26 February 2009

The Palo Alto Awakening

UPDATE: Maybe they don't like attention or public scrutiny; Palo Altans Concerned About HSR have now gone members-only.

Before Proposition 1A was passed last November, the Palo Alto city council strongly supported the project, passing a unanimous resolution in favor of HSR at their October 6th meeting. That was before the impacts became generally known to residents, and especially to abutters from Southgate, one of the neighborhoods most likely to be impacted (see Focus on: Palo Alto).

Residents of Palo Alto are becoming increasingly concerned about the impacts of HSR on their community. They have started a new mailing list, Palo Altans Concerned About HSR, where there is lively discussion about organizing the local opposition. The discourse is civilized and intelligent, in contrast to certain corners of the blogosphere and Palo Alto's Town Square forums.

One participant expresses the key to effective opposition:
It is SO IMPORTANT that we stick to unembellished facts. If you’re not certain about an aspect of the HSR project, either phrase it as a potential possibility or don’t mention it at all. We lose credibility if we’re accused of being alarmists, spreading false information or acting out of NIMBYism. Try to avoid any topic that leads in that direction. Remember, our own actions and reactions are potentially newsworthy. Let’s not make the news for displaying any of the above behaviors.
Opponents are trying to get their views aired by the local press, radio and TV; for this purpose, they are planning a march through downtown to City Hall prior to the next council meeting on Monday, March 2nd, when Palo Alto's comments on the scoping of the HSR EIR/EIS will be discussed. (See agenda and especially the city manager's full report with draft scoping comments.) Some Palo Alto residents are characterizing this issue as "the most critical moment and the most critical issue in a generation".

Meanwhile, the CHSRA hosted another community meeting in Palo Alto tonight (Thursday, February 26th), another in a long list of community meetings taking place up and down the peninsula. It is sure to be discussed by the Palo Altans Concerned About HSR.

Stay tuned.


  1. I think that if Palo Alto residents who genuinely want HSR to integrate well with their community - who support HSR but also want to make sure it's not just dropped in their laps without their involvement - want to get anything productive out of this, they need to stand up to people like Martin Engel who are taking advantage of Palo Alto residents in order to pursue his long-held and self-centered dream of killing high speed rail.

    I know that politics in any city tend to be self-contained and self-reinforcing. But Palo Alto residents need to understand that their room to maneuver here is very limited. If they decide to come out for cutting HSR off at San Jose, or want to somehow join the suit against the CHSRA, then they are going to wander into a blind alley.

    Because President Obama has gone all in for high speed rail, there will be hardly any support among Californians or Americans for any NIMBY position from Palo Alto. All that would do is raise everyone's ire and ensure that Palo Alto will get no state or federal assistance to help integrate HSR into their community.

    It's a shame that local media are already feeding the trolls and sensationalizing routine engineering and planning questions. Claims that HSR will cause adverse effects to Palo Alto are overblown, and serve to reinforce extremists like Martin Engel who have always wanted to kill this project.

    Palo Alto has long played a leading role in sustainable transportation policies. It would be especially tragic for them to ally with defenders of sprawl and fossil fuel burning to kill the keystone project in California's effort to reduce our reliance on carbon emissions for travel.

    Here's hoping that cooler heads prevail. It's up to Palo Alto - do they want to work constructively to ensure HSR is a success for Palo Alto and California, or do they want to make themselves irrelevant and ensure they get nothing from state and federal governments by following Martin Engel off a cliff?

  2. @ Clem -

    A 3D visualization of several options would help calm tempers in the mid-peninsula. Hopefully CHSRA still has enough money in the kitty to pay its animation studio for that work. Crucially, it should quantify noise and vibration as well as visual impacts. Expensive? Yes, but not nearly as much as years of litigation based on "trust us" vs. fearmongering.

    I suspect that most of the shrill rhetoric is coming from those homeowners whose property would become the target of eminent domain takings in the event of an above-ground solution.

    Perhaps it would be useful to zero in on the relatively few locations in the peninsula where the ROW is currently less than 100 feet wide. How much width is really needed for four tracks in alignment sections with a 125mph speed classification?

    Note: before HS1 was completed, Eurostar trains had to slow down to 100mph on the UK side. The legacy tracks through Kent are straight but spaced so close together that passing trains were separated by as little as 12 inches. The bow waves of trains passing each other at relative speeds in excess of 200mph could reportedly have blown out windows in the passenger cars.

    Is this relevant to the peninsula in a FSSF configuration of the four tracks? If 8' sound walls were installed at the edge of the ROW, how much distance would there need to be between them and trains passing at 125mph?

  3. 3D renderings are very easy to botch. There is one here that makes things look considerably worse than is reasonable-- on purpose! Notice the clever removal of vegetation and landscaping. Similarly, the CHSRA regional EIR/EIS has a rendering of a grade separation in Burlingame which probably looks a lot better than is reasonable. So, 3D visualization is very hard to do fairly-- somebody will always complain. Getting the scale right really requires 3D modeling instead of 2D photoshopping. That's not easy and not cheap (whether in units of money or time)

    I think that the best way to get a feel for what the grade seps would really look like is to visit where they already exist. There are plenty of places in Redwood City, San Carlos and Belmont that provide real life examples, with real bridges, real concrete, real dimensions, real landscaping, etc.

