Over the last few months the debate on the Peninsula over high speed rail has been dominated by lots of myths, misunderstandings, and in some cases, deliberate obfuscation of the truth.
As far as I can tell it's a simple issue - some residents believe their property values are more important than the state's efforts to solve the environmental, energy, and economic crisis by providing sustainable transportation solutions. It's not a new phenomenon and we should not be surprised that "even" Palo Alto, when confronted between a perceived threat to their property values and a very real threat to their economy and environment, are choosing to cling to obsolete models of prosperity rather than take action to solve the much larger crises facing us all.
This would be much easier if we were dealing with a town that prided itself on political conservatism. They'd just say "high speed rail is a waste of money" and be done with it. (Which is pretty much Morris Brown's position anyway.) Since Palo Alto likes to see itself as more progressive they cannot actually openly admit that they'll try and derail HSR in order to possibly preserve the property values of a small handful of people (I am unconvinced that above-grade HSR would actually hurt property values, but I also don't anticipate many in Palo Alto will agree), HSR critics and opponents have to find other reasons to articulate opposition. Unfortunately, most of those reasons are based on myths.
Will Oremus of the Daily News interviewed Dominic Spaethling, regional manager of the SF-SJ section of the HSR project for CHSRA, to determine which of these myths is true and which isn't. In some cases I disagree with Oremus's conclusions, and it's Spaethling's answers that are the most revealing.
Claim: The default plan for the Peninsula is to run the high-speed tracks on an elevated platform, likely in the form of a "retained fill" design that some have likened to a 15-foot-high "Berlin Wall" dividing local neighborhoods.
Status: Mostly fact, with caveats.
Explanation: In its broad, initial study of the high-speed rail line's feasibility, the rail authority assumed that the tracks would alternate between underground, at-grade and elevated alignments at different points along the line. A diagram available on the authority's Web site shows the tracks going underground at points in northern San Jose and southern San Francisco, but above-ground in between. While some parts of the tracks would stay at ground level, the "retained fill" option was chosen for many intersections because that's what was used in Belmont and San Carlos, the sites of the most recent grade separations on the mid-Peninsula.
In other words, the retained fill option was a possible solution that was being considered based on what has been done elsewhere on the Peninsula. Whether one likes the Belmont and San Carlos grade separations, they are part of the Peninsula's urban geography now, and it made sense to offer them as an option - as Spaethling explains:
The big caveat is that the preliminary study was just that — preliminary. Spaethling described it as a "proof of concept" to show just one way that the marriage of high-speed rail and Caltrain could work. The next step is the project-level environmental study, which by law is required to evaluate all options put forward in the public scoping process that concludes Monday. That means the rail authority will look at underground as well as above-ground options in places such as Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and downtown San Mateo.
This has been true for months. But to the small NIMBY contingent in those cities, options aren't enough. They believe they have the right and the power to dictate solutions to the rest of the state, and that unless their preferred option is chosen, then the project is illegitimate. They don't want an open process at all.
A second caveat is that the "Berlin Wall" analogy is exaggerated. The purpose of the retained fill is to lift the tracks over certain key cross streets, meaning it wouldn't be one continuous wall. Many in Belmont and San Carlos would likely dispute the idea that their cities are divided like East and West Berlin.
Here I think Oremus is hedging unnecessarily. The Berlin Wall analogy is bullshit. The Berlin Wall was meant to be an impenetrable barrier crossed only upon pain of death. An above-grade solution on the Peninsula would be designed to be a passable barrier to be crossed often and safely. We have previously examined elegant above-grade solutions and yet these appear to have not been discussed in any great detail, if at all, on the Peninsula. That leads me to further question just how open a process some HSR critics and NIMBYs actually seek. In particular it is objectionable that the Palo Alto city council does not appear to have given much consideration to these kind of options before voting to file a brief in support of the HSR deniers' suit against the CHSRA.
Claim: El Palo Alto, the historic redwood tree that gave Palo Alto its name, will almost certainly be fatally damaged or removed due to construction of the high-speed tracks just north of the downtown Palo Alto Caltrain station.
Status: Myth, hopefully.
