California's proposed high-speed rail system is either a badly needed boost to the state's workers and commuters or an overpriced, shoddily planned boondoggle that needs more oversight and a better business plan.
Both positions were well represented by close to 100 speakers at Thursday night's public hearing on the controversial train project, which initially would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles and pass through the Peninsula along the Caltrain tracks. Ultimately it would reach from Sacramento to San Diego.
More than 200 people crammed into the Palo Alto City Council chambers to share their concerns or express their enthusiasm for the high-speed-rail project to state Sens. Joe Simitian and Alan Lowenthal.
As in previous meetings, dozens of Peninsula residents and a handful of local officials asked state officials to increase their oversight of the California High-Speed Rail Authority and to bolster public outreach for the planning process. But for the first time their views were counterbalanced by a crowd of labor leaders, pro-rail bloggers and other supporters of the $42.6 billion project.
The senators, whose budget subcommittee is charged with vetting the voter-approved project, focused on the rail authority's recently released business plan. Lowenthal, who chairs the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said some of the rail authority's ridership figures seem far too high and appear to have been "pulled out of a hat."
Simitian, who chairs the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation, said the new business plan has made significant progress from the 2008 version. But he added that there's much room for improvement.
He also urged rail officials to improve their communication efforts.
"I thought the High Speed Rail Authority needs to do a better job in engaging the public," Simitian said. "It means not simply selling the project but genuinely responding to people's legitimate concerns when they're raised."
Local officials also questioned the numbers in the business plan and the rail authority's outreach methods.
Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt, who serves on the board of the Peninsula Cities Coalition, derided the new business plan's ridership figures. He said the rail authority expects Gilroy to attract roughly as many rail passengers as Amtrak currently draws in the Northeast corridor. Burt, a Girloy native, said he finds these numbers at once humorous and misleading.
"It warms my heart to see Gilroy compared to Boston and Philadelphia," Burt said. "We from Gilroy, which is garlic country, have a certain right in asserting what doesn't pass a smell test.
"To compare Gilroy's ridership with the Northeast is just a phenomenal leap of faith," he added. "We can't answer how they come up with these numbers but they don't seem right."
Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline, a longtime critic of the rail project, also said he was concerned about the business plan's "inaccurate ridership figures." Cline, who chairs the five-city Peninsula Cities Consortium, said city officials cannot support the $42.6 billion project given the lack of reliable information coming from state officials.
"There are so many unanswered questions that we can't possibly raise the flag on high-speed rail," Cline said.
Other critics questioned the rail authority's plans for obtaining revenues for the project. The authority is hoping for $10 billion to $12 billion in private funding; at least $17 billion in federal grants; and more than $4 billion in local funds to pay for the project.
California voters approved $9.95 billion for the project in November 2008, when they passed Proposition 1A.
Lowenthal said he was skeptical about the authority's plan to collect about $3 billion annually from the federal government over the next six years. He said the state currently gets about $3 billion in federal funding for all of its transportation needs.
He suggested that the authority consider focusing on one particular segment of the high-speed-rail line rather than seeking to build all eight segments simultaneously.
"Why don't you complete one section to demonstrate it can work other than doing something that can turn into a high-speed-rail project to nowhere?" Lowenthal asked Thursday.
The project has drawn great scrutiny on the Peninsula, where criticism of the rail authority has snowballed over the past year as details about the project have emerged. Hundreds of residents in Palo Alto and surrounding cities turned against the project after they realized that the new rail system might include elevated tracks splitting their communities, which authority officials say is only one possibility.
But the project also had a large base support at Thursday's meeting. Many speakers characterized the rail project as a desperately needed panacea to the state's high unemployment rate and persistent traffic jams.
Dozens of union leaders, business officials and members of the grassroots group Californians for High-Speed Rail asked the two senators to support the project and fund it accordingly.
"It is now incumbent on both the (rail) authority and the legislation to ensure the will of the voters, as expressed by Proposition 1A, is put in place," said Brian Stanke, the executive director of Californians for High-Speed Rail.
Cindy Chavez, CEO of the South Bay Labor Council, said the project would produce 36,000 jobs for every $2 billion spent. Jim Lazarus, vice chair of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, argued that the project is needed to support the state's growing population.
"I urge you not to delay this project, to fund the agency to move the environmental process forward and to stand behind the state's request for stimulus funds," Lazarus said.
Rail authority officials acknowledged Thursday that many details of the business plan, including federal funds and private investment, are yet unknown. Jeff Barker, the rail authority's deputy director, called the business plan a "dynamic document" that will be continuously revised as more information is gathered.
"The business plan is a snapshot of where the project is today and where we see it going in the future," he said. "It's a document that we'll continue to refine."