The City Council showed renewed interest in high speed rail Tuesday, voting 5-2 in favor of studying a station in downtown Mountain View despite effectively killing off the idea two weeks ago.
The council voted to have the California High Speed Rail Authority consider the possibility of a Mountain View station for the trains, which will pass by most Peninsula cities at 125 miles per hour along the Caltrain corridor. Previously, Ronit Bryant had voted against the study and member John Inks had abstained. This time, only Jac Siegel and Laura Macias remained opposed.
The Rail Authority has indicated that if Palo Alto rejects preliminary plans for a Peninsula stop at University Avenue -- a distinct possibility given that council's apparent reticence -- the agency would look to Redwood City and Mountain View as alternatives.
About a dozen members of the public spoke about high speed rail in front of the council Tuesday, many of them downtown residents who warned the city might be passing up a major opportunity. As one downtown resident put it, "The council needs to take the time to make an informed decision so we don't have any regrets."
Many likened it to the early days of the Southern Pacific railroad when some cities, made the mistake of allowing the train to pass them by.
In fact, said downtown resident Bruce Karney, the train station is "the very reason downtown Mountain View is where it is," and why there is no longer any real evidence of the original center of town near El Camino Real and Highway 237.
The item found its way back on the council agenda Tuesday after the issue surprised some council members on Feb. 24. At that meeting, the Rail Authority told council members that unless a rail-stop study was specifically asked for in the city's official comments, a stop could never happen in Mountain View. At that time, the council voted 3-3 with one abstention. So Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga put it on this week's consent calendar to clarify the council's position.
Before the council officially supported the idea, several members expressed concern that an environmental study could allow the Rail Authority to build a station in Mountain View whether or not the city eventually decided against it.
City attorney Michael Martello said the concern was valid "theoretically," but transportation and policy manager Joan Jenkins said it was unlikely.
"If we say, 'Never mind, we don't want a station,' they [the Rail Authority will take that every seriously," Jenkins said.
Council member Siegel expressed concern that a high speed rail station would irreversibly change the character of the city's much-loved downtown and lead to high density development. Macias added that there wasn't enough room for a station in downtown Mountain View, and that Palo Alto already has a $200 million station plan in the works. She also said the whole purpose of a high speed train is to offer an alternative to gas-guzzling airline flights.
Member Tom Means said Mountain View is "strategically" a better location than Palo Alto because the downtown station has light rail, major bus lines and freeways nearby.
And there were visions of new city development. Karney, also the city's former Environmental Sustainability Task Force chair, envisioned a light rail extension to Google's headquarters and a new impetus for the hotel and convention center the city has been attempting to build for years.
Council member Bryant said she wrestled with the issue before changing her position in favor of the study. She is concerned about the impacts high speed rail would have on the downtown even without a station -- and was worried that the city would not have enough pull with Caltrain and the Rail Authority to ensure that the station and the city's needed grade separations -- at Rengstorff Avenue and Castro Street -- will be designed appropriately.
"Those concerns would be hugely increased with the option of a station included," she said, adding that there is "almost no information out there about what a station requires."
For others, the decision was much easier.
"We owe it to future generations to at least study the concept," said council member Mike Kasperzak.