Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 15, 2013

Around Town

LANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES ... Palo Alto's elected officials have a hearty appetite for grant-funded transportation projects, particularly ones that involve bikes and pedestrians. But this week, the council agreed that the latest staff proposal for a grant application goes a few steps too far. The city is applying for One Bay Area Government, a grant program administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. But rather than seeking funds for one or two projects, city planners suggested 10, arguing that the more projects you apply for, the more likely you are to receive regional funds. Some projects are old standbys, such as the proposed bicycle and pedestrian bridge over U.S. Highway 101, the Magical Bridge playground at Mitchell Park and enhancements to Arastradero and Charleston roads. Others are new and controversial, including a plan to build a parking structure near the downtown transit mall and a new proposal to reduce lanes on Birch Street. The latter proposal proved particularly irksome for the City Council, with several members noting that the project had not even been vetted by any local board or commission (not to mention, the council). Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez took the position that when it comes to grant proposals, the more the merrier. "It's kind of like playing the lottery," Rodriguez told the council. "If you don't submit a ticket, you're not going to win." Councilman Larry Klein disagreed and said the city would pay a price in reputation for pursuing projects that have not yet been reviewed. "We have a lot more at stake than just the money that we're likely to get here," Klein said. "We're being bedazzled by some of the big dollars that aren't going to occur. ... We're going to get a lot of blowback." After a long discussion, the council voted unanimously to scrap the Birch Street proposal from the application. They then voted 5-4, with Mayor Greg Scharff, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilwomen Liz Kniss and Gail Price dissenting, to scuttle the parking-garage project from the grant proposal as well.

A GYM BY THE BAY ... It began as a regional effort to calm the flood-prone San Francisquito Creek. Along the way, it also turned into a way to completely reconfigure and strengthen the Baylands feel of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course. Then the City Council stretched the project further by adding three athletic fields to the golf course proposal. Now, in the latest twist for the flood-control project, city officials are considering a new gymnasium by the Baylands. While the gym plan is tentative and completely unfunded, the city plans to evaluate it in the upcoming environmental analysis for the golf-course renovation. The city's Planning and Transportation Commission, which learned about the gym proposal Wednesday night, had some hesitation about the proposed facility, though it agreed that the environmental-impact report would detail its pros and cons. "As soon as I saw mention of gymnasium, I felt uncomfortable," Commissioner Alex Panelli said. "It doesn't seem to be a particularly compatible use."

HILL'S BILLS ... California's high-speed rail project may have left the station last year, when the state Legislature approved funding for the first segment by a single vote, but Palo Alto officials still have plenty of concerns about the locally unpopular project. The city is now working with its newest representative, Sen. Jerry Hill, to clean up the funding bill. One concern is ensuring the funding allocated for Caltrain's electrification actually gets delivered. Another is making sure the project remains in the Caltrain right of way. According to the city's lobbyist, John Garamendi Jr., Hill has been meeting with officials from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Caltrain and the Legislature to discuss a new bill that would alleviate some of the Peninsula's anxieties. The bill, in Garamendi's estimation, is no slam dunk. After approving the first phase of construction by a single vote, legislators are far from anxious to revisit this highly controversial topic, Garamendi told the council's Rail Committee on Wednesday. Given the political climate, the committee agreed not to ask for too much and to get behind Hill's proposed legislation. The law would ensure Caltrain's electrification funds but would create a new "hurdle" for the rail authority, should it decide to move from a two-track system to the deeply unpopular four-track one that had been proposed earlier. Under Hill's bill, the agency would need a unanimous vote from both the rail authority's board and Caltrain's to even study this alternative. Councilman Larry Klein characterized the clean-up bill as a limited step but one worth taking. "This isn't where the real battle is going to be fought," Klein said. "We're getting something beyond what we had before. This is a skirmish."

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