly needed construction of the HSR system, and more importantly, shackle their residents to their cars and to steadily rising oil prices. These moves are disappointing – but they’re not the end of the story by any means.
Let’s look more closely at what happened and why.
First, the city of Palo Alto not only passed a resolution declaring “no confidence” in the HSR project and calling on the California High Speed Rail Authority board to be dissolved – but by a 5-4 vote, they added language calling on the Federal Railroad Administration to pull funding from the project. Even Palo Alto mayor Pat Burt, who has himself been quite critical of the HSR project, saw this as a step too far:
“I don’t see the point at this point in time in taking the position of opposing the federal funds from potentially being able to come to this segment,” Burt said, acknowledging Caltrain’s interest in receiving funding from the project.
Burt is right to be worried about this. Caltrain needs to be improved as well, and was counting on piggybacking on state and federal HSR funds to do so. Without that funding, Caltrain is in extremely serious trouble and will be unable to fund its electrification project that it needs to become financially stable.
Further, it indicates that the Palo Alto city council doesn’t seem interested in constructive solutions – instead it sends a message that they don’t want HSR to happen at all. Even though Californians For High Speed Rail have called for a Peninsula Reset that can address the concerns of some city leaders without blowing up the project, and even though most Palo Alto residents still support the project, the city has backed itself into a corner and left it with no leverage over the CHSRA whatsoever. And they’ve put Caltrain in jeopardy as well.
The call to oppose federal funding is particularly hard to understand. One reason why the CHSRA has been pushing for cost-effective solutions is because of the uncertainty around federal funding. That forces the CHSRA to be very careful and conservative in its decisions on what to build. If Palo Alto wants a below-grade solution, they need more federal funding, not less.
It’s also hard to understand the city’s decision to file suit over the re-certified EIR – the same one that their fellow councilmembers in Menlo Park and Atherton tried and failed to stop:
Palo Alto officials are claiming that the new document violates the California Environmental Quality Act because it fails to address many of the city’s comments on the voluminous document. These include concerns about the project’s ridership and revenue projections and its route selections.
I find it amazing that, at a time when cities across California are struggling to make ends meet – when San Carlos has had to disband their police department – that Palo Alto believes it has public funds to spend on a costly lawsuit.
Palo Alto officials blame the Authority for forcing their hand:
Council members had supported the project in the 2008 election, but have increasingly turned against it as more details emerged. Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa said it’s become clear that the rail authority is not being a good partner with local agencies.
“When you see a business plan that’s studied by numerous outside entities and deemed to be completely bogus, you really got to start questioning what type of partnership you have,” Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa said.
In fact, nobody has deemed the business plan to be “completely bogus.” And the Authority has been responsive to local agency concerns, from agreeing to study track sharing in Southern California in response to a Metro/OCTA letter to the aforementioned agreement with San José. But Palo Alto has, almost since the moment Prop 1A was passed, chosen a much more confrontational approach.
This resolution and lawsuit were triggered by the Supplemental Alternatives Analysis Report, which indicated that a tunnel was unlikely for the mid-Peninsula area. Instead of seeking further constructive dialogue and discussion, and without consulting with their constituents, the city council moved rapidly to attack the project and essentially call for it to be suspended or eliminated.
The situation isn’t helped by some of the reporting we’ve seen. Palo Alto Online claims that Stanford University opposes an HSR station in Palo Alto, but as the letter below shows, that’s not accurate. The university actually said they see the benefits to a station, but are concerned about the impact on parking:
Stanford can see the economic and travel options benefits to Palo Alto businesses and to some of the businesses on Stanford lands (e.g., Shopping Center and Research Park tenants) derived from attracting passengers to a Palo Alto HSR station and from having, in Palo Alto, an easily accessed north-south state travel hub.
However, the City and its surroundings have very little available traffic and parking capacity for such a facility (7,800 daily boardings, 3,000 parking spaces) and a station for HSR would not, in our view, constitute a priority justifying further reduction of this capacity.
I don’t read this as a “Stanford opposes an HSR station” position at all. Of course, there have been other universities around the country, most notably the University of Minnesota, that have fought mass transit on or near their campuses, in spite of the clear public need and support for such a project, only to relent once the case for the system was made clear and their concerns were met. Palo Alto doesn’t have to have an HSR station, but if it did, it would be a boon to the city and the university. The parking requirements can be dealt with – especially since a grade-separated Caltrain and HSR system would help reduce the number of people parking in downtown Palo Alto owing to the trains being a more useful and attractive option for visitors.
Overall, Palo Alto’s future, like that of the rest of California, depends on its ability to provide sustainable economic growth for its people by liberating them from a ruinous dependence on fossil fuels. Both HSR and Caltrain are vital to the city’s prosperity, just as is the railroad that the city was built around, that in so many ways it owes its existence and prosperity to. That’s why the people of Palo Alto – including many of those commenting at the Palo Alto Online article – strongly support the HSR project.
Their voices have not been heard or taken seriously by their elected leaders. It’s time for that to change. Not only is the Palo Alto city council endangering their own economic future with this action, not only are they making it very difficult to get what they want from both HSR and Caltrain, but they are undermining democracy by their actions. It’s time for Palo Alto HSR supporters to make sure their voices are heard.