High speed rail officials vowed Saturday to collaborate with Peninsula residents on the design of the controversial rail line, which has galvanized pockets of opposition in Palo Alto and surrounding communities.
Officials from the California High Speed Rail Authority shared information and solicited input from elected officials and concerned residents at an all-day "teach-in" in Palo Alto, organized by the Peninsula Cities Consortium.
More than 250 people showed up at the Cubberley Community Center for an event that was part information session, part pep rally and part group therapy. The 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. schedule stretched to 4:30 p.m.
The consortium consists of elected officials from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Belmont and Burlingame. Members have long complained that state official have been too hasty in their decision-making process and too dismissive of local concerns about 125-miles-per-hour trains zipping through their communities in addition to existing Catrain commuter and Union Pacific freight traffic. Some estimates show one train or another passing through just minutes apart.
The Saturday event took place just days after the rail authority pledged to apply the "context sensitive solutions" (CSS) method to the high-speed rail segment between San Francisco and San Jose. The method, which the state already uses for major highway projects, includes an aggressive outreach process and consultation with stakeholders along the corridor.
Many residents and elected officials interpreted the rail authority's commitment to CSS, as well as its participation in Saturday's event, as hopeful signs that the Peninsula's sometimes strident call for more collaboration is finally getting through.
Robert Doty, director of the Peninsula Rail Program, a partnership between Caltrain and the rail authority, encouraged the public to remain involved in the project but cautioned the audience not to have unrealistic expectations. He warned that a project such as high-speed rail could easily die of lack of funding if people demand more than can be realistically achieved.
"Let's dream, but let's be realistic about the dream," Doty said.
Dominic Spaethling, the rail authority's regional manager in charge of the Peninsula segment, said the agency has yet to determine how to bring the CSS process to each of the cities along the Peninsula.
"One size does not fit all," Spaethling said. "We'll have to sit down and discuss what the high-speed-rail authority's needs are and what the community's needs are."
Like other rail-centered meetings, Saturday's teach-in featured many more questions than answers. Rail-authority officials said they had not yet determined whether the trains would run on elevated tracks, through a deep underground tunnel or through a different alignment altogether. Residents worried about having their properties seized through eminent domain also came away with little new information about the right-of-way requirements of the proposed line.
Spaethling said the rail authority has scheduled a series of workshops focused on the alignment of the Peninsula segment. The first workshop is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 30, in the Caltrain headquarters in San Carlos.
Several panelists Saturday said they were skeptical about the proposed line and criticized the way the rail authority has been handling the $40 billion-plus project thus far.
Gary Patton, special counsel for the Planning and Conservation League, said government projects only work when the public gets involved.
Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation, warned that the high-speed rail project could end up being a "scam," that the rail authority's business plan is inadequate and that the project's costs could easily spiral out of control.
The project's primary initial source of funding is the $9.95 billion bond California voters approved in November.
"I encourage everyone to keep an eye on the project costs, to rein in the politicians and to make them redefine the project as something that can fit within the available budget," Tolmach said.
The event concluded with an exercise in which residents wrote their main concerns about the high speed rail line on colored cards, which were then taped to the walls. Participants with shared concerns congregated in clusters around the cards and discussed possible solutions, which were written down.
After mingling for about an hour, the group sat in a circle and used words such as "hopeful," "encouraged" and "gratified" to describe the exercise.
Palo Alto Council member Yoriko Kishimoto, who chairs the consortium, said participants' ideas will be posted on the consortium's Web site, www.peninsularail.com. She thanked rail authority officials for committing to a more collaborative design process and asked the participants to continue to give their input.
"We need to take advantage of the CSS process and to make sure that we do this important work upfront to define our vision for the Peninsula," Kishimoto said.