Thursday, February 5, 2009

What, Palo Alto Worry?

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

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.)


Anonymous said...

Mercury News, who went along with the 408 mafia and pushed for Pacheco over Altamont is now starting fires in Palo Alto? Nice...

Anonymous said...

All part of the evil plot to sabotage HSR after the peninsula grade separations are started, to finally connect the dots between Millbrae and Santa Clara... BwaaahaHAHAHAA

Anonymous said...

Space Invaders approach is a good analogy. I can feel for the people who could be loosing their land, no one wants to go through that. Personally, I would be upset and want to know more about what being planned. Given that there is no project plan yet published to indicate to the public when there would be a decision, the uproar is justified. Open ended makes people nervous.

However, I refuse to believe that tunnelling is the only way to get around this problem. If you already live on the tracks, you are already willing to accept the mild rumbling of the very heavy American stock commuter trains. With HSR/commuter services running at 125mph on Euro/Nippon style stock, the net affect should be a reduction in overall decibel levels. A loco charging along at 100-125 is actually not all that loud (far from the 200mph vids that have been posted here). Next, there is the concern about losing land. The cut and cover method of building is both well proven and used globally. Again, there may be other options that don't involve boring machines, but achieve the same outcome.

When 'flying' Eurostar to the continent, you pass under cut and cover panels that link Kent farmers' fields, sliced by High Speed 1. It is not unreasonable for playing fields or gardens to be extended here. Governance and maintenance of this approach would need to be considered. But, I would contest the municiple management of sea walls maintained in places like Florida set a precedence for private land and public utility management.

Rafael said...

I don't mean to be glib about this, but if Mr. Arezzo owns property that abuts the Caltrain ROW and there is a ballot proposition for a huge new statewide railroad project linking SF and LA, why on earth didn't he make an effort to educate himself about the planning process and participate in it?

Yes, he may be forced to sell part of his property, but what he and his family gain will be freedom from train horns and bells, from sulfur-laden particulates and nitrous oxides belched out by dirty diesel locomotives and, from having to waste time at grade crossings in the peninsula for the rest of their lives.

This is a project already 12 years in the making. There have been numerous public hearings, web resources, media reports etc. Owning property means investing some time and effort to anticipate and help shape plans to modify its surroundings.

While voters did approve the concept of and route for HSR in November, the specific implementation details are not yet a done deal. It's not to late for homeowners to educate themselves about the options being studied and, to lobby for the one they want - subject to the constraints imposed by the November decision and available funds.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is early in the process, and they have yet to determine the exact alignment or what sorts of improvements they're going to be making. But it's confusing to people, because HSRA already has $10 billion dollars (well, in theory anyway), despite the fact that they don't know yet what exactly they're building or how, or how much it will cost.

TomW said...

It's improtant to realise that people get very possessive about their property (pardon the tautology). The CHSRA *must* make sure they enage properly with people on this issue. ideally, they need to work out propose rough RoW alignments through cities as soon as possible, then give the community chnace to enagage. In the mean time, property owners are faced with a lot of uncertainity.

Anonymous said...

You don't know how accurate a reflection of public opinion?!
Then you've had your head in ??? the sand. You've missed a flurry of other stories in the local papers then. You've missed the public comments at meetings, you've missed the commentary on the online blogs. Here's the quote of note that really sums up the feelings about HSR, not just in Palo Alto but all up and down the Peninsula: (from a different article in a different paper, by the way)...

"People were not aware, If I would have known that voting for that bond meant putting it on the Caltrain corridor, I would have begun this effort before November."

Now, you can argue, shame on them for not educating themselves, but the fact is people on a wholesale level did not understand that a particular plan for a particular route was already "decided". Most people you speak to today STILL think the bond vote was for study of HSR. Shame on them? or Shame on CSHR for requiring the public to read 1200 pages of EIR to get a full picture? For being misleading and vague in the measure 1A wording, for glossy marketing photos on their website, completely devoid of details that impacted the bay area?

Either way, the net effect is the same, that the public was uninformed, and is NOW going to wake up and NOW going to start coming out of the woodwork to fight this route. As predicted. And it makes it just that much more painful to the process for you.

And by the way, the opposition is NOT limited to a few people who homes butt up against the ROW.

Wise bet says, start making it easier for these communities to accept the HSR. And that means, ask what they want, and get seriuos about how you can make that happen (instead of insisting for example, that you'll refuse them grade separated crossings, or that you'll force them to pay for tunnel solution - because I can tell you - its a full on a war any other way. You're talking about communities that hold up the installation of a cell phone tower - for years, that hold up installation of a new traffic light - for years, that hold up a new grocery store (in a location that already WAS a grocery store) for years and years and years. Quit acting like its a neutral noise impact, because on a per train basis, ~maybe~ HSR is quieter, but the train volume triples or more in the HSR plan, and THAT's negative impact. Property values will be degraded, (not just for the 2 inches of ROW you need to purchase) walls will be built, trees will be cut down. Its going to look like a war zone. And these communities will fight.

