News - December 1, 2010

High-speed rail delay may benefit Peninsula

by Sandy Brundage

Local high-speed rail watchdogs think recent announcements by the rail authority will give Peninsula residents more time to evaluate the design options for the segment running through their own cities.

After deciding in November that high-speed rail construction would start in the Central Valley, the California High-Speed Rail Authority board also announced that the release of the preliminary environmental impact report for the Peninsula segment would be delayed. The authority had planned to release the report for the San Francisco-to-San Jose line of the $43 billion rail project in December.

Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline chairs the Peninsula Cities Consortium, a coalition of elected officials from Menlo Park, Atherton, Palo Alto, Burlingame and Belmont that advocates for the five cities, all of which will be heavily impacted by construction of the Peninsula segment of high-speed rail.

Mr. Cline said getting more time to evaluate the project has been one of the top priorities this year for local leadership, but that time alone won't resolve major concerns that include how to build the tracks, and whether the right people are running the project.

In 2008, voters passed Proposition 1A, which allowed the state to dedicate $9.95 billion in funding to high-speed rail. "HSR was voted in and it may still have a majority approval, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't critically evaluate this 100-year rail project that will end up being the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in our state's history," said Mr. Cline.

He pointed to flawed ridership studies as a sign of the need for continued scrutiny.

"We need to start zeroing in on the ridership studies that have justified the amount of trains, the width of the tracks, the routes of the trains, and the cost to the state and to each individual rider in the future," Mr. Cline said. "When [Palo Alto] Mayor [Pat] Burt and I sat in front of senators Simitian and Lowenthal last January, we asked how Merced and Gilroy could have more trains projected in 2035 than Boston and Baltimore."

The time gained by the project's starting construction in the Central Valley rather than closer to home is time that the mayor thinks could be used to demand a new, peer-reviewed ridership study conducted by a third party.

"The worst thing we can do is to allow the HSRA to keep moving ahead as they are until they end up building a train system to nowhere ... which will make that bridge to nowhere look like a cute mistake," Mr. Cline said.

In a Nov. 25 letter to the City Council, Menlo Park community activist Don Barnby said he supports the need for a unified local front on high-speed rail, but called doing another ridership study unnecessary.

"We don't need another independent ridership study when one has already been done by the Institute for Transportation Studies, UC-Berkeley; we don't need to 'inform the scope of design alternatives' when we already know there is no way expected ridership can justify ANY design alternative," Mr. Barnby wrote.

The Berkeley study concluded in July that the rail authority's projections were unreliable because of multiple flaws in the mathematical models used to estimate ridership.

In a letter to local newspapers, former Menlo Park mayor and high-speed rail advocate Steve Schmidt agreed that the ridership projections were exaggerated. He also stated the delay could provide a chance to analyze alternative designs, but that pressure from local leaders might push the rail authority to leave out one viable option — elevated tracks.

"These same elected officials complain of the high cost of HSR to the State and yet they support alternatives such as tunneling that are so prohibitively expensive that they will break the HSR bank and in the end, keep Caltrain operating in its current state like a heavy, noisy, dangerous and polluting dinosaur," Mr. Schmidt wrote. "Our elected officials can stop the grandstanding and obstruction and start working with HSR officials to design and build the most affordable and most broadly beneficial segment of HSR here on the Peninsula."


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