A coalition of cities and environmentally conscious organizations 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Menlo Park, Atherton, and Palo Alto joined a coalition of nonprofit organizations to demand that the EIR be rescinded.
"We need to have credible ridership numbers and a credible business plan before we allow that to impact our city," said Council Member Kelly Fergusson, who is also a member of Menlo Park's High-Speed Rail Subcommittee.
The ridership forecast that HSRA used to justify revenue projections and to select the path of the train 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.
The HSRA later concluded that "the ridership model has been, and continues to be, a sound tool for use in high-speed rail planning and environmental analysis," according to HSRA CEO Roelof van Ark.
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 posits 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."
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 says solid ridership predictions are critical for understanding how the train system would affect the city.
Menlo Park City Council is likely to pass a similar resolution of no confidence tomorrow evening during the City Council meeting, based on the discussions that have taken place during multiple High-Speed Rail Subcommittee meetings. (Signup for our daily newsletters to read the latest developments.)
Flashman compared potential impacts on Menlo Park to the effects on properties that are developed in close proximity to elevated freeways in San Fransisco and Oakland. The September 2, 2010 final program level Environmental Impact Report did not address blight.
"The impacts on Menlo Park aren't as clearly defined as they are in the northern cities where High-Speed Rail has already decided what they're going to do, " Flashman said.
"And the only alternatives which would have mitigated these impacts, that is a covered trench or tunnel, have been removed," Flashman elaborated.
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."