Explanation: It's true that El Palo Alto stands perilously close to the Caltrain tracks, and the city's arborist has determined that any expansion in its direction, even underground, could doom it. But Spaethling said officials know it's there and will aim to avoid it. The authority's initial study showed trains running at-grade at the Palo Alto station and the San Francisquito Creek bridge, meaning construction there would be less intensive. Though nothing has been decided, Spaethling said the natural approach would be to build the tracks to the west of their current location — the opposite direction from the tree.
An interesting thing I learned recently was that El Palo Alto used to have a twin trunk and that by the 1950s the tree was severely damaged by train pollution. The tree is intensively managed today in order to stay alive. One has to imagine that the near-total removal of diesel emissions would help preserve the tree's health. And of course, it has been known for quite a while that any new tracks would go west of the tree, but that hasn't stopped the critics.
Claim: There is a chance that construction will force the authority to acquire private property, perhaps through eminent domain.
Explanation: The authority has been reluctant to discuss eminent domain, pointing out that it would be used only as a last resort. Gary Kennerly, regional manager for the San Jose-to-Merced section, said an initial review estimated 85 percent of the Caltrain corridor is wide enough to accommodate four tracks side-by-side. But that leaves portions where engineers may have to get creative.
Spaethling said they'd look at solutions such as stacking the Caltrain and high-speed tracks two-by-two before resorting to acquiring property. If they do have to acquire property, he added, they'd prefer friendly negotiations to the legal process of eminent domain. That said, no one is prepared to rule it out.
The chance is certainly there that eminent domain may have to happen, but I wish Oremus had gone into further detail about what that might actually mean. It's not anticipated that many houses will have to be torn down. The most common impact would be a yard, and I have no sympathy for that whatsoever - if someone has to lose part of their yard so California can get off oil dependence, cut carbon emissions, and grow its economy, then that's what needs to happen. That being said, it's right for a city like Palo Alto to debate the best way to implement HSR for their community. But it's absurd to argue that yards > HSR.
I would be VERY amused to see a stacking solution used, especially in Menlo Park and Atherton. It'd be like the spite fence built on Nob Hill back in the 1800s. Again, if they want a tunnel, they will have to pay for it out of their own pocket. It is highly unlikely federal money will be forthcoming - things have changed dramatically in the 40 years since Berkeley was able to use some redevelopment funds, along with a local tax, to bury BART.
Claim: It's too late to push for the tracks to follow a different route; the decision to use the Caltrain corridor has already been made.
Status: Fact, pending court ruling.
Explanation: In 2008, after years of debate, the California High Speed Rail Authority approved a report that selected the Pacheco Pass alignment over the Altamont Pass option, meaning trains would reach San Francisco via the Peninsula rather than the East Bay. Included in the report were plans to use the Caltrain corridor rather than alternatives such as Highway 101 or Interstate 280. Officials said all the overpasses that cross the freeways presented an almost insurmountable design challenge.
Aside from those active in transit boards, Peninsula officials largely sat out the battle, which raged in San Jose and the East Bay. Several have said recently they weren't even aware of it.
I have less and less confidence in the basic competence of "Peninsula officials" every day. We discussed this decision frequently last year - prior to July it was THE #1 topic on the blog. There is no excuse at all for any public official representing a jurisdiction along the Caltrain corridor for not knowing about the battle.
The decision left several transit groups angry, arguing the East Bay alignment would have served more Bay Area riders. They, along with the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton, filed a lawsuit in August challenging the environmental report. Unless they prevail in Sacramento Superior Court, however, the Caltrain alignment is likely a done deal.
I have yet to see a compelling reason why these groups should expect to win in court. They are merely unhappy with the decision in the final EIR/EIS.
As the article shows, there could be a lot more truth and evidence interjected into the debate over HSR on the Peninsula. I don't think any of that matters to the NIMBYs. But it should matter to everyone else, and especially to the members of the city councils along the route.
Note: we'll shift focus away from Palo Alto tomorrow and on Saturday, so get your Palo Alto-related comments in today, as I'm going to request that comments on the next two posts stay on-topic.