Palo Alto seeks greater voice in regional transportation projects | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto seeks greater voice in regional transportation projects

City Council to devote Oct. 13 meeting to high-speed rail, Caltrain and VTA tax

Palo Alto takes great pride in being a worldwide leader in technology and conservation, but when it comes to transportation improvements the city has always relied on the kindness — or mercy — of strangers.

The rule is particularly true today, with Caltrain preparing to go electric, with the California High-Speed Rail Authority shifting its focus back to the Bay Area and with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) approaching a decision on Bus Rapid Transit, which would dedicate two lanes on El Camino Real exclusively to buses between Palo Alto and San Jose. In all three cases, the project pursued by outside agencies would have a profound, if not transformational impact, on Palo Alto. Yet in each case, the city has struggled to find a voice in the decision-making process and has found plenty of reasons for concern, if not alarm.

On Tuesday night, in a special meeting devoted to transportation, the City Council will consider the rapidly changing transit landscape and mull its options for influencing these projects. Over the course of the discussion, the council is scheduled to re-evaluate its heretofore adversarial stance toward high-speed rail; discuss the prospect of building a trench for Caltrain; and consider — for the first time — the prospect of a local tax measure for transportation improvements.

Councilman Greg Scharff, who suggested exploring a local tax measure, told the Weekly that the main reason why he thinks the city should consider the tax is to make sure the city has funding for local transportation projects. The proposed VTA measure has been causing some consternation among local officials and residents, with many pointing to a recent analysis by the office of county Supervisor Joe Simitian, showing that about 80 percent of the funds from the last two countywide measures were absorbed by the BART-to-San Jose project.

Scharff said the city has several options if it wants to pursue a local measure. It could go for a 1/4 cent tax that would supplement the countywide effort. It could also pursue a 1/2 cent tax, which could pre-empt and potentially derail the VTA proposal for November 2016. Scharff said he would favor the former approach.

"You'd hate to mess up a countywide transportation measure for things that need to be done," Scharff told the Weekly. "However, if all the money is going to BART, that would be unacceptable to us."

Another local alternative that Palo Alto can pursue is a business-license tax, which most cities in California have but which Palo Alto does not. In 2009, the city tried to impose such a tax based on gross receipts before voters rejected the proposal. Burt has suggested on several occasions in recent months that the city needs to once again consider a business-license tax, though this time specify that the revenue would be used exclusively for funding transportation programs.

During last month's discussion of the proposed VTA measure, council members stressed the importance of making sure that a good share of funds is allocated to the northern part of the county. Council members have also repeatedly called for some of the funds from the measure to be used for grade separation (an under- or overpass) on the Caltrain tracks. According to an engineering analysis that the city commissioned last year, digging a trench for Caltrain in the southern half of the city would cost between $500 million and $1 billion, depending on the elevation.

Despite the steep price tag, council members have been adamant about the need to pursue grade separation by digging a trench for Caltrain. Tom DuBois called grade separation "an opportunity to improve Palo Alto in a way that no other option really offers." Councilman Pat Burt argued at the Sept. 15 discussion of the VTA measure that grade separation is not an expensive perk so much as a lifeline.

"On the horizon, we don't have a choice or a preference for grade separation," Burt said. "It's a necessity. And if we don't have it, we're going to choke off the cities that are the crown jewels of the valley and destroy not only our communities but our economies."

So far, the city has not taken an official position on the VTA tax measure, which is yet to be finalized. The council has, however, been critical of the process used by the VTA to come up with a list of projects that would be funded through the measure. The agency had asked all of the cities in the county to submit a list of projects they want to see funded. It plans to narrow down that list in the coming months, before making a decision on the ballot measure.

The Tuesday discussion will also offer the City Council its first chance in nearly four years to reconsider the city's opposition to the high-speed rail project and the "no confidence" position that the council adopted toward the controversial project in 2011. The discussion will come at a time when the High Speed Rail Authority is preparing to move ahead with an environmental analysis for the Peninsula segment of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line.

