Monday, April 16, 2012

To acquire High-Speed Rail, a city sells out its residents

Some background first.  Menlo Park, along with Atherton to the north, and Palo Alto to the south, is a town on the Caltrain corridor on the Bay Area Peninsula.  All three towns have established a reputation for opposing high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor. 

This commuter rail corridor has been the subject of dispute for over a decade.  Right now, in the spirit of a suburban, semi-rural string of communities, many street crossings across the rail corridor are still at-grade and not separated.

It's no big deal and actually, the proximity of the 80 or so daily train crossings is rather funky, as one Councilman told me years ago. Living right next to the tracks, I agree.

At that time, the City of Menlo Park City Council wanted to separate the town's four street crossings, which would involve a huge amount of devastation along the corridor to achieve that, with cross-streets built under the tracks.  It is, to be brief, a very big and very harmful deal.

Now, with the threat of high-speed rail trains joining Caltrain's commuter trains on the tracks, the problem promises to be ever so much worse. 

You would expect the City; that is, its Council, to tell the high-speed rail people and the Caltrain people that this is unacceptable. That the people of Menlo Park do not want high-speed rail on this corridor UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

Many of us thought that this is the direction the city council was taking.

But, that's not what they are going to ask for.  City Staff has written a draft letter to send to the Caltrain Joint Powers Board.

The letter waffles back and forth, wanting this, but not wanting that.  That is to say, the Council has some issues, but basically supports the blended plan which admits high-speed rail to the Caltrain corridor. And, as we know, electrification will be the "vehicle" for accomplishing that.

Typical of politicians, they want to have it both ways. The City Administration, of course, is in favor of any construction, any expansion, any development in the city since that obliges their growing a larger head-count and larger budget to support these efforts.  Their Reports always conclude with the statement that there would be no further costs to the city.

That is patently untrue. It will indeed cost the city (and us taxpayers) more and in this case, much more.  What is promised for the corridor will be highly intrusive and harmful, even if not in the short-run. 

So, what should the city ask for?  Simple. 

We will support Caltrain commuter train electrification, but only on the condition that High-Speed Rail is denied access to the rail corridor permanently. 

That would establish that the City Council is representing its citizens and residents.  And it would establish Caltrain as serving the many communities from which it draws its customers.

As it is now, the city is merely supporting the empire building ambitions of both Caltrain and the high-speed rail authority, and doing so at our expense. That is not what representative government is supposed to be or do.

April 17, 2012

Adrienne Tissier Chairperson Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board 
1250 San Carlos Avenue 
P.O. Box 3006 San Carlos, CA 94070-1306 

Subject: Comments on the Memorandum of Understanding: High Speed Rail Early Investment Strategy for a Blended System on the Peninsula Corridor
Dear Chair Tissier: 

This letter is in reference to the Memorandum of Understanding regarding the High Speed Rail Early Investment Strategy for a blended system on the Peninsula corridor. 

We commend the work done by all the stakeholders in developing an alternative approach for improvements to the regional rail system and expansion and integration of high-speed and regional/local passenger rail systems in the Bay Area. We concur with California High Speed Rail Authority utilizing a blended system approach within the existing JPB/Caltrain right-of¬way. 

The City remains committed to a two-track blended system in Menlo Park within the existing Caltrain right-of-way or a new system in an underground configuration. The City Council opposes any system on an elevated structure, and is against expansion in Menlo Park to a four-track system for any phase of the project unless it is in an underground configuration. Based on Caltrain staff presentation at the March 6th , 2012 City Council meeting, it appears that Caltrain agrees with the rail corridor remaining a two-track blended system in Menlo Park

However, in light of the State Attorney General ruling regarding whether a blended system fits within Prop. 1A remaining undetermined, the City still has some lingering concerns with the High Speed Rail Early Investment Strategy due to the lack of details concerning the impacts to the projects. 

The City has three concerns which need to be addressed prior to Menlo Park supporting the blended system approach.

1. The City expects Caltrain to provide more service along the corridor, with additional stops in Menlo Park, but wants to ensure that it is completed in a manner that maximizes benefits and reduces or eliminates impacts. 

With that said, Menlo Park has concerns about the Early Investment Project to the extent that it may implicitly obligate Caltrain to future High Speed Rail efforts that have not been fully discussed or agreed to by the local jurisdictions. 

The Council is concerned, about the potential of unintended consequences. The use of a blended system may increase the use of the system.  Additional trains could result in increased west-east congestion by non-train traffic (bikes, cars, pedestrians) and safety concerns while the gates are down for the trains and safety concerns for non-train traffic. 

Congestion and traffic delays and horn noise impacts will need to be mitigated and those mitigations will need to be evaluated and agreed to by the local jurisdictions. The City would like funding for grade separations and/or other mitigation measures to mitigate impacts.

2. Questions remain unanswered as billions of dollars are allocated for the High Speed Rail system. There is a lack of information to support the full cost of the overall project from the California High Speed Rail Authority. 

a. The sufficiency and accuracy of the Ridership study for High Speed Rail remains questionable. 

b. The Level of Service increases specifically committed to Menlo Park's station and the resulting impacts from additional trains along the corridor to cross-street traffic has not been determined yet. 

c. Proposed grade separations and any proposed closures of cross-streets have not been determined and funding for grade separations is not included in this MOU. 

3. We are concerned that earlier discussions and statements from State legislators and the Governor propose exempting the project from the CEQA process. The City supports the CEQA process. We believe in the value of the CEQA process, and urge that the CEQA process be applied consistently. 

Another consideration is the lack of equal representation of cities in the Memorandum of Understanding. For instance, the City of San Francisco is overly represented (the Joint Powers Board, San Francisco County Transportation Authority, the City and County of San Francisco, and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority), in the MOU, as is the City of San Jose (City of San Jose, VTA, and Joint Powers Board), but the Peninsula Corridor Cities are not represented at all although the impacts are proportionately more intense throughout San Mateo County. 

We would like to support the Early Investment Strategy, but we need clarity on final outcomes for the early investment projects The City will continue to participate in the Early Investment Project review process as well as Caltrain Electrification EIR process to review impacts and proposed mitigation measures within Menlo Park.


Kirsten Keith Mayor on behalf of the entire City of Menlo Park City Council

cc: Jose Cisneros 
Malia Cohen 
Tom Nolan 
Jerry Deal 
Arthur Lloyd 
Ash Kalra 
Liz Kniss 
Ken Yeager (Vice Chair) 
Mike Scanlon, Caltrain Executive Director 
Marian Lee, Director of Caltrain Modernization Program 

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