    Such grade separations are not beautiful, but they're very functional. The status quo in Palo Alto (trains barreling through a grade crossing at 80 mph, belching clouds of diesel, with horn blaring, while traffic and pedestrian/bike/child flows are interrupted) is neither safe, convenient, nor functional. That status quo is what opponents are inexplicably clinging to.

  4. Rafael: the track spacing was the least of the problems on the lines in Kent. First of all, there was the fact that they use 750VDC third rail electrification, and that is only designed to work up to 100 mph. But that itself isn't such a huge limitation for the Eurostar, since it can only use a quarter of its full power on the third rail, and even so it draws over 4500 amps. The rail lines it used are also quite busy, and it would be difficult mixing very fast Eurostars with slower commuter trains.

    By the way, if anyone is looking for photos of HSR trains running through congested urban areas, look for old Eurostar photos. I think if you look hard enough, you might even find some photos of Eurostars on third rail lines running through grade crossings.

  5. Lies like that picture are just what these people are pushing..I hope at the hearing CAHSR shows what there up to.

  6. March 2 Palo Alto City Council Meeting.

    Some of the demonstrators kids chanting "High speed rail, underground, we don't want to hear a sound".

    A group of people met at Litton Plaza for a pep talk and carried signs down University and across to City Hall. A mild mob to stir up some emotions. They quieted down when it took about 3 hours for the meeting to get around to the public comments. There were a few outbursts by some of the more impatient.

    After the council business was discussed and the agenda reordered to move the HSR discussion up, the council had a series of comments and questions for both Mr. Diridon and the CPA staff.

    Ron Diridon and the CHSRA engineer both spoke. Mr. Diridon clearly explained that there have been many meetings (more than 100) all over the state where the plan was presented and the public invited to comment. A clear message to all the newcomers that there has been and will be opportunity to comment. That all written comments will be included in the scope report and will be considered. That all reasonable options will be considered including above, at, and below grade. That the program EIR was certified and the route has been chosen and the project EIR is underway.

    Even though the council complimented the city staff on their report, it became clear that even after the recent increase in public awareness, the council is still in the process of discovering basic facts which have been public record for some time. The council was surprised to finally have it sink in that the Altamont option is off the table. I have not seen the city staff report, but it is apparent the the council has more to learn about the technical and financial aspects of HSR. The council do not understand the opportunity before them. The city staff are late and lacking in briefing the council. They do not understand that 101 and 280 alignments are non-starters.

    Sigh, they are so far behind, it is kind of sad.

    Mr. Diridon pointed out that Visalia has been attending all of the CHSRA meetings and would love to have a station. The clear implication being, where has Palo Alto been all this time. Palo Alto just woke up and discovered that the big bad HSR is coming to town. This has been in process for going on a decade.

    Some council members attempted to engage Mr. Diridon in commenting on whether a coalition of peninsula cities would be treated differently by the CHSRA. Again Mr. Diridon patiently explains. Again they rephrase the question. To his credit, Mr. Diridon patiently and almost bluntly explains that all comments will be considered equally. If the council feels that something important is being left out, then they should monitor and maintain their input. In a pointed jab Mr. Diridon implied that the council is free to join a coalition of peninsula cities if they want to give up their decision to the coalition rather than retain their own authority.

    They are all mixed up. They are discovering that the CHSRA board which is appointed, and the Caltrain JP which Mr. Diridon pointed out include appointed and elected officials are negotiating a multi-billion dollar operation as per their charter without including local politicians. One council member commented it felt like they were peddling a bike to catch up with the Authority which was speeding away. So the state of California should halt because some council members are incompetent?!

    37 people commented the expected misinformed and exaggerated claims of blight, division and damages. Only one or two were supportive. The majority of comments calling for making the tracks below grade with no understanding of the cost. Mr. Diridon listened quietly and politely and I presume knowing that when the cost comparison is done, no one will want to foot the bill for below grade. But in words, Mr. Diridon confirmed in a comment after the meeting that below grade will also be considered.

    I told him that not everyone there was against the HSR and thanked him for his work in support of transportation.

    Almost 1:00 AM. I will think of more later. There was a lot of discussion, most of it frustrating.

  7. @ James - Thanks for your recap of last night's meeting.

    Palo Alto is mad - our city dropped the ball. That was the point of the march - contrary to what the papers are describing - we want the City to represent us and they have been asleep. The march was to raise awareness about what is going on and to make people aware of the mistakes made by the City Council. You can bet that at election time, this will be a huge deal locally.

    Diridon pointed out that this process has been going on since 1996 - but it seems the Pacheco pass was only decided on officially in July 08 - so to represent that we had 12 years notice on this issue is really misleading.

