Almanac

News - August 11, 2010

Officials, residents oppose high-speed rail design changes

by Sandy Brundage

The decision by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to drop tunnels and covered trenches as design options for the Midpeninsula section of the system will heighten local opposition to high-speed rail, officials tell The Almanac.

The remaining design choices are at-grade trains, aerial tracks, and open trenches — options opposed by many local officials.

"It's in our best interests to start taking on the challenge to say aerial won't work in Menlo Park," said Mr. Cline. "I think it's safe to say that the majority of the council would want below-grade tracks."

Mr. Cline chairs the Peninsula Cities Consortium, organized to deal with high-speed rail issues and made up of five council members from Menlo Park, Atherton, Palo Alto, Belmont and Burlingame.

The timing of the Aug. 5 design presentation in San Francisco raised some eyebrows. Despite requests that the rail authority post designs and presentations online at least five days in advance of its board meetings, Mr. Cline said that hasn't happened.

Referring to Bob Doty, regional manager for the project, Mr. Cline said: "We knew Bob was trying to eliminate alternatives, but we did not know he was going to take the tunnels out. They aren't playing by the rules."

The rail authority board also announced its intention to focus on narrowing the 120-foot-wide right-of-way required for the tracks by as much as 40 feet.

The question remains as to what, exactly, local city governments can do to force the state's juggernaut to listen. Since city councils can't veto the design, the best they can do is protest and press the federal government to freeze funding.

"We can only do what we can do against a big, statewide monster, and work with other cities to get stronger," Mr. Cline said. "All five Peninsula cities (in the consortium) agree that aerial isn't the way to go."

The cities of San Mateo and Redwood City, which aren't members of the consortium, also appear to be against elevated tracks, he added.

The group plans to send a letter to the Federal Railway Administration challenging the use of elevated tracks. The consortium also intends to audit the financing of the survey conducted by two research firms on behalf of the rail authority that showed 76 percent of 1,206 registered voters in California supported the $45 billion project. The survey came out a week before the rail authority applied for additional federal funds. To retain the $2.25 billion already allocated, construction on the high-speed rail system must start by September 2012 and finish within five years.

"The strategy is to get what funding they can, dig holes in as many places as possible and then count on the momentum of an initiated construction project that the federal government won't let die," said Martin Engel, an active local opponent of the project who serves on Menlo Park's transportation commission.

The rail authority expects construction to generate 100,000 jobs per year.

A draft of the project's environmental impact report should start circulating for public comment in December.

Mr. Engel said dropping tunnels may seem to save money, but asked, "How much more are they willing to expend, with money they don't have, to prevent further lawsuits that they might not get dismissed and might lose?"

The rail authority has already faced two lawsuits over the project.

Another local organization has spoken up in support of the Peninsula Cities Consortium. President Jim Janz of the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail challenged the notion that demanding the project be done right amounts to obstruction. In a letter sent to the five city councils represented on the PCC, Mr. Janz wrote that the authority has failed to address problems with the elevated track design.

"Nobody who voted for Proposition 1A wants to destroy some of the best communities in California in the name of high-speed rail, and it's not necessary to do that to have a successful high-speed rail project," he said in the letter.

Menlo Park Councilmember Andy Cohen said his comments about the new design options for the Midpeninsula "weren't printable."

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