Menlo Park and Atherton Threaten Lawsuits Against Caltrain Electrification

Caltrain plans to operate 114 daily trains (up from 92 daily trains today) after converting its diesel trains to electric by 2021. Image: Caltrain

Both the city of Menlo Park and the town of Atherton have threatened to sue Caltrain over its planned conversion from diesel to electric trains, if certain conditions are not met. The municipalities requested a 30-day extension of the Friday deadline to file a lawsuit.

Menlo Park’s demands include increased service to its Caltrain station, “particularly during non-peak hours,” and for Caltrain to pay for “appropriately designed and built grade separation” to avoid delaying motorists at crossings. The city also wants Caltrain to list all of the significant and “heritage” trees that will be removed, and to replace them with three times as many 36-inch box trees.

Similarly, Atherton is demanding better Caltrain service. The town’s station, located at Atherton Avenue, is the next station north of Menlo Park.

While the electrification plan does anticipate more frequent service at all Caltrain stations, agency officials say it’s far too early to commit to specific service levels with electric trains, which won’t be running until 2020 at the earliest. By that time, Caltrain expects daily ridership to grow by over 15,000 trips and for travel patterns to change. In addition, the agency plans to conduct outreach on scheduling preferences closer to the completion of electrification.

“Increasing ridership based on threatened litigation is not how Caltrain should do service planning,” Friends of Caltrain Director Adina Levin wrote in a blog post about the letters last week. “With even less realism, Menlo Park is also demanding that Caltrain fund grade separations.”

One possible grade separation design under consideration for Ravenswood Avenue, which Menlo Park wants Caltrain to help fund. The Jefferson Avenue underpass in Redwood City is shown as an example. Image: BKF

Menlo Park wants to reconstruct Ravenswood Avenue to pass over or under the Caltrain tracks, which would cost at least $100 million, and as much as $500 million for a “trench” design lowering the tracks 30 feet below the street. With an annual operating budget of $125 million, Caltrain appears to have few resources to spend on grade separations, which make crossings safer and prevent delays for car traffic. The San Mateo County Transportation Authority has $225 million earmarked for grade separation projects, enough to fund four to five projects when combined with state and federal grants.

Menlo Park’s City Council also wants to rule out specific track designs for California High-Speed Rail (HSR), including “any blended system that results in an elevated structure, any future expansion that results in four tracks unless underground and any system which adds passing tracks in Menlo Park.”

Despite its opposition, Menlo Park was awarded $750,000 by the SMCTA to study grade separation options on the condition that passing tracks are included, according to a May 2014 report from SMCTA Manager of Programming and Monitoring Joel Slavit [PDF].

Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia, meanwhile, asserted in a January 26 letter to Caltrain that “the electrification project is separate from the high-speed rail project,” and the city “remains concerned with the legality of moving forward with the electrification project without fully evaluating the environmental impacts associated with the high speed rail project.”

“The impacts of high-speed rail in Atherton will be significant and the Town will continue to oppose the project,” he added.

A rendering of the Atherton Caltrain Station with the poles and wires needed to operate electric trains. Image: Caltrain

Atherton also wants Caltrain to “formally commit to being a financial partner” in the installation of quad gates to block all four traffic lanes for passing trains at the Watkins Avenue rail crossing. According to the City Council’s January 21 staff report [PDF], the gates are “a precursor to the pursuit of a quiet zone for the Town,” which would allow trains to cross Watkins without blowing their horns. In addition, the town wants Caltrain to commit to building center-mounted electrical power poles to minimize tree removal, that “careful consideration of the Atherton Station” be provided, and that “modern diesel options” be studied in the environmental impact report.

Caltrain countered that its electrification project is separate from CAHSR because it has “independent utility,” and that the project is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in any case.

Caltrain is expected to respond to both Menlo Park and Atherton regarding the final EIR by the end of this week.

  • david vartanoff

    So the “entitled” NIMBYS want better service for themselves while trying to thwart improvements that would benefit ALL riders? And the advantages of “modern diesel” over electrics??? I am reminded of then Mayor DiFi complaining about trolley bus overhead wires. When someone explained to her that the electricity came from HetchHetchy as opposed to buying diesel fuel, she smartened up.
    And as to quad gates and quiet zones, if and only if the city in question contracts to assume ALL liability for any injuries/deaths of peds and drivers who get in the way of the trains and agree to have ALL delay after same limited to 30 minutes maximum.

  • Bruce

    That first picture doesn’t look like anywhere on the Peninsula that I’m familiar with! Why would Caltrain make a rendering of an electric train in the middle of farmland?

  • GarySFBCN

    Let’s make Menlo Park and Atherton transportation hubs by building 10,000 units of Section 8 housing and building 4,000 units of transitional housing for newly-paroled ex-cons. Who wants to sign the petition?

  • Boo

    “The municipalities requested a 30-day extension of the Friday deadline to file a lawsuit.”