The council's hearing on high-speed rail could signal another change of direction for the city on a project that has received significant scrutiny and opposition in the Midpeninsula. While the council encouraged voters in 2008 to support Proposition 1A, which approved $9.95 billion for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles rail line, local opinions about the project shifted the following year. Council members and residents specifically objected to the rail authority's proposed four-track design, which would have high-speed rail occupy the two inner tracks on the corridor and Caltrain run on the two outer tracks. They also blasted the rail authority's plan to build elevated tracks for the new rail line, a design that many referred to as a "Berlin Wall."

Since that time, however, the project has undergone several key changes. The four-track design is now off the table and rail authority officials stressed at a public meeting last month that they are fully committed to the more palatable two-track alternative known as the "blended system." First proposed by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, former state Sen. Joe Simitian and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, the design calls for the new rail system to operate exclusively on Caltrain's existing tracks. As a result, the project's price tag has gone down to $68 billion from $90 billion, though the rail authority is scheduled to revise that figure in its new business plan next year.

Last month, the rail authority began to host outreach meetings in preparation of putting together an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the line's Peninsula segment. Under the newly adopted timeline, the agency hopes to have the draft of the report completed by the end of 2016 and the final report to be certified in late 2017.

At a Sept. 15 meeting, City Manager James Keene voiced some concerns about the new timeline. The rail authority, Keene said, had "previously implied that they would not begin high-speed rail (on the Peninsula) until Caltrain modernization was complete or close to it." By setting a late 2016 target for a draft EIR, the rail authority makes it very difficult to pursue extensive collaboration between the transportation agency, residents, city leaders and other stakeholders in designing a project.

"We are concerned that it will provide very limited opportunities for community review and input," Keene said.

Some of the council's concerns from 2011 still apply, including questions about where the money to fund the line will come from. Rail authority officials told the Weekly last month that they are still planning to tap into private investments (which to date have not materialized) and grant funding to make the $68 billion project possible. And while the council remains largely skeptical about the project, Scharff noted that some good things have already come out of it. These include the new "blended" design and the rail authority's commitment of $705 million to support Caltrain's electrification.

At the same time, he said he remains concerned about the potential for gridlock around the tracks if grade separation does not become a reality. Would he support high-speed rail today?

"I think it depends," Scharff said. "If high-speed rail was to pay for the trench, where we would trench the tracks, I'd support it."

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34 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2015 at 8:19 am

The City should make a move towards getting all the Bay Area authorities merged into one umbrella transit authority.

We are at the north of VTA, south of SamTrans, and also have Caltrain. These 3 must work better to provide transportation for Palo Alto. Buses should be moving east west to support Caltrain, not compete against it. Buses should be timed to arrive before trains and wait until after the train has left. The ticket should be for total travel trip not piecemeal.

As for tax, don't put anymore sales tax. When will sales tax stop being increased, when it is 15%, 20% or what? Instead put a tax on gas to support transportation.

12 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 11, 2015 at 9:53 am

The VTA is still testing its new political cage - like raptors headed to Jurasic Park - looking for weaknesses. City Councils and their members should make clear that any measure that would raise more money for use by the VTA must affirmatively bar bad projects - such as seizing the left lane (in each direction) on El Camino for VTA "rapid transit" buses only. Even the more useful buses already running that would still be boarded on the right would be slowed to a near standstill with the left lanes made unavailable by the VTA. Most likely, the VTA will delay voting on bus-only lanes until after its tax election in 2016. And running high speed rail on the Peninsula, wow, what a waste of money and headache. City Councilmembers should organize and mobilize residents against ludicrous special interest projects and come up with thoughtful plans and projects that might actually improve transportation and the lives of existing residents.

10 people like this
Posted by Bart
a resident of another community
on Oct 11, 2015 at 8:11 pm

These repeating sales tax measures have been keeping the multi-billion BART construction mechanism at the public trough for a long time now. The Silicon Valley Leadership council or group has not shown any leadership other than funneling tax funds to BART. If I recall correctly, not so long ago, they refused to document where those funds had actually gone. Maybe they corrected that, I don't know.

