Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Towns Look to Influence High-speed Rail Design

Source: by Sean Howell Almanac Staff

As the agency that oversees the high-speed rail project begins to plan how high-speed trains will pass through the Peninsula, local cities and towns are trying to figure out how best to get the agency's ear.

Seeking strength in numbers, Menlo Park and Atherton have signed an agreement to formalize an ad hoc group that has been meeting weekly to discuss issues related to the project. A majority of council members say the cities will have more sway if they work together to lobby the High-Speed Rail Authority, and that they will be better able to share resources and ideas.

Rail agency plans
The main question in the minds of local officials has been, and continues to be: In designing the rail, will officials pay attention to how it will affect local communities?

Rail officials have said repeatedly that they plan to work with local jurisdictions throughout the process, though local officials have said they're skeptical that the agency will do more than state law requires. At an April 30 meeting, a state Senate subcommittee that included Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) expressed concern over the rail agency's outreach efforts, holding off on granting the agency its next wave of funding until it showed a better program for "outreach and oversight.

"The rail agency has laid out a plan to meet quarterly between May 2009 and April 2011 with "working groups" from Peninsula counties and agencies.

Mike Garvey, a former San Carlos city manager who's heading up outreach efforts in San Mateo County for the engineering company contracted to design the rail line, said he's sympathetic to the concerns of local residents.

"The (environmental review) process is a formal, ritualized process," he said. "Some people had the impression that that specific, fixed process would be the only opportunity for comment, and it's not. This will be an ongoing, informal attempt to involve grassroots organization, and to hear from every community.

"In convincing local officials that the rail agency is serious about working with local communities, Mr. Garvey has his work cut out for him. Count Menlo Park Councilman Rich Cline among the skeptics.

"Our point is that there needs to be a dialogue. We need to work together to plan this thing successfully," Mr. Cline said. "The work group (plan) doesn't necessarily make it better, because we have to see that there's a proper input and reaction process.

"Mr. Cline characterizes the rail authority as an organization that's still oriented toward promotion of the concept of high-speed rail, rather than the logistics of how trains will pass through the state. He has joined a rising number of people calling for a restructuring of the organization.

The rail agency expects to issue a draft of its analysis of the various design possibilities in January 2010, according to Mr. Garvey. He said it's too early to say whether that report will identify a preferred configuration.

The agency plans to make portions of its analysis available to the public throughout the course of its analysis in the coming months, according to Mr. Garvey. He said he doesn't yet know exactly how that information will be presented, but that "everyone will have access to it.

Local strategy
The group of Peninsula jurisdictions, dubbed the "Coalition of Cities," would include one council member from each constituent jurisdiction. In addition to Menlo Park and Atherton, the ad hoc group has included representatives from Palo Alto, Mountain View, Burlingame, and Sunnyvale.

The group is separate from the "working groups" set up by the rail agency. That group is divided along county lines.

The coalition of cities would likely only take positions on broad issues that affect most of the member communities, Menlo Park council members say.

Menlo Park Councilman John Boyle said he supports the cities working together, but fears that formalizing the group would clog an already complicated bureaucratic process. The rail agency is legally required to listen to each city throughout its design process, he said. And if the group takes a stance on an issue that Menlo Park opposes, the city runs the risk of having its position misinterpreted in the press.

In an interview, Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson said she thinks a "formalized communication strategy" would make it easier, not harder, for news outlets to interpret the stance taken by Peninsula cities.

Peninsula counties would seem to have built-in leverage with the rail agency, because they own the Caltrain corridor. The agency will negotiate to lease the corridor from the joint powers board that oversees it, in order to run trains along it. But some local officials think the board is more focused on securing benefits for the Caltrain system than it is on the impacts to the communities along the rail line.

Mr. Boyle disputed the notion that the board's interests are by definition inimical to those of the jurisdictions it represents.

"They are responsible to their member cities," he said of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board at a recent council meeting. "I think they would represent our interests, if we asked them to."

As part of its outreach efforts, the High-Speed Rail Authority has set up a hotline for people to get general information on the project: 510-597-8640. For questions specific to San Mateo County, call outreach coordinator Mike Garvey at 596-9047, or e-mail him at The project's Web site is

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