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Calif. high speed rail skeptics win time extension

(The following article by Will Oremus was posted on the Palo Alto Daily News website on February 18.)

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Responding to a growing chorus of calls for more public input, California high-speed rail officials on Tuesday agreed to extend by a month the environmental planning process for the San Jose-to-San Francisco portion of the line. Residents and officials worried about the 125-mile-per-hour trains' impact on Peninsula neighborhoods will now have until April 6 to lodge their comments, concerns and suggestions as to what the environmental analysis should take into account.

The move came on a day when more than 100 Palo Alto residents packed a school board conference room for a question-and-answer session about the project. Dozens signed a petition stating they were "unequivocally opposed to elevation of the tracks in residential neighborhoods" and calling for a popular vote to ratify the California High Speed Rail Authority's plans for the Caltrain corridor. A few called for Palo Alto to join neighboring cities Menlo Park and Atherton in a lawsuit challenging the authority's decision to run the tracks up the Peninsula rather than through the East Bay.

Though Peninsula voters generally favored the $40 billion Los Angeles-to-San Francisco project in a November bond measure, anxiety is growing among those close to the Caltrain tracks, fueled by rumors of eminent domain takings and 40-foot-high electrical lines. Some are pushing for the rail authority to put the tracks underground, others for the line to stop in San Jose, forcing passengers to transfer to Caltrain to reach San Francisco.

The authority, meanwhile, is trying to reassure residents that it will listen to them before making any final decisions. Dan Leavitt, deputy director of the California High Speed Rail Authority, said the current comment period is only the first of several on the path to eventual approval of the environmental documents. He said the authority will use the extension to sponsor additional information meetings in several cities.

"The Peninsula has always been pretty supportive of this notion" of high-speed rail, Leavitt said. "The key is they want to make sure it's done in a way that benefits their communities, and we believe it will."

The extension came in response to a formal request from Palo Alto Mayor Peter Drekmeier. He was echoing calls for more time from Council Member Yoriko Kishimoto and officials in other cities.

Kishimoto said she was pleased with the authority's decision. "I think it shows they're being responsive to public concerns. It will definitely help us with putting together a more comprehensive response" to the authority's request for input on the scope of the upcoming environmental study. "Staff is going to be scrambling to put together a fairly detailed technical response, involving everything from public works to utilities. I'm sure all the cities face that same challenge."

In fact, Atherton this week is submitting a 28-page letter detailing its concerns, including a request to send the tracks through an underground tunnel rather than lifting them above residential cross streets. High-speed rail has been the subject of contentious meetings there and in Menlo Park since early last year, a time when it hardly registered on the radar of officials and residents in Palo Alto.

In many other cities, there is still no controversy. A presentation by high-speed rail officials at a Burlingame City Council meeting Tuesday drew little comment from either residents or council members.

Palo Alto, along with Redwood City, faces an additional question beyond how to integrate high-speed trains with the residential neighborhoods: whether to compete for one of two potential Peninsula stops on the line. Millbrae, with its proximity to San Francisco International Airport, is a shoo-in for the other stop.

Some at Tuesday's meeting expressed reservations at the prospect of a major station in Palo Alto, which could require an 800-car parking garage and serve as a focal point for high-density development. Sara Armstrong, a resident of the Charleston Meadows neighborhood, worried a Palo Alto station could endanger El Palo Alto, the historic redwood tree that gave the city its name.

Leavitt said that while it's good for residents to help shape the design of the line, they shouldn't forget that it presents benefits as well as challenges. It will reduce air pollution and traffic, make the Caltrain line more safe by eliminating crossings, and be quieter than Caltrain's diesel-powered trains. "I think that's why, if you look at the vote on high-speed rail, the Peninsula was one of the most positive in the state," he said.

The next high-speed rail meeting in Palo Alto will be on Feb. 26 at Mitchell Park Community Center, 3800 Middlefield Road.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

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