    It is in the CHSRA interest to hold these info sessions - but not really to publicize them much (since that invites more comments that they HAVE to consider by law). I know it has been in the papers and I'm sure they have done all the legally required modes of advertising, etc. - but we have to admit that in this day and age - it is difficult for such info to rise above the fray.

    I realize that this is not CHSRA's fault or problem - but as a citizen, it is important to note that this problem is what causes the feeling of mistrust. More people knew that the Obama's are getting a puppy than the fact that a HSR was coming through our city!

    I believe the cities that were impacted by the Pacheco Pass decision should have informed their residents that they needed to pay attention to this issue. I heard more about the bond for my local library than the impact HSR could have on the peninsula. Again- not CHSRA's problem - but a good reason for Palo Altan's to be really mad AT THEIR LOCAL GOVT.

    Nonetheless, Palo Alto needs to figure out where it stands and what it will do moving forward. I agree there is misinformation -but that is to be expected when people are just figuring out what is going on. As people get more info, I hope they can figure out how to make the best out of the plans.

    What James didn't mention is that everyone who commented last night agreed that they are for trains and HSR - they just feel like this is being shoved down their throats. The calls for "do it right" and a tunnel seem to have been missed - but if you take the time to notice - the message was NOT generally "no HSR". Contrary to what you think - they are not HSR Deniers

    If you really want this to work - and I do too, then stop calling everyone who question's what you are doing a NIMBY.

    This is a democratic process - you should welcome and foster debate. It is the best way to get a result that will get buy in from the communities. You have the opportunity to build something fabulous - but if you dismiss people who are legitimately asking questions (perhaps tardily - but valid) - then listen to them.

    You are all very knowledgeable on this issue - and I'm sure it is hard for you to understand how uninformed everyone else is about this - but if you truly care - then help the uninformed by reaching out with your message - not shutting them out with insults.

    No one said "Not In My Back Yard" - they said "Under Please".

  8. @James, thanks for the recap.

    @PA_Marcher, thanks for your comment. You've described exactly my intent for this blog, which is to give people factual information about HSR on the peninsula. I agree that such information is indeed sorely missing, partly because it's not provided, and partly because people don't look hard enough. I'll keep trying to bridge that gap.

  9. It should be noted that Rod Diridon and CHSRA were intentionally non-specific and ambiguous about project design before the tight Prop. 1A vote. Everything was at the "program" level. This was evident during Diridon's talk before the Menlo Park City Council last September. He basically talked about systems in other countries. CHSRA's promised Business Plan (updated from 2000) wasn't released until a few days AFTER the election. He claimed this was due to the state budget crisis, yet CHSRA had already spent some $60 million just on studies. Diridon and CHSRA sowed their own seeds of distrust.

    In the annals of transportation history, has any other living figure aggressively sought billion-dollar enhancements to a station/terminal named after themselves??? Even kings and dictators are more subtle in their vanity.

  10. @ Clem

    Thanks for your blog and your comment. I hope that you are able to bridge the gap successfully.

    As you've probably figured out - I'm new to this topic - but I was wondering what your thoughts are on the fact that the CHSRA has the final word on all decisions that are made? In a democratic society, there is usually a system of checks and balances. I'm surprised there isn't some sort of peer review or a vote from other agencies (maybe FRA?!) to be sure we are really making the right decisions - or that the processes used are correct, etc.

    The most frustrating thing for residents at the meeting was how Diridon pointed out to the citizens and the City that basically, each voice in the process counts equally. Here, Palo Alto is looking to invest money in engineering studies and traffic studies, etc. - when at the end of the day, they can only make a suggestion and hope that their suggestions are heard.

    Diridon also pointed out that he has been through 9 projects of this nature - so this guy obviously knows the system - but what about oversight? Outside of lawsuits - isn't there a better way?

    Forgive me if I'm missing something that is obvious to you guys who follow this - but can you shed some light on this?

    The Council asked how we can be sure our suggestions are considered. Diridon answered that by law, they must consider them all - but you should hold on to a copy of your comments for your own record. When asked what happens if something "slipped through the cracks" and wasn't analyzed - what recourse, if any, might someone have? He seemed to indicate that legal procedures were the only way to add anything they might leave out when they synthesize their comments for redundancies and eliminate unfeasible ideas.

    This system doesn't seem to foster trust. Also, the unfortunate title of "Authority" is something that helps people feel better...

    any thoughts?

  11. @PA_Marcher

    I'm sorry it took me so long to respond. I definitely share your concern about the CHSRA's power structure, and I must say I don't fully understand it. I'm much more comfortable with the technical nuts & bolts of HSR than I am with the politics, money and power.

    My thoughts are summed up in a quickie stakeholder analysis I did a while back.

    The best thing that citizens like you and me can do is try to channel this Cannonball Express of politics & power towards an end result that our children can be proud of, by protesting loudly when they head down the wrong track. I don't know if it can be done, but my theory is that it's certainly worth a try?

    Sorry I can't give more specific answers.