Peninsula High Speed Rail Teach-In

My main question about the Peninsula Cities Coalition efforts to solicit public feedback on the California High-Speed rail plan, starting with a teach-in this past weekend, was whether feedback would have any impact at all. Coordinators included two local city council people, Terry Nagel of Burlingame and Yoriko Kishimoto of Palo Alto, seeking with good will to organize public input on a major public project. But the High Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the high-speed route between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is an appointed body with a majority of its board members appointed by the governor. The mission of the agency is to get the project done, not to listen to residents. There isn’t any obvious reason that they would listen to the concerns of the people who actually live on the route the train will pass through.

The event gave me some cautious optimism that there was a way for public input to have an impact. Dominic Spaethling, a representative of the High Speed Rail Authority, mentioned that they will be seeking feedback from local governments in terms of how design choices will affect the local areas. And a representative of Senator Simitian’s office also sought feedback filtered through cities. The Peninsula Cities Coalition is a group of cities (five currently, Burlingame, Belmont, Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto), and the series of events is an excellent venue for city officials to gather input from residents. Tactically, cities have local land use and permitting authority, so a good working relationship with cities is in the High Speed Rail Authority’s interests. So there may be a vehicle to funnel input through cities, and some interest on the Authority’s side to listen.

Another reason for optimism was the demeanor of Robert Doty, the Director for the Peninsula Rail Program, a combined program to develop Caltrain modernization and High Speed Rail. He has responsibility for interagency coordination and regulatory approvals, so on the ground, he’s a key person. He developed the highly successful Baby Bullet program for Caltrain. Doty seemed both practical and considerate of local concerns. For example, he acknowledged that the implementation of the BART-SFO connector was botched, in cost and design. He mentioned the 5 stairways, sounding like someone who’s tried to use them! And he seemed to have a good relationship with the local folk on the podium. By contrast, representatives of transit projects and agencies sometimes come across as high-handed, presenting a seemingly inevitable conclusion to their audience.

The day contained a number of panels and presentations, with various speakers representing different aspects and opinions of the project.
* Doty, as I mentioned, came across as no pushover, but as someone who was engaged with the community.
* Rich Tolmach, the California Rail Foundation, was opposed to the project, and is seeking ways to stop it.
* Dave Young, of engineering firm Hatch Mott Macdonald presented information explaining how tunneling might be practical. this is an approach that some hope will reduce impact long-term, and others dismiss as impractical.
* Greg Greenway, of the Peninsula Freight Users Group, advocated for continuing to use the corridor for frieght rail. However, the Caltrain corridor gets only about 10% of the freight that travels through the east bay, and compared to Oakland, the port of Redwood City is a tiny blip. It’s not clear to me that other design goals should be sacrificed to support what’s a tiny freight base on the Peninsula.
* Bill Cutler presented the Context Sensitive Solutions approach. This sounded like a fine process for gathering community input. But it was not at all clear how the Context Senstive Solutions process would dovetail with the technical and operational schedule for the actual working of the project.

Unfortunately, I was late and missed the first session by Gary Patton. According to the California High Speed Rail Blog, Patton talked about how the project can still be stopped.

My least favorite aspect of the day was the “Open Space” section. I say this as someone who has attended and coordinated many open space session and unconferences. These can be excellent in two very different ways. When there’s a general area of interest, such as digital mapping technology, it’s wonderful to have people with interest and knowledge have sessions on the topics they care about. It’s not infrequent for projects and other follow-ons to be spawned from great sessions. But there’s no requirement for follow-up. When there is a common goal, it is a good way to have people self-select into interested groups and develop next steps. In this case, there is a common goal, but there was no clear charter for groups to serve that goal. Someone from the Peninsula Cities group volunteered to collect the writeup, but there was no clear sense of follow-up. This part of the program could have been better designed. The session I was in was a brainstorming discussion about how to use online tools to support the public input process. I’ll blog more about that separately.

At the event, I had a chance to meet in person the author of the Transbay Blog, a blog that covers transportation and land use issues in the Bay Area, after meeting by blog comment and twitter. I also got to to chat with Robert Cruickshank, who writes the California High Speed Rail Blog, which advocates for high speed rail, as well as Andy Chow and Brian Stanke of the Bay Rail Alliance, a rail advocacy group.

These days blogs and advocacy groups are at least as important sources of information on issues such as this as traditional media. So far, the event has been covered by Palo Alto Online and the California High Speed Rail blog


I helped the coordinating team for the event, including setting up the online event registration and helping with outreach. And I wasn’t able to make the meeting where the Open Space session was planned. I’ll also send the feedback to the coordinators, with suggestions about how to better use Open Space in this context.

I live in Menlo Park and work in Palo Alto. I cross the tracks at least twice daily by bike. I like walkable, bikeable, liveable neighborhoods with access to transit. I’m interested in having a much better system of regional transit, and in ways for our society to wean ourselves from fossil fuel. I lived in Boston during the big dig, and watched the city pay the cost of trying to undo a bad decision to build an elevated highway through town 50 years earlier.

Though I’m concerned that the structure of the High Speed Rail project makes citizen input more perilous, I believe in general that the likelihood of having an impact gets infinitely higher when you show up and try to make a difference in a practical fashion.

2 thoughts on “Peninsula High Speed Rail Teach-In”

  1. Amazing that you fail to mention the keynote address by Gary Patton. The high point of the whole teach-in.

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