On Monday night the Palo Alto City Council will meet to consider the comments it wishes to submit to the California High Speed Rail Authority on the Peninsula portion of the HSR line. Although this seems like a small point, Palo Alto has become a major flashpoint in the attempt by a small but vocal group of HSR deniers to kill the high speed rail project outright. Unfortunately, a recommendation by Palo Alto city staff appears to bolster these NIMBYs. It is therefore extremely important that all HSR supporters around California mobilize to ensure that Palo Alto does not suddenly decide to undermine the project in order to satisfy a few ignorant claims.
If Palo Alto succumbs to the NIMBY HSR denier crowd it will be a severe blow to not just high speed rail, but to mass transit, action to mitigate and reverse global warming, smart growth, energy independence and economic recovery. It would deal a blow to President Barack Obama's plans and give a boost to conservative Republicans like Bobby Jindal and Sean Hannity who claim that high speed rail is bad for America.
The basic issue is this: a few people in Palo Alto, who are almost totally uninformed as to the details of the project (whether this is deliberate or not isn't clear and depends on the individual), have become convinced that high speed rail is going to "destroy their community." They are spreading numerous lies and falsehoods about what HSR will do for Palo Alto. And although the Palo Alto City Council unanimously endorsed Proposition 1A last year, they are coming under intense pressure to join the frivolous lawsuit filed by Menlo Park, Atherton, Stuart Flashman, and other opponents of high speed rail.
One of the core arguments is that somehow an above-grade set of HSR tracks will ruin the community - harm property values, bring "blight". Some are even taking to calling the HSR tracks a "Berlin Wall" - an offensive claim that cheapens the lives of those Germans who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall to freedom.
In fact, along most of the Peninsula there is already sufficient ROW to add two tracks to the existing Caltrain tracks. This is true for much of Palo Alto, despite claims to the contrary.
More importantly, the HSR grade separation project would vastly improve the quality of life in Palo Alto. Electrified tracks mean no more polluting and smelly diesel fumes. Grade separations mean no more loud train whistles. They also mean no more accidents, making it safer for families to cross the corridor. Far from "dividing" communities it actually unites them.
Still, the huge levels of support in Palo Alto for Prop 1A and HSR would normally suggest to me that these ignorant claims from NIMBYs wouldn't be worth worrying about. Unfortunately, the City of Palo Alto staff are making a series of recommendations that could fundamentally undermine the HSR project if the City Council approved them. It is imperative that we let the Palo Alto City Council know that some of these recommendations are not only inappropriate, but deeply flawed and ought to be rejected. Instead the council should support HSR, and submit comments to the CHSRA indicating a desire to produce a sensible solution that will implement the HSR system as approved by California voters in November.
The objectionable recommendations include:
• Reopen the Altamont vs. Pacheco debate
• Explore routing HSR down Highway 101 or Interstate 280
• Consider terminating the HSR route at San José Diridon and forcing intercity travelers to transfer to Caltrain to complete their journey to San Francisco
Each of these are problematic, but it is the last point that is especially heinous. Let me explain.
First, Altamont is dead. That option isn't coming back. Californians voted for Prop 1A knowing that Pacheco Pass was the choice. That ship has sailed. An Altamont alignment means cutting out San José from the system, one of the state's largest cities.
It also means dumping the problem in the laps of Fremont and Pleasanton. Who are Palo Alto residents to say "we're too good to accept some small improvements in a rail line - some other town has to deal with it?"
The recommendation to build HSR along 101 or 280 is also deeply flawed. That would be a very bad move that violates almost every rule regarding sound transportation planning principles. HSR along the Caltrain route means stations in city centers, instead of along freeways. It would reduce ridership and seriously retard efforts to make California less car-dependent. In fact, the Palo Alto staff report notes that according the the CHSRA:
Station locations must have the potential to promote higher density, mixed use, pedestrian accessible development
By moving the line to 101 or 280 - which will never happen but I'm humoring the staff here - it ensures that these goals are impossible to meet. Further, it would embolden Palo Alto resistance to items necessary to improve Caltrain service - including electrification and grade separation.
