While it may look like just another tree, El Palo Alto (behind the train, just to the left of the Caltrain logo) is one of Palo Alto's most famous residents. The 1,070-year-old redwood could suffer if, as expected, high-speed rail comes to the Caltrain right of way. Photos by David Kidd.
Dave Dockter, Palo Alto's arborist, cherishes El Palo Alto. Soot from coal-powered trains nearly killed El Palo Alto a century ago. Dockter worries that high-speed rail will prove fatal.
One reasons Palo Altans care about the fate of El Palo Alto is that the city is obsessed with trees. The city accidentally stirred up a major controversy last year when it removed 63 trees from one street without informing the public in advance. Some residents seethed -- though the city said the trees were diseased.
Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt won office last November in an election in which high-speed rail was a central issue. "Our city has a strong preference that an elevated four-track system dividing our city in two almost certainly is unacceptable," Burt says. "Other than that, we're open to a lot of possibilities."
Architect Tony Carrasco dreams of burying all of the train tracks underground in Palo Alto, creating an interconnected network of green space. Carrasco's vision is controversial in part because it could be funded by allowing taller buildings in the city.
The Caltrain right of way squeezes to less than 75 feet in some parts of Palo Alto. That means a few houses will likely be demolished if high-speed rail becomes a reality.
At peak hours, Caltrain commuter trains whiz through Palo Alto every few minutes. Supporters hope that, in the process of building high-speed rail, Caltrain service also will become faster and cleaner. For now, Caltrain is financially troubled -- just like most government entities in California.
Today, roads cross Palo Alto's Caltrain tracks at-grade in four places. With high-speed rail, trains travel too fast to allow for at-grade crossings.
Neighborhoods of funky one-story homes stand near the proposed high-speed rail tracks. These homes look small, but they're pricey. Palo Altans are willing to pay for good schools and good parks. They worry that high-speed rail will hurt their quality of life and their property values.
These four Palo Alto moms (from left Elizabeth Alexis, Rita Wespi, Nadia Naik and Sara Armstrong) together formed Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design. Their group has demanded more disclosure from state officials. Research by CARRD, an all-volunteer group, now is regularly cited by state legislators and Palo Alto's city officials.
CARRD's Nadia Naik (with her daughter) has pushed the High-Speed Rail Authority to use "context-sensitive solutions" in designing high-speed rail in Palo Alto. The CSS model has helped highway planners build roads that please locals, but, Naik says, it hasn't been applied to a rail project previously.
CARRD's Elizabeth Alexis, an economist, made news when she complained of a questionable statistical assumption in the Authority's ridership projections. The Authority attributed the discrepancy to an error in a summary of the formula, not the formula itself.
No one's quite sure how the noise and vibrations from high-speed rail will affect Palo Alto's schools, roads and parks. "Very few people are saying, 'Don't build it,'" says Jeff Barker, the Authority's deputy director. "People are saying, 'Build it, but build it right.'"