Matt said...

@Anon 8:00 Am

I have never read one page of the EIR and I knew that the train was going down the caltrain corridor. CAHSR had a big link ooon their front page to the route map which showed a google map with the rout overlayed on top of it. Anyone who wanted to know where the route was could have found out very easily.

It is going to look like a war zone? With sound walls instead of chain link fences. Oh yes we do not want to loose beautiful chain link fences giving us pristine views of the caltrain diesels rolling by.

It will be a better looking corridor and CAHSRA is listening to what residents have to say. And sure you do not see them doing anything about the comments they get but that is because they are not doing anything yet. They are planning.

Here is a nice snapshot of the corridor:

Clem said...


On the 2018 horizon, the no-build case for Palo Alto is a two-track electrified ROW with quiet EMUs (not anything involving loud and dirty diesels).

@Anon 8AM

HSR is not a little cell phone tower or another Alma plaza, subject to being held up by the Palo Alto Process. There are much bigger forces at work, involving San Francisco, San Jose, Sacremento and Washington DC. Likewise, the sums involved are of a different order of magnitude. For Palo Alto, that's an entirely different ball game.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:00a, who I bet is the same person posting as Parent on the Palo Alto news articles, is way off base, then and now. Typical of someone to play the ignorant card and state "we the people" did not know what was going on. It is your responsibility as a voting citizen to do reasearch BEFORE voting. Most people of Palo Alto understood the ramifications of voting yes on 1A and for a select few to say the whole town was in the dark, you are just mad you lost. Get over it, the majority voted yes, even in your city.

Tony D. said...

anon 8:00,
Either move or take your money from eminent domain with a smile, because HSR/electrified Caltrain WILL one day be reality on the peninsula. You can't fight the vast majority of California/peninsula voters, and you sure as hell can't fight the city's of SF and SJ.

By the way, how do you feel about current Caltrain service in your backyard? Loud, lumbering, diesel belching, car and pedestrian smashing, etc. Just curious.

Anonymous said...

... on the plus side if significant sections of the track are put underground does that mean that the speed could be raised to the 225 limit? It would seem the main reason for the speed limit is noise?

Clem said...


Caltrain already has well-advanced plans to get rid of the diesels. The difference to Palo Altans, between the HSR case and the no-build electrified Caltrain case, is (a) four tracks, requiring some ROW widening, (b) more traffic at higher speeds, (c) grade separations that require long retained embankments (a.k.a. "walls").

I can see why they might not like it.

I think Palo Alto's only reasonable option to affect the outcome in their backyards is to join the Altamont bandwagon with Menlo Park and Atherton. But then you piss off San Jose.

Anonymous said...

I was under the impression that with or Without HSR 4 tracks were the plan thru this entire ROW.
Either way everyone there moved next to that ROW and knew what they were in for. As one of the comments in the news store pointed out .its like people that move under a airport runway flight path and then bitch about it..NO TO NIMBYS in this case

Rafael said...

@ randy -

there is no need to run at 225mph in the peninsula. Besides, tunneling all the way from San Jose to SF would be very slightly expensive.

As it is, there are many places in the Caltrain corridor where sharp curves limit the feasible top speed, e.g. in San Bruno. See "The Top 10 Worst Curves" on Clem Tillier's Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog.

Mike Fogel said...

Nothing eats away at the credibility of a newspaper article like quoting it's cost in millions rather than billions... Re: "the planned $40 million line is years away".

Were the writer and editor both distracted as they read/wrote this, or do they just not have a grasp on these dollar amounts and/or the project?

BBinnsandiego said...

While I disagree with Anon 8:00 about what people voted for in November I wouldn't dismiss the rest of the comments so cavalierly. Especially the increased train frequency and noise issue.(covered expertly by this blog in previous posts) It doesn't matter that people bought homes next to the tracks years ago or yesterday. HSR is a substantial change of use and the concerns are legitimate. The best approach is to prove that the new use will be an improvement over the old noisy Caltrain only system. Do this, and I think HSR can, and you'll sweep the noise opposition aside.

A larger concern for residents would be a decision by HSR to select Palo Alto over Redwood City as the mid peninsula station. I can imagine a sizable and well funded opposition to another Millbrea transit center in the heart of old Palo Alto.

Negotiating HSR through the Peninsula corridor without a slew of delaying lawsuits is going to be tough. I'm happy they've started the community outreach as early as they have.

Rubber Toe said...

This will no doubt be the blog headline sometime soon, but it looks like they reached a stimulus compromise in the Senate for $780 billion...