Palo Alto staff are implying that it may well oppose efforts to improve Caltrain service as well. The city's draft scoping comments include asking to eliminate overhead catenaries in Caltrain electrification and preventing "visual impacts" that above-grade crossings would present. How many people are killed along Caltrain tracks? How many accidents have there been at grade crossings? If the goal is to eliminate any grade separations short of a tunnel - as this report appears to imply - then what city staff are proposing is an attack on any and all efforts to move more Bay Area residents to trains, all because they feel it would make their community look less pleasant.
The staff report suggestion of terminating HSR at San José and forcing riders to transfer to Caltrain is perhaps the most damning and foolhardy proposal of them all. This would severely undermine the HSR system as it would cause ridership numbers to plummet below the levels needed for the system to be financially viable. Caltrain is a commuter rail system and is not designed to handle intercity travelers. It does not have luggage facilities. It does not have spacious seats or a cafe car. Transfers reduce ridership, and cutting off the line at San José therefore constitutes a mortal threat to the entire system.
The staff recommendation is an implicit attack on California's strategy to finally build a 21st century model of transportation, and a de facto embrace of inaction on the multiple crises we face - a desire to maintain a failed status quo that is harming the environment, increasing dependence on fossil fuels, and blocking the development of sensible and sustainable alternatives.
Palo Alto's city council voted to endorse Prop 1A and the construction of HSR. They should reject this staff recommendation as both unrealistic and inappropriate, ask staff to strip those elements that constitute an attack on passenger rail and sustainable transportation, and instead submit more constructive comments, that would reflect the following realities:
• Very little if any eminent domain will be needed as much of the necessary ROW already is in Caltrain's hands
• Grade separations improve the community by making crossing the corridor far safer
• Most of the breathless "Berlin Wall!" comments are deliberate lies that ignore the landscaping and other design elements that will ensure an above-grade line will not look unappealing.
It must also be noted that the CHSRA has been a very good partner with the Peninsula on discussing this project, extending the comment period by a month (to April 6) in order to allow cities to have more time to produce their comments and feedback.
Palo Alto has previously shown support for both HSR and passenger rail. It is time for the cooler heads in that city to prevail. Palo Alto residents who both support HSR and who want to build this the right way need to speak up in support of a more constructive approach and against this staff report. Otherwise their city may wind up with nothing but a significant backlash that will cost the city more than it gains.
The 20th century is over. Palo Alto, which was built around an existing rail line, cannot reasonably expect that the conditions of the 1980s or 1990s will continue indefinitely. The HSR project calls for modest changes to the rail corridor and will leave most of Palo Alto untouched and leave the rest improved. Palo Alto should not join Bobby Jindal, John Boehner, and Sean Hannity in attacking the kind of mass transit solutions that we all need to meet the crisis of the 21st century and come through that crisis with better, more prosperous, and more sustainable communities.
And this is where you come in.
I have started an online petition that asks the Palo Alto City Council to endorse HSR and reject the inappropriate and anti-HSR staff recommendations. Please sign it, and make sure your friends sign it too. I am going to post this petition on major websites like Calitics and Daily Kos to help increase the number of signers, and to show Palo Alto that HSR has widespread public support that they should not ignore in order to keep a few fools happy.
As I said right after our election victory, the passage of Proposition 1A was just a first step. It is time to mobilize the network of HSR supporters to win another battle - a battle for mass transit, economic recovery, and environmental action, a battle against those who would sustain a failed status quo because of their selfish and ignorant beliefs.
This is not the equivalent of the Century Freeway, and Quentin Kopp is not Robert Moses. Palo Alto must do its part in helping California and America escape the failed policies of the 20th century. They can do so by endorsing HSR and rejecting the inappropriate staff recommendations that are designed to attack the project itself.
Help Palo Alto make the right choice. Sign the petition. And let's show Palo Alto that we want to work together, in a spirit of cooperation, to ensure HSR works for their community - and that none of us, Palo Alto residents or otherwise, will allow a small group of people to destroy our future.