A new analysis by the California High-Speed Rail Authority calling for a four-track rail system between the Bay Area and Central Valley has set off a fresh wave of criticism from Palo Alto and surrounding cities, with many calling the latest document a betrayal of the authority's earlier promises.
The authority last month released a revised Environmental Impact Report describing its vision for the Bay Area-to-Central Valley portion of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line. For many, the most surprising aspect of the sweepingly broad document is its description of the line as a four-track system on the Caltrain corridor -- a controversial design that would require a lane reduction over a significant stretch of Alma Street in Palo Alto.
Palo Alto officials and Peninsula legislators had lobbied the rail authority to consider a "blended" system under which Caltrain and high-speed rail would share two tracks on the Peninsula. A reference to this blended approach, which was spearheaded by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, was included in the rail authority's 2011 business plan, much to the delight of the legislators and many of their constituents.
But the revised program EIR (which is broader than the segment-specific project EIR) appears to adhere to the original, highly controversial vision -- a four-track system through the Pacheco Pass. Its plan, the document states, "anticipates the local Caltrain and freight trains travel predominantly on the outside two tracks and the high-speed trains and express Caltrain to travel predominantly on the two inside tracks."
"However, depending on additional operational study related to integration of the HST with existing passenger and freight services, any of these train services could potentially run on the tracks placed on the outer portion of the newly expanded right-of-way," the revised EIR states. "This would result in trains, including freight, running closer to existing homes, schools, and other noise-sensitive land uses."
The new document also includes a list of potential road closures on the Peninsula that could be expected because of the rail system. These include one lane of Central Expressway between San Antonio Road and Rengstorff Avenue in Mountain View. In Palo Alto, it includes a lane of Alma Street between Homer Avenue and Embarcadero Road and two lanes of Alma between Embarcadero and California Avenue. A lane of Alma in Menlo Park, between Oak Grove Avenue and Ravenswood Avenue, could also be removed.
"This reduction in lanes may result in circulation, access, or parking impacts," the revised EIR states. "Some of these impacts could include complete closure of streets with circulation diverted to surrounding roadways; conversion of two-way streets to one-way streets; increasing congestion and reduced levels of service as discussed below; changes to adjacent on-street bicycle facilities; limitations or elimination of access to some parcels; requirements for new frontage roads or new access routes; and reduction in on-street parking which could have secondary impacts related to land use viability. In some locations, there could be land-use implications (acquisitions) resulting from mitigation for circulation and parking impacts."
The Peninsula Cities Consortium, which includes Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame, Belmont and Burbank, discussed the document and expressed concern about the new revisions and the dissonance between the revised EIR and the rail authority's prior promises to consider a blended two-track system, said Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt, who chairs the consortium.
On Thursday, Feb. 9, the Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee came out swinging against the document, which Burt said abandons the blended approach. Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie called the authority's new position "duplicitous at best."
"We're back where we were a year ago on this and we thought this thing was dead," Burt said.
Mountain View Mayor Mike Kasperzakalso supports the "blended" two-track concept, and said it was "pointless" to continue to pursue four tracks and "create even more animosity in the community." But he was hesitant to criticize the Authority over the EIR.
"I think the EIR is studying the worst possible scenario," Kasperzak said. "That doesn't preclude them from moving forward with the blended system the community has been talking about. I actually don't think it is fair to jump all over to the High Speed Rail Authority and say they've broke their promise."
The city's concerns about the new document has prompted the rail committee to request an extension of the comment period and an "indefinite delay" in approval of the new document.
"As you know, recirculation is required by court order to address the impacts of potentially moving freight tracks closer to adjacent land uses along the San Francisco Peninsula and to address impacts of reduced access to surface streets from potential land closure along the San Francisco Peninsula," the letter from Klein to the rail authority states. "Yet, for our Transportation Division to effectively and fully respond to this recirculated document, all supporting data for the Authority's assertions must be provided to understand how the conclusions were reached."
"Until these documents are provided there should be no expectation that the City of Palo Alto can fully and accurately comment on this document," Klein's letter states.
The rail committee also on Thursday endorsed proposed legislation, Senate Bill 985, which would bar further expenditure of bond proceeds for high-speed rail.
Revisions to the EIR were prompted by a lawsuit filed by Palo Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park and a coalition of nonprofit groups. The suit challenged the rail authority's choice of the Pacheco Pass over the Altamont Pass as the preferred route for the rail line's Peninsula segment. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled in November that the authority must revise the EIR and include, among other things, a more adequate description of traffic impacts along the Caltrain corridor.
The rail authority's strategy to mitigate these impacts, according to the revised EIR, include "improvements to accommodate the diverted traffic, roadway realignments to replace any loss of capacity" and creation of "one-way streets to maintain access." Even so, the document states that the traffic impacts of the project would be "significant but unavoidable."
The Palo Alto-based rail watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design also panned the new document. The group, which has been one of the earliest and most vehement critics of the rail authority's ridership and revenue projections, pointed to a discrepancy between the authority's recent business plan and the design described in the new document.
"They are yelling from the rooftops that they've changed their ways, but when the legal documents quietly come out, it is clear that they are doing exactly what they want to do: a four-track system up the Peninsula and the Pacheco Pass," CARRD said in a statement.