With friends like the cities of Palo Alto, Redwood City, and San Mateo, who needs enemies? Certainly not the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
When Proposition 1A, the $9.95 billion bond measure to fund planning for California's proposed high-speed rail system, passed with 52% of statewide votes in 2008, voters in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties approved at rates over 60%. Since then, however, cities along the Peninsula have been some of the most vocal critics of the plan—with some going so far as to sue the authority in order to force the project to scale down. Opposition on the Peninsula could prevent high-speed rail from completing its final northern leg from San Jose to San Francisco. Cities there are currently promoting a hybrid alternative to build on current Caltrain service.
"The communities along the Peninsula were resoundingly in support of Prop. 1A," said Seamus Murphy, government affairs manager at Caltrain, the commuter rail line that serves the Peninsula. "But I don't think anyone was predicting at the time how the design and engineering, and environmental review process would unfold on the Peninsula."
Many in the region are now less excited about the prospect of having high-speed rail stations in cities such as Palo Alto than they they are concerned that trains traveling through their communities at 200 mph dozens of times per day could irreparably undermine their quality of life—regardless of opportunities for transit-oriented development.
"We don't want some huge wall to come through our city, which is a pedestrian and bike community," said Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel. "It's got a very down-home, small-city feel. We don't want to lose that with some enormous thing."
The authority's initial business plan, published in 2008, projected that eight trains would run per hour in both directions at peak times of time, for a total of 71 trains each way per day for 100 million annual passengers. Those numbers have been subject to criticism and are being revised downward, by as much as 50%, by the authority.
Whereas urban freeways were often notoriously planned to cut through low-income areas, the high-speed rail route between San Jose and the system's northern terminus at San Francisco's Transbay Terminal, would pass nearby, and even through, some of the wealthiest communities in the nation. While many of these communities embrace environmentally friendly principles like transit-oriented development and mass transit, many have realized in the past three years that threading a major infrastructure project through the corridor poses no small impacts.
"You have tension between folks who are seeing the physical introduction of a new transportation system versus the ones who plan on using it or that have business interests that see the benefits of connecting different parts of the state," said Gregg Albright, executive program director at CHSRA and a former high-ranking Caltrans official.
While state and federal officials have been contemplating what the $40 billion system would do for the state, Peninsula cities have been concerned about minute, but important, local impacts such as grade crossings. The overall project has been subject to a statewide programmatic EIR/EIS, while seven segments have their own project-level environmental reports; the 50 miles from San Jose to San Francisco is one of those seven segments.
"Those cities have downtowns right next to the track and have multiple grade crossings and the rights of way aren't particularly wide," said Andy Chow, president of the Bay Rail Alliance. "There's fear among the communities that if high-speed rail comes through, adding two more tracks and grade separations are not something that they would want."
The City of Burlingame, for instance, would have seven crossings if the line remains at grade.
"The gates would be down almost all the time," said Nagel, who wants the line to run in a trench below grade.
A series of lawsuits has been moderately successful in challenging CHSRA's environmental reviews and ridership projections. A coalition of Peninsula cities and environmental groups filed the lawsuits when initial plans called for the authority to build a total of four tracks along the right of way of Caltrain commuter rail. Two groups, the Peninsula Cities Consortium and the San Mateo County Rail Corridor Partnership, have been voicing Peninsula cities' concerns about high-speed rail.
That right of way currently has only two tracks, and the other two tracks would require either the construction of aerial structures or significant takings of property to widen the right of way. Neither option has pleased cities along the corridor.
Nagel said that CHSRA lost credibility with an initial business plan that she described as "laughable."
The cities have generally accused CHSRA of being insensitive to local concerns and even of wildly inflating their traffic projections. The latest proposal – a so-called "blended solution" – that has been championed by a trio of Peninsula legislators relies on more modest traffic projections that could be accommodated by the existing two-track Caltrain right of way, plus a proposed passing spur midway up the Peninsula that would allow high-speed trains to operate efficiently among slower Caltrain traffic.
U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park) have been promoting that option, which the authority is now studying.
Next month the CHSRA will issue a new business plan that will assess the efficacy of the blended solution. The authority is also waiting from the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris to find out whether it must apply federal funds to a proposed initial segment in the Central Valley or whether those funds can be applied to the Caltrain right of way. Whatever that plan implies, officials from both the cities and the authority hope that future discussions will be more amicable than the often adversarial debates that have taken place in the past year.
