Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 27, 2011

Around Town

A BAN WITH AN ASTERISK ... The bag at the checkout stand of Mollie Stone's on California Avenue in Palo Alto looked like plastic, felt like plastic, sounded like plastic when folded and even included something called "post consumer plastic" in its ingredient list on the back. Yet the bag, to the surprise of one shopper who visited the supermarket last week, doesn't violate the ban on plastic checkout bags that the city famously adopted last year. The reason is thickness. Unlike the fluttery plastic bags that end up in local creeks and storm drains, the bags at Mollie Stone's were created to be reusable. Phil Bobel, the city's interim assistant director of public works, said the bag's thickness qualifies it as a reusable bag, which makes it kosher by the city's standards. Bobel, who as the city's environmental compliance manager spearheaded the effort to get plastic bags out of the checkout stands of local supermarkets, said the thicker, heavier bags aren't nearly as problematic as the lighter and more common ones. "I was just doing some cleanup work at a creek this past Saturday and I didn't see any bags of this type," Bobel said. "They don't blow around like the other bags do."

OUTSIDE HELP ... Palo Alto's staff may be shrinking, but its ambitions remain higher than ever. In the coming months, the city plans to create a new Master Plan for Rinconada Park, consider new and alternative uses for the dilapidating Municipal Service Center, perform mechanical and electrical repairs at the Children's Theatre, beef up the city's wildly successful "Safe Routes to School Program" and redesign the streetscape on California Avenue. To achieve these goals, the city is relying on one of its most frequently used tools: consultants. In fiscal year 2012, which begins on July 1, Palo Alto plans to award more than $1.5 million to consultants for various master plans and infrastructural repairs. This does not include the consultants who are already working with the city on creating a new Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan or the ones who are working with the city's recently appointed citizen task force to formulate the city's official vision for the Caltrain corridor. The city is also planning to take a fresh look this fall at the city's entire fee schedule, a task that will also involve hiring a consultant, staff said this week.

A TOUGH SELL ... California's Legislative Analyst's Office made a splash earlier this month when it released a scathing report about the state's proposed high-speed rail system. The report recommends, among other things, renegotiating the strict construction deadlines set by federal grants and reconsidering the starting point of the rail line, which is currently set for launch in Central Valley. Now it looks like both of these suggestions would be harder to implement than originally thought. Roy Kienitz, the under secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, wrote a letter to California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof van Ark this week stressing that both the deadlines and the starting segment are not subject to further negotiations. Kienitz defended the federal mandate to spend the stimulus funds for high-speed rail by 2012, calling it "one of the most lenient deadline (sic) for transportation funding in the Recovery Act." As far as starting the rail line in Central Valley? "We believe the decision to begin there was and remains a wise one," Kienitz wrote. The main reason, Kienitz wrote, is that "construction can begin and be completed in Central Valley more quickly than in other places. With this central piece built, more complex construction can extend north, south or simultaneously in both directions as additional sections of the project are ready to be built."

BUILDING A ROBOT ... In snappy red T-shirts, six members of the Gunn High School Robotics Team introduced their red robot to the Palo Alto Board of Education this week. Seniors Danielle Tene and Leonard Woo, juniors Philippe Napaa, Takuto Sasajima and Jeffrey Sun and sophomore Mia Parat explained that, to compete in the recent FRST Robotics Competition, the robot had to be able to drive itself, pick up tubes from the ground and hang them on three racks, and deploy a "mini-bot" that would climb 10 feet by itself. "Building the robot is a really busy time but through it all we manage to have a lot of fun and a lot of team bonding," Sun said. In closing the presentation, Sasajima couldn't resist thanking the school board for its narrow and contentious May 11 vote to change the academic calendar. "Thanks for changing it so finals will be before winter break," he said.

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