Both men see giant loopholes for the high-speed rail project to step around the two-track limit of the "blended" system on the Peninsula that Assembly members Jerry Hill and Rich Gordon, who both voted for the the project, say is plenty of protection against the dreaded four-tracks that is one of several key factors in the lawsuit.
But in the eyes of Mr. Hill and Mr. Gordon, all the worst case scenarios contained in the lawsuit have evaporated, at least for now. In addition to their belief that the rail authority will stick to an agreement to build only two tracks on the Peninsula that will not encroach on private property near the rail corridor, the legislators see a huge plus in Caltrain electrification, a major part of the package. They say the diesel noise and pollution will be gone, and speeds will increase enough so that bullet trains could stop at smaller depots like Atherton and still make the run between San Jose and San Francisco in an hour or so. There is no plan to run trains much faster than the top speeds seen now, they say.
In their lawsuit, Peninsula cities want to see the possibility of four tracks removed from the environmental impact report, which allows four tracks as an option. There are certain to be more challenges to the deal struck by a slim margin in the Legislature on July 6, which saw a rare split in the Peninsula delegation, with Mr. Hill and Mr. Gordon voting yes on SB 1029, and Sen. Joe Simitian, who is termed out but won a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in June, voting no.
Assembly members Hill and Gordon view the legislation as a windfall for the Peninsula, especially the funds for Caltrain electrification. Both said they emphatically believe that passage of the bill does not commit the state to build the entire project, estimated to cost $68 billion.
But Sen. Simitian, who has often said that he is a supporter of high-speed rail done right, shocked his colleagues when he announced on the floor of the Senate that he could not bring himself to vote "aye" on the bill.
As one of three senators on the high-speed rail committee, Sen. Simitian had worked hard with local, state and federal officials to negotiate improvements to the plan and find a way to move forward that addressed both local objections and the flaws and uncertainties of the business plan. But in the end, he and his two colleagues on the committee, decided the risks of the overall project were just too great.
Sen. Simitian's worries were both immediate and long-term. He fears that Governor Brown's ballot initiative to raise income taxes on wealthy Californians and impose a small sales tax increase might not pass in November due to a backlash from voters angry that the Legislature voted to spend money on the high-speed rail project. Further, he still sees trouble in the project's business plans and has doubts about the rail authority's leadership, which has several major vacancies and a CEO who has been on the job less than a month.
Like Sen. Simitian, many critics of the high-speed rail project, including this newspaper, have said the project is a $68 billion commitment that the state cannot afford. But if Assembly members Gordon and Hill are correct, this vote does not commit the state to spend another dime of its own money beyond $2.7 billion in bond funds. Although it adds to an already massive state debt load, the amount is manageable, according to Assemblyman Gordon.
We continue to believe that build-out of high-speed rail is too costly for a state that is struggling mightily to pay for higher priorities, like education and health care. But passage of SB 1029 does not commit the state to go further, will pay for electrification of Caltrain, and funds only transit projects that will bring immediate utility without being attached to a high-speed train. The lawsuit against high-speed rail must play out, but if Assembly members Hill and Gordon are right, passage of SB 1029 is hardly the worst case scenario that many Peninsula residents feared.