News - February 3, 2010

High-speed rail gains momentum with stimulus funds

by Andrea Gemmet

The plan to build a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles is gathering steam, thanks to $2.25 billion in stimulus funds.

The project is set to send high-speed trains down the Peninsula along the Caltrain corridor, a route that has raised objections from many local residents and elected officials, including the city councils of Atherton and Menlo Park.

"This award is fantastic news for California and for our state's high-speed rail project," said Curt Pringle, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority in a statement. "It is an award that will lead to the creation of tens of thousands of quality jobs in the near-term and to continued economic strength ... in the long term."

Unsurprisingly, local critics of the project take a dim view of the stimulus award.

"This is not good news," said Menlo Park resident Martin Engel in an e-mail. "They are clearly making progress toward their goal of construction on the Peninsula, and we already know what that will look like."

Menlo Park and Atherton are among the Peninsula communities that are pushing for the high-speed rail to be built in a tunnel, rather than on a raised berm.

Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline said that the tunnel idea deserves serious consideration.

"If it wasn't for tunnels, New York City would not be what it is," he said. "Someone has to have the vision, to see the value of having trains underneath the ground a hundred years from now."

Mr. Cline said that there are legitimate concerns about the high-speed rail authority's business plan, ridership projections and the configuration of the train tracks, and he's getting tired of them being dismissed as Not In My Back Yard obstructionism.

"I'm not a NIMBY," he said. "I think high-speed rail is a great thing and I think it should come through my backyard. But it's a question of how it comes through the town."

The granting of the stimulus funds is not unexpected, Mr. Cline said.

"It was pretty clear from the (Obama) administration that these funds were coming," he said. "The challenges don't change — actually, they're enhanced."

What's changed is that the rail authority no longer needs to act as an advocate drumming up support for the project, he said. What's needed now is expertise in overseeing massive public building projects, Mr. Cline said.

"The people who got it to this point should be commended, but they have no experience building mega-projects, so the authority needs to be re-staffed with people who know how to handle it," he said.

The rail authority had requested $4.7 billion in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding for high-speed intercity rail systems. More than a quarter of the $8 billion in federal stimulus money earmarked for high-speed rail systems is being awarded to California's project.

Mr. Pringle said California was granted a significant portion of the stimulus funds despite "tremendous competition."


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