Palo Alto Shackles Itself to the Automobile
Some time in the future – probably sooner than people think, perhaps around 2020 – Palo Alto residents will look back at last night’s city council meeting, where the council voted to oppose an HSR station in Palo Alto, and shake their heads as they curse the short-sightedness of the 2010 council:
Palo Alto doesn’t want a high-speed rail station in its city.
At its Monday night meeting, the council unanimously voted to tell the California High-Speed Rail Authority — as well as other regional, state and federal agencies — it does not want Palo Alto to be considered further for a station along the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles route….
The council fell short Monday night of taking a formal stance against a station anywhere along the mid-Peninsula, saying it doesn’t want to speak for other cities.
“I’m a little uncomfortable with telling Redwood City what to do,” said Council Member Larry Klein, as the council considered a recommendation by Council Member Greg Scharff to expand the letter to express opposition to a station anywhere on the entire mid-Peninsula, rather than just Palo Alto.
Before we get into the specific issues raised by the council, let’s just keep in mind the big picture here. At a time when the price of a gallon of gasoline is higher than it has ever been (except for 2008) and when analysis expect oil to soar to $175/bbl this decade, during the worst recession in 60 years, with serious concerns about climate change and traffic gridlock, the Palo Alto City Council has decided to turn down a golden opportunity that many European cities would kill to have – to get a station on a high speed rail system that is already going through their city, that will connect to the state’s major economic and jobs centers, that can relieve the burden on two-lane city streets like University Avenue and already-jammed arterials like El Camino Real. Instead of using the HSR station to attract new jobs and new businesses, Palo Alto has apparently decided to cede the 21st century to Redwood City. I’m sure they’ll know what to do with this priceless opportunity.
It’s the equivalent of turning down paved roads because you believe that it will hurt the horse and buggy industry, or turning down disposable diapers because it will put the diaper services out of business. I mean, WTF?
What possible justification could Palo Alto’s city council have for such a self-defeating move?
Council members cited a number of reasons in their opposition to the station, including a required parking structure for which the city would have to cough up the costs.
This is a reasonable concern. The parking requirements are absurd. And cities should not be expected to fund a structure. That being said, this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. San José was able to force some changes to the CHSRA’s plans for the HSR route south of Diridon Station. Surely Palo Alto could have said “well we’d like a station but the parking requirements are a problem.” And while some might argue the CHSRA wasn’t particularly accommodating, it doesn’t seem that Palo Alto – the same city whose council passed an anti-HSR resolution and voted to sue the Authority – tried all that hard to get those requirements changed.
But the council made it clear they had other – and quite silly – concerns:
The council also argued the station would create more traffic, that the rail authority doesn’t have the funds to build a station and that it could adversely impact regional airports such as San Jose International and may also hurt Caltrain.
None of these points are credible. Regarding traffic, an HSR station would be much more likely to reduce it by giving commuters another option to access Stanford University, the shopping center, and downtown Palo Alto. It would also act as a magnet for connecting transit, additionally cutting down on traffic.
The point about not having the funds is a canard; plenty of projects are approved before all the funding is secured and delivered.
As to somehow “hurting” airports, that’s just ridiculous. SFO strongly supports HSR. Burbank, San Diego, Palmdale and Ontario airports are all eagerly awaiting an HSR station that can link directly to their terminals, as they realize it will help travelers access their flights more easily as well as free up precious gate space for medium and long-haul flights that HSR cannot serve. For this same reason, airlines like JetBlue support HSR.
In reality, it seems clear that the Palo Alto city council simply has an ideological opposition to HSR and was fishing for reasons to oppose a station in its city. Granted, there were issues that needed to be addressed to ensure the station would bring the maximum benefit to the city – but the council’s attitude was totally dismissive, as shown by their flirtation with a motion to flatly oppose any station on the Peninsula. In fact, there were supporters of a station who spoke up last night:
Jumana Nabti, however, argued in favor of the station.
“A station in Palo Alto should be seen as a huge opportunity, not a problem,” said Nabti, who told the council she is a Palo Alto native and an urban planner who has worked on a number of transportation projects.
Nabti acknowledged design flaws in the rail project but said all transportation models are based on assumptions. It’s difficult to forecast a final result for larger projects. She argued the project would ultimately be beneficial to Palo Alto, reducing traffic and noise and increasing safety.
Unfortunately for Palo Alto residents, the council’s mind was already made up: they don’t want 21st century prosperity, and prefer to string out the 20th century as long as possible. It’s their loss, really. Redwood City is now poised to get the station, should they want it, and let’s hope they do – Palo Alto may have Stanford and the Sand Hill Road venture capital firms, but Redwood City is about to vault past it as a center of jobs and prosperity on the Peninsula. And when Palo Alto is choked by traffic, future generations will look back on October 25, 2010, and see it as the day Palo Alto’s city council gave up on the future.