Menlo Park claims to support electrification but threatens to sue; Atherton votes to litigate

Both Atherton and Menlo Park have sent letters to Caltrain announcing an intent to litigate electrification if their conditions are not met.

Atherton’s issues include fundamental opposition to Caltrain electrification, as stated in its letters to Caltrain. They argue that Caltrain should be considering alternative technologies, although the electrification environmental report analyzed a variety of options and explained why electrification is a good choice for the project.    Atherton also opposes the scope of the environmental review of electrification. Because the electric facilities will eventually be used by High Speed Rail, Atherton contends that the full high speed rail project needs to be studied (even though electrification will serve Peninsula commuters for many years before High Speed Rail arrives).

Atherton has other local demands, including cutting down fewer trees, helping to pay for “quad gates” which are a pre-requisite for a request to reduce horn noise, and a request for more frequent service at the Atherton station.

Atherton is also demanding more frequent service. The town of Atherton has 7000 residents; and probably fewer than 3500 employed residents; the wealthy bedroom community only a few hundred local employees.  If 20% of employed residents commuted by train, the city would still be in the bottom third for Caltrain ridership.  Increasing ridership based on threatened litigation is not how Caltrain should do service planning.

As for Menlo Park, Mayor Catherine Carlton said that the city supports electrification, in her announcement that Menlo Park would consider litigation if conditions were not met.  Like Palo Alto (which ultimately decided not to sue), Menlo Park has not picked up on Atherton’s argument that the environmental review of Caltrain electrification needed to study all of High Speed Rail’s proposed changes, even though the lawsuit was promoted by some local residents who are also long-time opponents of High Speed Rail.

Menlo Park’s letter includes a grab-bag of concerns, some more reasonable than others.  A city with a flourishing tree canopy and a strong tree ordinance, Menlo Park is demanding a 3:1 replacement ratio for larger trees in line with the city’s policy.  Menlo Park is also asking Caltrain to specify which trees will be removed which seems excessive for a 50 mile project.   The city is asking for Caltrain to confirm the mitigation of construction impacts in writing, which seems reasonable.  Menlo Park also has concerns about traffic impacts and other mitigations – unlike Palo Alto, which had specific asks regarding which Caltrain was working with the city, Menlo Park did not specify in its letter what it is asking for.

Menlo Park is also asking Caltrain to provide increased service. Unlike Atherton, Menlo Park has a robust employment base, and is increasing the number of residents and workers in the area near the Caltrain station.  Since electrification will enable more frequent stops within the same travel time, it may well be reasonable to see more service.  However, Caltrain has not yet worked out the service schedule for electrification. Arguably it should have done more to propose and discuss service patterns already.  However, given the fact that Caltrain hasn’t yet worked out its schedule, it seems highly unreasonable for Menlo Park to demand more service, when other cities with lightly served stations and transit oriented development plans are not suing.

With even less realism, Menlo Park is also demanding that Caltrain fund grade separations. Menlo Park is in the process of applying, in a competitive grant application to the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, for funding to grade separate Ravenswood from the tracks.  The money currently available for grade separations in the county was raised by voters with a transportation tax.   As with Palo Alto’s initial demands that Caltrain pay for grade separations, Menlo Park’s demands will not cause hundreds of millions of extra dollars to materialize for additional grade separations in San Mateo County.

To the contrary, the three Caltrain counties are planning ballot measures in 2016, with the potential to raise more money for Caltrain capacity improvements, and potentially for grade separations as well.    Having electrification tied up in litigation, and cities using litigation to compete with each other for schedule service, could make it much more difficult to agree on raising significant funding to increase capacity and service for all.

Hopefully, like Palo Alto, Menlo Park will negotiate reasonable accommodations with Caltrain, and will not engage in a self-destructive lawsuit.