Baring a significant change in the projects being funded, and No, just because BART isn't finished to BART's satisfaction is not justification for them to inhale most or all of any new tax measure, I will vote NO on a new tax measure.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 12, 2015 at 11:50 am

Go for the submerged track. Any other solution is only temporary and will cost more later. Make the right-of-way wide enough for four tracks, because we will need them sooner or later.

12 people like this
Posted by No New VTA Tax
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 12, 2015 at 1:16 pm

They want the money for BRT. It will cost a lot to take over 2 lanes on ECR, remove all the trees, lock up traffic for those who can't avoid it, and push the commuters into neighborhood streets.
VTA wants YOU to pay for it with the taxes they want you to vote for.

It's like someone saying "I'm gonna rip up your street and remove all your trees so we can park buses there...forever. Oh and you need to pay for it. We'll take some of your money each time you buy something"

VOTE NO!! This is our power! No new VTA Taxes or bonds!

8 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 12, 2015 at 1:39 pm

The way to kill this ECR nonsense is to make it perfectly we ain't gonna vote for more VTA taxes no matter what.

Like this comment
Posted by Simon
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 13, 2015 at 1:19 pm

Well regional transporation project is a great idea in my opinion but we have to see how its gonna feet with more VTA taxes.

My profile : Web Link

6 people like this
Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of Los Altos
on Oct 13, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Carl Guardino and his merry band [portion removed] at the grossly misnamed “Silicon Valley ‘Leadership’ Group,” hope to sucker those of modest means into raising their taxes once again, despite the fact that voters have already done so multiple times. Over the last several elections, voters in Santa Clara County have passed multiple tax and fee increases including VTA’s 2000 Measure A ½-cent and 2008 measure B ¼-cent sales taxes, Santa Clara County’s Measure A 1/8 cent sales tax, the state prop 30 ¼ cent sales tax and the 2010 Measure B Vehicle Registration Fee of $10. Additionally, we’re on the hook to pay back numerous state bond issues including high speed rail, last year’s Proposition 1 water bond and the infrastructure bonds of 2006.

All of this nickel and diming has contributed into making the Bay Area a horribly expensive place to live; especially for people of modest means, who must pay the greatest percentage of their income in these regressive taxes and fees. Each increase by itself does not amount to much, say a quarter cent, but the cumulative effect is to add to the unaffordability of the region.

Before increasing taxes YET AGAIN, waste needs to be removed from transportation projects. For example, VTA needs to eliminate waste and “gold plating” of the BART extension’s cost by reducing the scope to eliminate duplicate facilities. Specifically, a revised “build alternative” needs to be added to the study that eliminates the duplicative and wasteful section between the San Jose and Santa Clara Caltrain stations. The BART segment from the San Jose to Santa Clara Caltrain stations would duplicate both the existing Caltrain line and VTA’s 22 and 522 buses to a station that has only around 1000 riders per day. This is extremely wasteful and sends the wrong message to voters who will be asked to approve more sales tax increases in 2016. This is extremely insulting considering recent voter approval of all the taxes/fees listed above.

Why don’t the wealthy high-rollers in the “Leadership Group” suggest taxing their rich companies and leave the little guy alone for a change?

Like this comment
Posted by Samantha
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 13, 2015 at 3:06 pm

[Portion removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by John
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 1, 2015 at 5:45 pm

Watch in December or January, the VTA Board majority will say that there is not yet sufficient local support for El Camino bus lanes on the left and delay the project's approval until after its 2016 planned tax measure.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 1, 2015 at 6:10 pm

IAW the SJM 11/01/15 "MTC merger needs a deft touch". MTC is the Metropolitan Transportation Commission which is trying to take over the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). The MTC provides both state and federal funding for projects to align housing, jobs, and public transit. It is unclear what the impact will be on counties and cities - but they have to work out the relationship. Many financial issues here.

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