Alice Barnes says CAC was independent bodyBy Justin Nyberg
The San Bruno City Council publicly admitted that it handpicked a citizen's oversight committee to guarantee the smooth passage of a controversial grade separation project that the city and Caltrain favored.
Reversing the council's previous statements that its 15-member Citizen Advisory Committee was not "stacked" in favor of the project, Councilmember Ken Ibarra acknowledged that the City Council had selected only residents who supported moving the Caltrain station from Sylvan Avenue to San Mateo Avenue.
"We needed to go forward with what this council majority had decided," Ibarra said. "We were not going to put someone on that committee that was not going to go along with" the plan endorsed by council.
Opponents of the project, including Councilmember Chris Pallas, cried foul last year when it appeared the city only appointed supporters of grade separation and station relocation to the committee. At the time, Councilmembers Jim Ruane and Ken Ibarra, who co-chaired the committee, denied the accusation to the Independent.
Caltrain proposed five options to elevate its tracks above the intersection of San Mateo and San Bruno avenues, favoring the fifth which included relocating the station one half mile north of its present location at Sylvan Avenue. The city voted to endorse that option Aug. 13, 2002. Several residents and downtown merchants complained that moving the station was unnecessary.
When asked again in July 2003 if the council "stacked the committee" with supporters of station relocation, Ruane again denied it.
"We had a big cross-section of the whole community. It was not stacked at all," Ruane told the Independent July 29.
Contacted last week, Ruane said that he had been misinterpreted, and that the council had always been forthright that the citizen's advisory committee was to consider only one option - relocation.
San Bruno resident Barbara LaRaia, a vocal critic of the project, called this untrue.
"For the last year they have gone on tape saying we have selected a committee that represents all aspects of the community and all viewpoints on the Caltrain project," LaRaia said. "They didn't want people who were against alternative five to know about it or to be on the committee. They wanted people to think it was an open committee."
Ruane responded that it was a committee with a broad set of viewpoints, exemplified by the fact that it conducted a series of long and often charged debates on the details of the project, though most had to do with details of alternative five.
He pointed out that Caltrain did consider alternative proposals from those who were not selected to sit on the committee. Jim Kelly, who was rejected as a candidate for the citizen's advisory committee, has long touted the idea to build vehicle overpasses above the railroad tracks. Kelly attended several CAC meetings and Caltrain responded with a thorough analysis of his proposal, which would have entailed Caltrain condemning more than a dozen homes for construction space.
Also, Alice Barnes, a vocal neighborhood activist who went on the record Aug. 13, 2002 opposing the central feature of alternative five - the relocation of the Caltrain station - was one of those whom the city appointed to the committee.
"They knew I didn't want it to go to San Bruno Avenue, and I wanted then for it to go at Sylvan. And I still want it to stay at Sylvan," Barnes said. "We were an independent body and we were considering all alternatives and we did. You couldn't find a more independent group than they did."
But if the city had formed the CAC to evaluate only alternative five, questions remain about whether the community was clear about that throughout the process.
Ruane said he always thought the public was very clear about what the committee had been tasked to do.
"People have to keep themselves informed to a certain degree. It wasn't confusing for me at all, or the citizens on the committee," he said.
Ibarra was unavailable to comment on the issue. But approached during a recess in the Aug. 12 council meeting, in which the city voted 4-1 to approve the CAC's plan to move the Caltrain station, Ibarra said that nothing about the process was unique.
"We handled it just like we handle other committees and commissions," Ibarra said. "The purpose of the CAC was not to select an alternative, the purpose of the CAC was to implement alternative five."
CAC member Theresa Macintosh said Aug. 12 that the station location was a dead issue by the time the city approved the project, and called the allegations that the committee was stacked a "red herring" - a ploy by project opponents to keep the station at its current location.
Both Ibarra and Ruane said that the project, including the station relocation, was in the best interests of San Bruno, as exemplified by the fact that after extensive coverage in the independent, and the efforts of naysayers to mobilize community opposition to the project, only a handful of people approached the podium to speak against station relocation Aug. 12.
"I can count on one hand the people who are against this project, and we've been at this for two years," Ibarra said.
The issue was discussed at length in at least three city council meetings, with the agendas posted at City Hall and other locations 48 hours prior to meetings. There have also been 11 public meetings of the citizen's advisory committee.
The $80-$90 million project is now in the hands of engineers who will make a final proposal to the Caltrain board of directors at an as yet unspecified date. Pending approval, now likely with the city's endorsement, construction is tentatively slated to begin in 2005 and last for two years.
Funding for the project has not yet been secured, though the cost will likely be shared by a variety of state and federal sources. San Bruno has been listed as a possible funding source for at least some of the project cost, but it is not clear if the city will be asked to contribute, or how much.
Opinions among riders at the Sylvan station Tuesday afternoon were mixed. Gary Biagi, 51, who boards the train at Sylvan three to four times a week, said he was opposed to the station moving because he saw it as a waste of money to move the station a third time. Fellow rider Ernest Armstrong, 38, of San Francisco, said moving the station north to San Mateo Avenue would be "way" more convenient for him.
"I hate having to come all the way here," Armstrong said. One other rider opposed the move; two said they didn't care either way.
The project has a long way to go before San Bruno will know exactly what the grade separation project will look like.
"This is by no means final. What we are asking the council to do is approve the concept of what we are doing," said Caltrain spokesperson Jayme Maltbie-Kunz. "Basically in a project of this size and scale, at some point you have to say, 'OK we have decided to go this direction.' Otherwise you are just spinning your wheels."
Copyright ©2003 Peninsula Examiner. Published 08/16/2003.