Viewpoint - September 29, 2010

Editorial: Putting pressure on the rail project

It may look like David versus Goliath, but the three Peninsula communities that are suing the High-Speed Rail Authority over its incomplete environmental impact report are becoming far more than a minor irritant.

The city councils from Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto all voted last week to file a legal challenge to the authority's EIR, which had recently been slightly modified and then approved after an earlier suit by Menlo Park and Atherton. Not satisfied, the communities, joined by Palo Alto, voted to sue again, and for good reason.

From the cities' point of view, the biggest problem is the authority's use of a model found to contain greatly inflated ridership estimates that make the EIR's validity "very questionable," according to Stuart Flashman, the attorney for the cities. And there is also a continuing dispute over the authority's business plan, which critics have called inadequate ever since it was released.

All three cities believe the authority has treated their well-documented concerns with disdain, despite repeated efforts to find common ground in the routing and design of the tracks that would carry the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco trains through each city. As the high-speed rail discussion unfolded, the cities were led to believe that they would have some say in the final design of the tracks, but as time went on they learned that was not the case.

Now, after more than a year of debate, it appears that the rail authority is no closer to resolving disputes over the project than it was in the beginning. Comments from authority board members show that most would just like to see the Peninsula critics just go away.

But that is not going to happen. There is a package of deadlines fast approaching for the project to qualify for up to $4.3 billion in federal funds. The draft EIR must be completed by this December; the state Legislature, with the support of local Sen. Joe Simitian, has ordered the authority to produce a "viable business plan" by next February or face possible loss of support from the Legislature.

The final environmental review must be completed by September 2011 for the project to qualify for additional federal funds, and construction must start by September 2012. The entire project must be completed by September 2017.

These are not insignificant deadlines. If the rail authority has any hope of meeting them, it needs to respond to the Peninsula cities' concerns so it can get on with its work.

However you may feel about high-speed rail, it is hard to argue against those who say the project needs a viable business plan based on reasonable ridership estimates. And Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto, which will see trains run through heavily settled or developed areas, must be accommodated or at least met halfway in their effort to reduce the project's impact.

We hope this lawsuit will get someone's attention at the rail authority. It is time for these questions to be answered.


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