With Palo Alto’s substantial nine-to-five demographic, it’s no wonder the city’s ridership at the University Avenue Caltrain station is through the roof—second only to San Francisco. But just two years into its planning phase, the California High Speed Rail Project faces derailment by public opinion from the city and the Farm.
The top concern: commuter overload.
California High Speed Rail Authority’s (HSRA) 800-mile high-speed train system, approved in 2008 as Proposition 1A, would run from San Francisco to San Diego with a stop in one of two mid-peninsula cities, Palo Alto or Redwood City. Mountain View dropped out of the running on Sept. 13.
In Palo Alto, the proposed station would be at the current Caltrain stop on University Avenue, which is on Stanford property, and cross Sand Hill Road, El Camino Real and Galvez Street.
The University vocalized its opposition to the station on Sept. 20, sharing many of the same concerns as Palo Alto city officials.
“It’s like building a mini-airport, what [the High Speed Rail Authority] wants to do,” said Jean McCown, director of community relations at Stanford. “We’re concerned that University Avenue is already congested as it is.”
Holman said HSRA reports show ridership would average 7,800 daily. That’s in addition to more than 36,000 Caltrain riders, according to Caltrain reports released in February.
“We really just don’t have the capacity to accommodate that size,” said City Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd, who serves on the city’s high-speed rail subcommittee. “We would have to reconfigure University Avenue.”
Shepherd added that the numbers become more significant in light of the 10,000 new visitors expected with the proposed Stanford hospital expansion, which already is poised to burden traffic, according to a draft environmental impact report (EIR) earlier this year.
To accommodate riders, HSRA’s plans require a 3,000-car parking garage and the city of Palo Alto to foot the bill—an estimated $150 million, said Shepherd. This ticket makes city officials even more hesitant as Palo Alto still has a $500 million infrastructure project backlog that needs funding, including street improvements, new emergency facilities and community services.
“I’m not seeing how it’s going to be compatible with the city’s Comprehensive Plan,” said Councilwoman Karen Holman.
At 37,000 square feet, the HSR garage would be much larger than any parking structure in the city.
The city is considering joining neighbors Menlo Park and Atherton in a lawsuit against the HSRA, Holman said. The suit is based on what they say is an inadequate EIR; Holman declined to elaborate on details.
The high-speed rail is not completely without benefits. More rail traffic means fewer cars on the road, more shoppers and less-crowded airports, said HSRA spokeswoman Rachel Wall. Because the train system would run separately from road traffic, there are fewer chances for vehicle collisions.
Still, Stanford and city council members said they plan to concentrate their efforts more toward preserving the Caltrain system. Council members remain concerned that the HSRA project will pose a threat to ticket sales for Caltrain, which is already facing major budget cuts due to a $30 million deficit.
Although groundbreaking is projected for 2012, trains are not expected to run until 2020 and Shepherd said HSRA could just as easily decline to set a station in Palo Alto. In the meantime, a public discussion is set for Oct. 7 with final EIRs to be released this winter.