Published Wednesday, August 13, 2008, by the Menlo Park Almanac
Menlo Park and Atherton join high-speed rail standoff
Cities sign on to lawsuit against Pacheco Pass route; state officials
confident it will be dismissed.
By Rory Brown
Menlo Park and Atherton officials don't want high-speed passenger
trains zooming through town, but state officials say the local
segment of the Caltrain corridor is a key to connecting Northern
California and Southern California by train.
Now the court will have a say in the matter.
Both cities joined a group of environmental and rail nonprofits suing
the California High Speed Rail Authority on the basis the authority
picked an environmentally insensitive route in plans to connect San
Francisco and Los Angeles with electric trains that would reach
speeds up to 220 miles per hour. The trains would not stop in Menlo
Park or Atherton, but a station is tentatively planned for either
Palo Alto or Redwood City.
The lawsuit was filed Aug. 8 in Sacramento County Superior Court, and
both city councils voted Aug. 5 in separate closed-session meetings
to join the lawsuit. Neither city is required to help cover the costs
of the suit, according to Atherton City Attorney Marc Hynes and Menlo
Park City Manager Glen Rojas.
The lawsuit comes as high-speed rail supporters are trying to build
momentum for Proposition 1, the $9.95 billion ballot measure that
would provide the first wave of funding for the high-speed rail
project, and is expected to be on the Nov. 4 ballot.
The lawsuit won't keep Proposition 1 off the ballot, but if
successful, it could require the authority to conduct more strenuous
environmental review, adding costs and delays to the estimated $45
Behind the Lawsuit
The lawsuit is being spearheaded by environmental and rail nonprofit
groups that were previous supporters of the high-speed train project,
but have since become vocal critics of the rail authority's selection
of the Pacheco Pass as the route to connect trains from the Central
Valley to the Bay Area.
Under the Pacheco plan, high-speed trains would connect to Gilroy
from the Central Valley and shoot up the Caltrain corridor to connect
to San Francisco. That route would cut through sensitive wetland
areas, encourage suburban sprawl and serve fewer riders than the
Altamont Pass route, according to the suing nonprofits.
Under the Altamont plan, trains would continue north into the San
Joaquin Valley before heading west and crossing a new bridge across
the Bay to connect to the Caltrain line -- a route that could still
pass through portions of Menlo Park and Atherton or could bypass the
High-speed rail officials are standing by the environmental reports
that say Pacheco Pass is the best route.
"We are confident that the environmental work was done appropriately
and the findings of that work are sound," said Dan Leavitt, deputy
director for the high-speed rail authority. "We're confident the
environmental documents will hold up against any lawsuit."
The nonprofits leading the lawsuit include the Planning and
Conservation League, the Transportation Solutions Defense and
Educational Fund, the California Rail Foundation and Bay Rail
It's no secret that Menlo Park and Atherton officials are more
concerned with the local impacts of grade separations than the
regional concerns expressed by the nonprofits leading the lawsuit.
The project would require grade separations -- building overpasses
or underpasses to separate the tracks from the roadway at six local
intersections resulting in years-long construction impacts for
homes and businesses located near the Caltrain tracks.
"It's about leverage," said Menlo Park Councilman Richard Cline.
"This is not a position on high-speed rail, it's a stake in the
ground for Menlo Park to have a voice."
While Atherton officials have long been opposed to high-speed trains
zooming through town, the closed-session vote was the first action
regarding the project taken by Menlo Park council members.
The sudden closed-session vote "surprised" Judge Quentin Kopp, chair
of the high-speed rail authority board, but he said the lawsuit
"should be thrown out" and recent polling suggests the high-speed
rail bond measure will pass in November and move forward as planned.
"I'm surprised that without any notice, Menlo Park apparently decided
to join a lawsuit," a chuckling Judge Kopp told The Almanac. "I am
confident the lawsuit will be rejected."
Menlo Park Councilman John Boyle, the lone council member of either
city to vote against joining the lawsuit, said in Menlo Park's case,
the city should study the potential impacts -- positive and negative
-- of high-speed rail before signing on to a lawsuit regarding the
"It sure seems like the cart before the horse," Mr. Boyle said. "To
take a position before the public even sees the pros and cons of if
the issue -- I don't think that's how we should do this."
The two councils' decision to join the lawsuit pleased local high-
speed rail critics -- many of whom own homes or businesses near the
Caltrain tracks, and would be severely impacted by the construction
and operation of a high-speed rail line in their respective backyards.
"I'm ecstatic as you can be about a lawsuit," said Felton Gables
resident Russ Peterson, a former high-speed rail supporter who has
become a critic of the project. "We're told there will be impacts
and they'll be mitigated, but it's never really been defined what
those impacts or mitigations are going to be."