    Simple – Caltrain shouldn’t allow the extension.

  • lunartree

    That’s the high speed rail that will run down the corridor eventually. The renderings are supposed to be somewhere way out of town.

  • lunartree

    Also, its two towns full of rich people that want all of this handed to them for free. We should just annex them into Palo Alto and Mountain View respectively.

  • 94110

    That took me by surprise too. I checked a map. The corridor is single tracked on its way towards Gilroy.

    While it’s a very strange image to use, I feel pretty confident they used an actual photo of the Caltrain ROW.

  • Bruce

    I thought of that too, but the segment south of Tamien won’t be electrified.

  • Affen_Theater

    Palo Alto has a group of residents that has been agitating for a “quiet zone” at the Alma Street crossing near Caltrain’s San Francisquito Creek bridge next to the historic protected city namesake “El Palo Alto” redwood tree.

    The Palo Alto Daily News (not freely available online) recently ran a cover story about how Palo Alto’s city attorney advised there were liability risks for the city setting up such a FRA-authorized quiet zone. In short, regulations governing quiet zones essentially create liability for cities that implement them in case of claims arising from grade crossing incidents.

    Palo Alto council will hold an official study session this coming Monday, February 9th. For background reading, here’s the City Council’s Staff Report: Study Session on Railroad Quiet Zones in Palo Alto.

  • the_greasybear

    Hyper-litigious society: this is why we can’t have nice things.

  • DrunkEngineer

    It is a picture of a European EMU with the Caltrain logo photoshopped on.

  • Andy Chow

    I think that these two cities are holding a hard bargaining position (the assertion that electrification is not an independent project is also a bargaining position) to see what they can get from Caltrain. A lawsuit would basically let a judge to make the determination and the cities may get nothing. If the outcome is a change in design or additional mitigation measures, rather than trying to delay the project at all costs, a lawsuit is not the preferred choice to achieve the desired outcome.

  • I must say, I was perplexed that their demands were for MORE service. On its face, I’m excited that cities are pleading for more service, but more service implies that you want/have a public clamoring for this.

    I don’t know the travel patterns of MP and Atherton, but at least the latter, I feel this is a ‘…make my area more attractive on paper (for my property investment) even though I don’t plan on using the public transit asset that I’m challenging.’ << and perhaps that's not the worst sentiment by any means, but at the expense of other investments, perhaps not the most noble of lawsuit impetuses.

  • Affen_Theater

    Atherton and Menlo Park contain some of the most persistent, rabid and litigiously-minded anti-HSR NIMBYs you’ll find anywhere … two recent Atherton mayors are co-founders or board members of the anti-HSR group CC-HSR. Anti-HSR attorney Mike Brady and his notoriously anti-HSR Menlo Park neighbors (such as Morris Brown) live in multi-million dollar condos adjacent to the tracks in the Stone Pine Lane area. They were profiled in the March 31, 2010 issue of the Menlo Park Almanac in the following cover story:

    Stop that train!
    Why three unlikely enthusiasts from Menlo Park just may be the best hope for opponents of high-speed-rail

  • Bruce

    No, that’s clearly Caltrain livery.

  • Boo

    This is so stupid. Caltrain has been there for 150 years. You can’t move next door to a train and then complain about the noise. Especially if you can sell your home for over $1MM.

  • RichardC

    I’m glad Atherton is interested in more service to its station! I can only assume that they’re in the process of developing a station area land use plan to replace the large-lot mansions with dense, mixed-use, mixed-income development to support the extra service.

  • keenplanner

    Hey, wait…aren’t the electric-powered trains quieter than the diesels? Is this just a straw dog so they can extract more $$ from Caltrain for improvements?
    I hope these trains just blow through these self-serving islands of entitled suburbia in the future.

  • Affen_Theater

    Because of a few anti-HSR NIMBY constituents, Palo Alto is only marginally less schizophrenic in its posture vis a vis Caltrain electrification.

  • aslevin

    Menlo Park will not be suing – Atherton will. Official per marian Lee at Caltrain board meeting this morning

  • Michael Morris

    There cities aren’t “special” in any way. Every city on the
    caltrain corridor will have to deal with the construction and noise, and every
    city will benefit from the faster trains, so why is it that only 2 towns feel
    the need to sue? Is their community being destroyed while other cities are
    unharmed?

  • joechoj

    On a different tack:
    Yikes, I think I’m just seeing my first downside of the CEQA exemption for transit projects. Clearly, electric is ‘greener’ than diesel, since it provides the ability to power the trains via carbon-free sources. But even more clearly, tree removal is by definition not ‘green’.

    I’m a huge proponent of transit, and have generally applauded the CEQA exemption. But whatever you or I may think of these towns’ justifications for suing, it troubles me to think that transit projects in the future won’t be required to consider the impacts of design decisions such as tree removal. Surely they wouldn’t be allowed to culvert a stream in the name of transit without review, correct? Where’s the line, and who draws it? After all, it would stand to reason that there are lazy or poor design engineers who work on transit projects, just as there are on highway projects, no?

