By Will Oremus
Palo Alto Daily News Staff Writer
As plans for a high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco chug along, residents and officials in Palo Alto and other Peninsula cities are quickly joining forces in hopes of influencing the design.
They've been jolted to action by word that the Caltrain tracks that run through their neighborhoods may have to be elevated, expanded and flanked by 15-foot-high walls to accommodate 125-mile-per-hour trains zipping by every few minutes. Many are saying they'd rather see the tracks go underground.
In Palo Alto's Southgate neighborhood, where many homes back up to the tracks, there's talk of eminent domain and loss of property value. After an informational meeting last week drew almost 50 people, they're holding a second meeting tonight and planning a march on City Hall on March 2 to draw attention to their plight.
Meanwhile, mayors and staff from several cities have begun meeting each Friday to share notes and talk strategy. They've asked state high-speed rail officials to extend a period of public input on what should be studied in the environmental analysis, and they're working on a formal request that a tunnel be included among the alternatives. If the tracks must be elevated, they're pushing for a more attractive scheme than simply slapping concrete walls on each side.
While leaders in two cities, Menlo Park and Atherton, have formally opposed the project and joined a lawsuit against it, others are actually enthusiastic about
the rail line. What they have in common, said Palo Alto City Council Member Yoriko Kishimoto, is a desire not to be left out of the planning process.
"We want a place at the table in negotiating with the high-speed rail authority," Kishimoto said. "It doesn't make sense to have all of our dozens of cities negotiating separately."
Similarly, the Southgate residents are split on the merits of high-speed rail but seemingly united in their concern over its impact on their neighborhood.
Gil Woolley, whose Mariposa Avenue home is among those that abuts the tracks, said he believes California needs the rail line. He said he understood when he moved there that the tracks might not always stay at ground level.
Still, he said, "I think it's going to be ugly. It's going to really affect the value of the houses along here."
Cecilia Lancaster, who lives several doors down, said she helped organize the march now because it was starting to feel like residents' voices might be drowned out as the project gained momentum. She said she's less worried about losing her home to eminent domain than watching its value evaporate because of the train tracks towering over it. Like many neighbors, she's now pushing for the trains to run underground.
That could be far more costly than elevated tracks, and state officials have indicated cities that want a tunnel may have to pay the difference themselves. Lancaster said she understands that, but feels the cities need to at least look into the possibility.
The residents will meet tonight at 7 at the Palo Alto Unified School District offices, 25 Churchill Ave., Palo Alto. The march is scheduled for 6 p.m. on March 2 at Lytton Plaza, to precede a Palo Alto City Council meeting on the high-speed rail plans.
The California High Speed Rail Authority is also sponsoring a meeting at 7 p.m on Feb. 26 at Mitchell Park Community Center, 3800 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.