By Julie Hutcheson, Former Legislative Advocate
We may be at odds with the new Gilroy City Council over the location of the city’s future high-speed rail station.
That’s because in 2012 Gilroy’s city councilmembers chose their downtown as the preferred location for a high-speed rail (HSR) station. The community strongly supported this decision, as did Committee for Green Foothills, because it avoided the alternative location—accompanied by new urban growth —in the Agricultural Preserve to the east of the shopping outlets. Locating the station in the preserve could have lost 200 acres of prime farmland and caused numerous other environmental impacts. It would have induced further sprawl and seriously jeopardized much-needed efforts to revitalize Gilroy’s downtown.
Unfortunately, this January, just as councilmembers were on the cusp of adopting a new downtown HSR station area plan, they decided instead to revisit the preferred station location. City councilmembers directed staff to update the 2012 analysis of advantages and disadvantages of the two proposed station locations before proceeding further. It was pressure from some in the business community who believe the construction impacts will be too great that caused the change of heart.
While city councilmembers do need to look out for businesses’ short-term interests, they must also take the long-term view of the station’s benefits for the downtown and Gilroy as a whole. Locating the station in the Agricultural Preserve would place it in a floodplain. It would require more city investment to create and sustain growth around it than would a downtown location. Furthermore, Measure H, a voter-approved urban growth boundary, excludes the Agricultural Preserve from urban development. Indeed, the lands within the Agricultural Preserve weigh heavily in the current effort by Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara valley Open Space Authority to develop a regional Climate and Agriculture Preservation Program.
To complicate matters further, the council decided in April to consider an option that would run two alignments through the Gilroy area: one downtown where the station would be located and one through the Agricultural Preserve on the east side of the city. This ‘split’ or ‘Y’ option would allow trains not stopping at the station to run east of the city. This option was shelved by the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) several years ago as infeasible on a number of levels. The council was expected to make a final decision at their May 15, 2017 meeting as to which option they will recommend to the CHSRA, but that decision has been delayed.
Instead of considering options that would maximize impacts, Gilroy should seek to minimize them by negotiating with the CHSRA to address thier concerns about the disruptive effects of a downtown station and alignment. The city can also glean valuable insight from the experiences of Central Valley cities such as Fresno and Merced. Both cities chose to locate their HSR stations in downtown areas, based on the broad economic benefits and sustainable growth they expect that HSR will bring. Both cities are also much further along in their station-area planning.
Locating the high-speed rail station in Gilroy’s downtown is simply the right option for the environment and the economy. We will continue to advocate for this smart, community-supported choice.
Update: as of August, 2017, Gilroy City Councilmembers have not made any further discussion and have not voted on the high-speed rail station location. We will keep you posted as this issue moves forward.