Peninsula Still Looking for Ways to Pull the Brake on High-Speed Rail

Friday, Aug 6, 2010  |  Updated 3:15 PM PDT
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Peninsula Still Looking for Ways to Pull the Brake on High-Speed Rail

After four months and 30 community meetings, the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced Thursday it would take community concerns into consideration when weighing options for tracks between San Francisco and San Jose.

The authority plans to study three approaches to creating a four-track system along the Caltrain corridor through the Peninsula - which would be shared by both rail systems - and look for ways to reduce the amount of right-of-way the project needs from a width of 120 feet to as little as 80 feet.

"Our challenge is to build a statewide high-speed train system that works in concert with local commuter rail systems and respects the communities through which it passes," authority chairman Curt Pringle said in a statement.

The alternatives would be incorporated into a draft environmental impact report that is expected to be publicly released sometime in December. Only after the authority and the Federal Railroad Administration complete and approve a final environmental report would an alignment alternative be selected.

During the four-month outreach effort, community members stressed priorities including the protection of natural resources, and improvements to existing rail service and track crossings.

The authority's response comes on the heels of a sharply worded letter sent to a coalition of Peninsula cities by the president and CEO of the business-backed Bay Area Council.

Mayors and council members from the five most dissentious communities - Atherton, Belmont, Burlingame, Menlo Park and Palo Alto - received the letter on July 29.

"High speed rail is too important to let a small, vocal minority decide its fate," Wunderman wrote Monday on the Bay Area Council's blog, where he posted the critical letter in toto. The council represents more than 275 of the Bay Area's largest employers and lobbies for a stronger regional economy.

Last month, the Peninsula Cities Consortium, which consists of those same five communities, demanded that the rail line "be built right or not at all," and its members criticized the authority for what they say was a rush to apply for federal funding.

Applications are due Friday for the latest round of federal funding through the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the authority
announced last week that it would seek up to $1 billion of the $2.3 billion that will be distributed among state projects.

California was awarded $2.25 billion in January for the high-speed rail project as part of $8 billion in federal stimulus money devoted toward building a national high-speed rail network. Construction must begin by September 2012 and finish five years later to remain eligible for that allotment, according to the consortium.

Despite the affluence enjoyed by residents of those peninsula communities, Wunderman contrasts that California's 2.3 million unemployed have been anxiously waiting for the rail project, and all the construction jobs it represents, to move forward. The state Employment Development Department reported in June that San Mateo County's jobless rate was the third lowest among California's counties.

"For these struggling Californians, $4 billion of near-term high speed rail construction expenditure would be lifesaving," Wunderman wrote in the July 29 letter. The 800-mile project between Sacramento and San Diego is expected to generate as many as 100,000 construction-related jobs each year while the project is being built, according to the authority.

Citing voter support among the Peninsula community for the 2008 high speed rail bond measure - 60 percent of San Mateo and Santa Clara county voters were in its favor - Wunderman said it appears "extremely unlikely that [Peninsula residents] would want their city to be the one standing in the way
of the project coming to fruition."

In May, the authority conducted its own survey of California residents and found that a majority of the 800 registered California voters
it surveyed want to see the project move forward.

Beyond the Bay Area, the Merced to Fresno branch of the project will also be further studied to limit the number of sites considered for a heavy maintenance facility. Further investigation will also allow for the consideration of alternatives for linking the Central Valley portion of the network with Gilroy and San Jose.

As of press time, the mayors of the Peninsula cities were
unreachable for comment.
 

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