Palo Alto Sues High-Speed Rail Authority

Joins coalition of plaintiffs including cities and nonprofit groups. Wants Environmental Impact Report rescinded, ridership forecast tossed out.

A coalition of cities and advocacy groups filed suit Monday against the California High-Speed Rail Authority, claiming that the Environmental Impact Report for the San Francisco to Central Valley segment failed to adequately address impacts and that the Authority's ridership and revenue forecasts are fundamentally flawed.

Menlo Park, Atherton, and Palo Alto joined a coalition of nonprofit organizations to demand that the EIR be rescinded.

The ridership forecast that HSRA used to justify revenue projections, select the path of the train and determine impacts was found to be deeply flawed by the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, which "found some significant problems that render the key demand forecasting models unreliable for policy analysis," according to a report it published in June.

Cambridge Systematics, the firm that developed the ridership forecast, offered a defense to that report in July. "This is an extraordinary statement for which we find no foundation," the group said.

Plaintiffs in Monday's lawsuit hope a federal judge will disagree with van Ark's opinion and put the brakes on the project. The lawsuit also claims that an analysis of noise and visual impacts, as well as the potential for blight, were left out of the EIR.

The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail, Mid-Peninsula Residents for Civic Sanity, Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund and the Planning and Conservation League.

Stuart Flashman, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said that the only option that Peninsula cities might have agreed to that would have mitigated these impacts--a covered trench or tunnel--have been taken off the table, and that regardless of which of the remaining options are chosen, it will have impacts.

"If it's a trench, it's going to cut the city in half," said Flashman. "If it's at-grade or above, it cuts the city in half.  If it's an above-grade aerial tract, it's this towering monstrosity straight across the city and it brings noise impacts and visual impacts."

"It's kind of like somebody that's been condemned to death," he continued, "and them saying we haven't decided whether to put you in front of the firing squad, or give you lethal injection, or just hang you. We just haven't made up our mind."

On September 20, Palo Alto City Council passed a resolution of no confidence in the California High Speed Rail Authority, listing as a key concern the authority's lack of reliable ridership projections.

Palo Alto is a potential site for the only Peninsular station between San Francisco's airport and San Jose, and Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt has said that solid ridership predictions are critical for understanding how the train system would affect the city.

If the ridership projections are inaccurate, said Burt, Palo Alto has much to lose – like dropping real estate values near the tracks, over-crowded streets and inappropriate infrastucture.

"While we regret having to resort to this action, Palo Alto was left with few options," said Mayor Pat Burt in a statement. "We are hopeful that our decision will lead to correcting flaws in the Program EIR and ensure that the Project EIR provides a quality analysis of the true impacts of High Speed Rail to the Peninsula communities it will pass through."

HSRA CEO Roelof van Ark disagreed that the ridership projections are inaccurate.

"We believe Cambridge Systematics have provided a direct and credible response to each technical point raised [in the ITS critique]," he said,"and that the ridership model has been, and continues to be, a sound tool for use in high-speed rail planning and environmental analysis."







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