"On a scale of 1 to 10 for rancor vs. peace, I'd put it at a 9 or a 10 last year," said John Grubb, chief of staff at the Bay Area Council, which has take part in the discussions between the cities and the authority. "It was a very rancorous."
Officials from Peninsula cities say that CHSRA's initial approach offers a case study in how not to plan a major infrastructure investment.
"The tenor last year was basically of two camps fighting with each other: It was either our way or your way," said Grubb. But Grubb and others said that the mood has improved dramatically, as the "blended solution" has mollified many cities. Grubb said that with the blended option, "the project has been brought literally back down to earth."
The officials from the authority admit that they did not initially pursue the most congenial approach and that the current pause in planning has allowed them to come to a new understanding of how to collaborate with local stakeholders.
"A collaboratively built transitional strategy is probably the biggest benefit that has come out of this tension," said Albright.
"The lessons that we learned and that the authority learned was that we have to have a more unique approach to this process," said Caltrain's Murphy. "We need to conduct a planning process instead of a design and engineering process and see if there was a different solution that would make sense." CHSRA is the lead agency on the project.
Many cities, such as Fresno, eagerly welcome the advent of high-speed rail and especially of the economic boost that may come from a station. The City of Palmdale is even suing the authority over the possibility that the line would not go through the city. But many Peninsula cities are not overly eager to plan their futures around the project. In fact, Peninsula cities are more enthusiastic about the old-fashioned Caltrain than they are about a futuristic bullet train.
Peninsula cities are, therefore, more inclined to support high-speed rail because of what it can do for Caltrain than for high-speed rail per se. If funding is approved, development of the high-speed rail line would entail improvements to Caltrain, including electrification of the line, which would lead to significant service and environmental benefits.
"If high-speed rail can help leverage better service on Caltrain, then that's certainly something we'd support," said Emslie.
However, if high-speed rail requires more tracks, it could actually derail some cities' existing plans for transit oriented development. CHSRA has earmarked $4.5 million for station-area planning grants of up to $200,000 each. But the prospect of those grants means little to communities that see the train as a disruption.
"The rail line goes down the heart of our city and there are many homes and businesses very close to it," said Nagel. "We approved new downtown plan, and it would be really damaging to have our development stymied by the equivalent of a four-lane raised freeway."
Officials in nearby Redwood City feel similarly.
"Redwood City has had a TOD plan prior to the introduction of high-speed rail, so high-speed rail is not the reason for establishing TOD in Redwood City," said Peter Vorametsanti, Acting Engineering Manager for Redwood City. He added that the city recently adopted a new downtown plan in the general plan, which is geared towards transit develop. The story is the same in Palo Alto, which, unlike Burlingame, would have high-speed rail station stop.
"We don't see high-speed rail having a lot of influence over transit oriented development," said Steve Emslie, deputy city manager in Palo Alto. "Because we have two stations now, we're gearing up and planning for TOD around our train stations."
Albright noted that if and when high-speed rail comes to cities like Palo Alto, the cities will have to rethink their notion of transit-oriented development.
"It's not a BART station. It's not light rail. It's something distinctly different," said Albright. "It's going to be higher density than what you'd see around a BART station." Indeed, most experts say that a high-speed rail station is similar to a small airport in its operations and impact.
As such, the cities are not compelled to welcome just any high-speed rail plan. But, contrary to the message sent by last year's lawsuits, they are not roused to oppose it anymore either.
"I think there's collective concern about significant visual and noise impacts," said Emslie. " I think those were pretty universal, but as we're getting down to finer grain and local impacts, it's more driven city-by-city."
"I think that what may have looked like unified opposition really wasn't," said Grubb. "A lot of city council members and mayors… still support high-speed rail. They just have one important concern. So they've banded together all their individual concerns. But I wouldn't call that a really strong coalition."
Gregg Albright, Executive Program Director, California High-Speed Rail Authority, 916.324.1541
Andy Chow, President of the Bay Rail Alliance, http://www.bayrailalliance.org/
Steve Emslie, Palo Alto Dep. City Manager, 650.329.2100
John Grubb, Chief of Saff, Bay Area Council, 415.946.8705
Terry Nagel, Mayor, City of Burlingame, 650.558.7200