A few days ago the San Jose Mercury News ran a story suggesting Palo Alto residents were full of worry about the high speed rail project's impact on their town. I don't know how accurate a reflection of public opinion the report is, but the media has long demonstrated their own power to shape public opinion, so it's worth thinking about this for a moment:
Until recently, the notion of a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco seemed far off to Tom D'Arezzo, a high-tech product manager who lives in Palo Alto's Southgate neighborhood. He knew it was on the November statewide ballot, but wasn't sure of the specifics.
Now that the $10 billion bond measure has passed, however, the project's full impact is beginning to hit home — almost literally. Like his neighbors on Mariposa Street, D'Arezzo has a yard that backs up to a portion of the Caltrain tracks that might have to be widened to accommodate the high-speed electric trains.
D'Arezzo now fears he could lose up to 10 feet of his property to eminent domain. But he's been frustrated in his attempts to find out for sure. Rail officials will neither confirm nor rule out the possibility, repeating a mantra that is beginning to irritate some Peninsula residents even though it's meant to soothe them: "It's early in the process."
Groundbreaking on the planned $40 million line is years away. The California High Speed Rail Authority is in the first stages of public outreach, holding "scoping meetings" in the Bay Area to get residents' thoughts on what should be studied in the environmental reports.
But D'Arezzo, and a handful of leaders in mid-Peninsula cities, worry that by the time they get the detailed information they would need to participate in the decision-making process, the big decisions will have already been made.
The fact is that, yes, it IS "early in the process." Some key questions have yet to be resolved, such as the configuration of tracks (F-S-S-F or S-S-F-F or some other combination), the design of grade crossings, and of course, where the mid-Peninsula station will go. All of that then impacts how much ROW is needed, what can or will be done to separate the tracks from its surroundings, whether it's a home or Palo Alto High School, etc. That's why these meetings are being held - to start the public conversation, to get these residents thinking about how they'd like to integrate HSR into their community.
There's no reason why Palo Alto or any other city has to treat the CHSRA like an invading army of space aliens that plans to cut a huge gash in their community with their lasers. In fact, Palo Alto actually has an opportunity to help determine how best HSR can exist in their town. If they decide they want to pay for a tunnel, there's nobody stopping them. If they decide that they would prefer this much ROW to be used here and that much ROW to be used there, they can organize and give that feedback to the CHSRA which can then use it to help make some engineering decisions.
Obviously Palo Alto can't design the entire thing themselves, but this notion that they're consigned to wander in the dark is really just not credible. They're not at the Authority's mercy. Palo Alto should instead treat this as an opportunity to help build a sustainable community oriented around passenger rail, and model to the rest of the state (and especially to their neighbors on the Peninsula) how to integrate HSR into their urban landscape.
The best cure for worry is to take action. Hold some community workshops, hire some consultants, talk to planners, send someone to visit some European cities, and take the knowledge and come up with a plan. That would be the best thing Palo Alto can do not just for HSR, not just for the state, but for themselves.
(I'm sure some or all of this is already happening, but let's make sure it gets the emphasis it deserves.)