And the good news in here for transit, though details are lacking, is the following tidbit...

"The proposal would add spending on Pentagon programs, environmental cleanup and some transportation programs."

Though after reading it again it could be more highway nonsense. We will find out shortly.


Tony D. said...

"The best approach is to prove that the new use will be an improvement over the old noisy Caltrain only system." Add to that safer (for auto's and pedestrians) and more efficient. This is why it bugs the hell out of me that some NIMBY's are more interested in trying to stop the project all together; rather than make it better for themselves and their neighbors. HSR/Electrified Caltrain is a huge improvement to what already exists in their community. It seems that some are just hell bent on trying to screw things up for the rest of us; the old "If someone in California found a cure for cancer, someone would come out against it." Yes, I know, two totally different things, but you get my drift.

Clem: Altamont is dead! And you wouldn't just piss off SJ, but also SF, the vast majority of peninsula/south bay residents, and the rest of California that voted YES for Prop. 1A.

Anonymous said...

yes on prop 1A had nothing to do with a specific route. I don't see a set route in the wording of the bill... I see flexibility for the route in the wording of the bill... I see alot of unknowns in the EIR/EIS. I see alot of contingencies for the issuance of bonds.. but I see no set route. Can someone show us where that is written in to the actual bond wording?

Anonymous said...

Yes we have a chosen route..and thats thru Pacheo Pass.. About the comment that HSR is a drastic change ..Well clean electric trains sound alot better than loud freight types. And speaking of that would these "poor" souls like to live next to those tracks with 30-40 freight trains daily? Your lucky the Ocean shipping buiness went to the EastBay. These people and their way of thinking is whats WRONG with this country...YOU move next to something thats been active and working for 120years and now your TO decide what that owner/business/can do? This is happening all over the country to all sorts of land owners /business
due to NIMBYS...AND we going to stop it here.

Clem said...

> HSR/Electrified Caltrain is a huge improvement to what already exists in their community.

The same fallacy again. Caltrain will be electrified anyway, HSR or not. The "improvement" of HSR is to be judged against the no-build case, i.e. a two-track electrified Caltrain.

What would you prefer in your backyard-- 150 trains/day @ 80 mph or 300+ trains/day (if you believe the zany traffic projections) @ 125 mph, 15 feet closer to your yard, with a huge concrete wall for the grade sep overpass?

I'm not agreeing with the NIMBYs, but you can't just dismiss their concerns like that. The impacts are real. (and yes, I agree they are necessary).

Brandon in California said...

The project will not be argued away. HSR is coming. What can be affected are mitigation measures.

It would behoove local interests to vet their concerns through the environmental review process AND seek an audience form local state representatives.

Rafael said...

@ Clem -

Santa Clara county hasn't provided any funding for Caltrain electrification. It's not going to anytime soon because their priority is the BART extension. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they also refused to pay for relocating VTA light rail in Mountain View to make room for HSR.

You are asserting that Caltrain definitely will be electrified even if HSR falls through for some reason. However, just because Caltrain has plans and SF plus SM counties are willing to fund them does not mean they will ever be implemented all the way to SJ.

Clem said...

I doubt SJ will want to be left out of a modernized Caltrain.

VTA will still have to cough up electrification money to fund their portion of the Caltrain corridor. The CHSRA will no more pay for that than they will pay for the Transbay train box-- the notion that Santa Clara County will get Caltrain improvements "for free" from HSR is badly mistaken.

So, my assumption that Caltrain will be electrified is linked to the fact that VTA will have to pay for it, HSR or not.

Rafael said...

@ Clem -

Caltrain electrification will become cheaper as a result of HSR construction, because the cost of erecting masts and hookups to substations will be shared.

However, Santa Clara county will still have to cough up its share to make Caltrain electrification a reality. So far, VTA is 110% committed to BART to the exclusion of just about everything else. It's not clear to me what leverage the other counties have over VTA.

Note that VTA has reportedly still not paid Caltrain one penny for its use of a section of ROW in Mountain View.

Anonymous said...

So Silicon Valley threw its weight around to get the Pacheco Pass route, through their sparsely settled enclaves which are already served by CalTrain, and potentially one day by BART as well. Now the residents are raising a fuss because it might trim 10 feet off their precious backyards?

So can we go back to the Altamont option, sparing those beautiful lawns, while providing service to largely rail-deprived, and much more densely populated regions? How much can that one incredibly spoiled region do to mess up HSR for the rest of the state?

Anonymous said...

A voice of reason, how refreshing. Lets have a dialogue about this project and the great opportunity it may provide. It can be looked at from the perspective of local community impacts and statewide benefits simultaneously without always doing battle. Now's the time for active listening and constructive input.