The City Council deadlocked 3-3 on whether to ask the California High Speed Rail Authority to study the possibility of a downtown station stop for the 125 mile per hour trains. Council member John Inks abstained without explanation, irritating at least one fellow member.
The next day — after council member Tom Means accused Inks of effectively killing the idea — Inks attempted to explain.
"It was not to kill it off — it was to say I don't have an informed opinion on it," Inks said.
Without the necessary four votes, the council could not ask the Rail Authority to do an environmental impact report, which would have provided detailed information. An EIR is legally required before any plan can be adopted.
Unless the council revisits the issue, the idea of putting a high speed rail stop downtown is over. Although Inks agreed that residents should discuss high speed rail issues as the city goes through its General Plan update, he didn't think his abstention killed the idea of a downtown stop.
"I don't consider a straw vote, on an informal motion, as having a lasting policy effect," he said."
Currently a stop is in the works for Palo Alto. But Dominic Spaethling, regional manager for the Rail Authority, said if the Palo Alto City Council sent a letter opposing a stop there, the Rail Authority would drop its plan for Palo Alto and look instead to Mountain View or Redwood City.
"I've had more Mountain View residents say 'We want a stop here' than any other city I've been to," Spaethling said.
The council voted to send comments to the Rail Authority that outlined various alternatives for running it through the city, including the possibility of using portions of Central Expressway in order to get the train through the city's downtown area, which is already crowded with Caltrain and light rail tracks.
"Unless it's in the comments, we won't study" a Mountain View stop, Spaethling said.
Council members Tom Means, Mike Kasperzak and Margaret Abe-Koga supported further study of the idea, saying the location is a good one because of existing bus and light rail connections.
"To me it makes a lot of sense," Abe-Koga said.
Means said the stop could create major business development opportunities for Mountain View. Later in the evening, the city's economic development director presented a plan to help fill the city's $6 million deficit by attracting biotechnology companies and clothing and hardware stores, among other plans.
However, council members Jac Siegel, Ronit Bryant and Laura Macias seemed to have made up their minds against the stop.
"I don't think we have enough area for a high speed rail stop" downtown, Macias said, adding that "I don't think we're going to win a knock-down-drag-out fight with Palo Alto for a stop."
After the meeting, Spaethling said a stop doesn't require lots of space, but parking might be an issue. A two-story parking garage is already planned for Mountain View's downtown train station, though Valley Transportation Authority officials put those plans on hold until high speed rail plans are finalized.
A Caltrain spokesperson said Palo Alto's train station was the second most used in terms of ridership behind San Francisco, with Mountain View very close behind.
"According to our February 2008 Annual Ridership Count for Caltrain, Mountain View is our third busiest station," wrote spokesperson Tasha Bartholomew. "It has an average weekday ridership of 3,137 people." San Francisco has 8,306 weekday riders on average, Palo Alto 3,672.
Grade-separated crossings for Castro Street and Rengstorff Avenue were the focus of the council's concerns Tuesday. Unlike other cities, there are no known homes along the tracks in Mountain View that face eminent domain in order to make way for four tracks down the corridor.
At Castro Street, the council favors digging a large trench under Castro Street so the trains can flash through at speeds of 125 miles per hour. Other alternatives to be studied include closing off Castro Street altogether or running Castro Street under the tracks, which would have huge impacts on half of the historic 100 block of Castro Street. Tunneling the train underground is considered prohibitively expensive, and was not favored by any council members.
The possibility of raising the train on a berm or stilts seemed to be a real possibility for some members. But many invoked the image of a "great wall" dividing the city if not done correctly.
Few residents spoke. Julie Lovins expressed interest in using Central Expressway for the downtown portions, which could mean running the tracks down the expressway median, staff said.
Council member Bryant feared the favored plan to depress Rengstorff halfway along Rengstorff Park to get it under grade level tracks would "ruin the neighborhood." But Mike Fuller of the Public Works Department said the Permanente Creek rail crossing was too close to the intersection for the tracks to run under Rengstorff.
Inks may not be able to participate in future decisions about high speed rail, as his Showers Drive home is near the railroad tracks and may pose a conflict of interest. The city attorney is expected to make a call on the matter.
Solar power station?
In a study session, the City Council discussed a state bill that encourages the city to build a million-watt "renewable energy facility" — possibly a solar farm on a Shoreline Amphitheater parking lot.
The council decided to have staff further study the cost benefits of the idea, which has not been attempted yet by any California city. According to the bill, AB2466, a solar farm or wind turbine power plant could offset energy use at city buildings and be paid for in part with state and federal loans.
The Public Works Department said the panels would require three acres of land. Two possible sites included the meadow along Highway 85 at El Camino Real, but the council favored using the city's parking lot at the Shoreline Amphitheatre.
Local solar expert Bruce Karney recommended that the city compare the cost to leasing the panels from a private firm. He added that one megawatt is enough energy to power 300 to 400 homes. Google's headquarters uses a 1.6 megawatt solar array that is expected to pay for itself in seven years.