    It seems that an important benefit of CEQA analysis is that it forces consideration of multiple designs, ultimately leading to a better outcome. Center-mounted poles seem quite reasonable: saves space, uses less material, preserves CO2-sucking function of trees, dampens train noise…

    Can anyone familiar with CEQA exemption comment?

  • Andy Chow

    I think Caltrain is complying with CEQA properly. Caltrain is not claiming any exemption or somehow not disclosing what the impacts are. Electrification is a benefit for the environment. Tree removal harms the environment, but the overall impact resulting from both activities are somewhat subjective. If you live in Atherton, the tree may seem to be more important, and if you live a few miles north where diesel pollution is a problem, electrification will help.

    Electrification is a permanent benefit, but tree removal (with replanting of trees as mitigation measure) is a temporary impact.

  • Andy Chow

    The cities being used as a soapbox by HSR opponents is a problem (with city taxpayers paying litigation costs).

  • joechoj

    Yes, all true. But what of my larger point? Forget this specific example. What if the environmental impacts were far more substantial? Transit projects, if poorly designed, can have hugely damaging impacts, just like any other construction project. What are the safeguards that poorly-designed, environmentally damaging transit projects won’t be permitted? (Think erosion, waterway degradation, wetland damage, endangered species impact, etc, etc)

  • coolbabybookworm

    My understanding is that the CEQA exemption for transit projects doesn’t cover the list of concerns you have so much as it is an exemption from having to account for and mitigate all of the impacts on auto trips and changing the standard of measure away from LOS. Caltrain is going through environmental review for the electrification even if it is exempt from CEQA: http://www.caltrain.com/projectsplans/CaltrainModernization/Modernization/PeninsulaCorridorElectrificationProject/PCEP_FEIR_2014.html

    Also, new transit projects such as HSR will have impacts on habitat, erosion, etc. Most transit projects, including this one, are taking place are already established right of way and in built out environments. The environmental impact is negligible compared to the benefits of increased service and reduced local air pollution, as well as the potential for renewable energy to be used to power the system.

  • joechoj

    (@Andy Chow: you’re right, I forgot about the tree replanting; that helps)
    @ coolbaby: RE your 1st paragraph, thanks that starts to address my question.
    RE the 2nd, I fully understand how beneficial this specific project is, folks! This case just brings up a point I hadn’t thought about before: where a hypothetical transit project gets to bypass CEQA in a case where it should be required – if, for example, it ends up installing a river crossing that blocks a major salmon run. Surely this design wouldn’t be permitted – but if CEQA isn’t the mechanism to prevent such a decision, what is? Or maybe, as you suggest, CEQA is the mechanism and the exemption only applies to LOS impacts? So there’s clearly a gap in my understanding: seeking clarity from someone who definitively knows. Thanks!

  • murphstahoe

    That – or they know that more service for them makes the system broken, so by demanding something that looks “good” and “green” they can try to hijack the whole thing and kill it.

  • murphstahoe

    What’s very funny about this is that there are trees on the Caltrain line which could be removed. Meanwhile, many of the residents of Atherton live in huge mansions which presumably required the removal of far more trees, without any CEQA problems.

    Let me ask this – if there were a lane being added to 280 or US-101 that required a tree to be removed, would Atherton sue?

  • coolbabybookworm

    CEQA is only for California and so it is not a catchall for environmental impact of development. There are national protections for endangered species and habitats, the environmental protection act, endangered species act, and other environmental laws are intended to protect a salmon run or other natural resources. That said I do not know the intricacies of environmental law and I would also be interested in having someone who knows environmental law to explain this further.

  • joechoj

    Good point, on Federal law.

  • jltulock

    The coroner is rarely able to get called travel to a scene and investigate in less than two to four hours. The coroner has full control. Your 30 minute demand is specious.

  • Affen_Theater

    Bingo! Atherton’s demands for more service and whatnot are laughably ridiculous on their face. Their list of demands is all about trying to inflict as much pain, cost and delay on the project as they think they can get away with without looking as cravenly spoiled, entitled and childish about this as they actually are.

  • Jim Puls

    That’s a picture of a Siemens RABe 514, the double-deck electric train used on the commuter rail lines serving Zürich with, as another commenter noted, some Photoshop work done on the colors.

    It was originally taken when the trains were first in initial testing outside Zürich in 2006, as seen here a little less than halfway down the page:
    http://www.railfaneurope.net/pix/ch/SBB_CFF_FFS/electric/emu/RABe514/pix.html

    I hope Caltrain paid Mr. Reiss to use his photo!

    See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SBB-CFF-FFS_RABe_514

  • lukebc

    White AFFLUENCY makes them “special”.

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