Viewpoint - December 1, 2010

Editorial: Holiday came early for high-speed rail critics

All of a sudden the multi-billion dollar high-speed rail juggernaut that has dominated the Peninsula transportation agenda since voters approved Proposition 1a in 2008 vanished into the Central Valley last week.

Instead of releasing its long-awaited draft environmental impact statement for the project's Peninsula segment in December, the EIR "...will need to be rescheduled for a future date," said Robert Doty, director of the Peninsula Rail Program, a partnership of Caltrain and the rail authority. Without the EIR, no decisions will be made on whether Peninsula trains will run on elevated tracks, at grade, in a tunnel or open trench.

The stunning news came soon after the Federal Railroad Administration designated a $715 million grant specifically for a Central Valley segment. Now the Peninsula portion of the project has been pushed back, and already two Peninsula mayors have used the delay to call for much better analysis of the project's viability before it is put back on track.

At this stage, no one knows how long the Peninsula EIR will be delayed, but it easily could be a number of years, rather than months. And already the newly rejuvenated Republicans in Congress are saying funding for some of President Obama's high-speed rail initiatives may be in trouble.

Mayors Pat Burt of Palo Alto and Terry Nagel of Burlingame are now asking their counterparts to "come together as a powerful force dedicated to moving forward on transportation planning on the Peninsula.

But along with seeking better research to lessen the impact of the rail project, it appears there may be pressure from Washington for all Peninsula cities to accept a workable high-speed rail plan.

In an open letter, Mssrs. Burt and Nagel said that in a meeting with five Peninsula mayors, Congresswomen Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier emphasized the need for local cities to agree on a plan for moving forward with high-speed rail.

"They made it clear that our region will not receive federal funds for transportation projects until we demonstrate that we have a common vision for future transportation," the mayors said, adding that the U.S. Department of Transportation is more likely to fund projects where local leaders have reached agreement.

At this point it is not clear if agreement is necessary for local communities to receive any federal transportation funds, or just high-speed rail grants. Either way, it looks like at least Palo Alto and Burlingame and almost certainly Menlo Park and Atherton, will want the rail authority to authorize new, independent research before they can support the project.

Specifically, the mayors want new studies of estimated ridership, a budget and business plan, assessment of freight issues on the Peninsula, restoration of the alignments originally sought by the cities, and more thorough vetting of alternative transportation options.

Unless there is a change at the top, it is highly unlikely that the High-Speed Rail Authority will vote to redo this much of its original research. That will leave Peninsula communities in a bind, to either support a plan they don't like, or oppose it and risk losing federal funding, which could kill the project.

Menlo Park, Atherton, Palo Alto and other Peninsula cities may have an opportunity to make a tremendous impact on the design and execution of the Midpeninsula segment of the high-speed rail line. The big question is whether they can take advantage of it.


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