By Bay City News Service
When high-speed trains travel to the Bay Area, they'll swoosh along the existing Caltrain corridor, where railroad tracks cut through 16 communities in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties between San Jose and Brisbane.
In an effort to provide a forum for business and elected officials in those communities, Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who represents seven of the affected cities, hosted a bus tour of the high-speed rail route Friday morning.
"Every city has a hot point or a hot spot that's of concern to them," Hill said. "We should look at those, be sensitive to them and find a solution."
Last month, five cities on the Peninsula called for the California High-Speed Rail Authority to address a number of concerns about the project before proceeding.
The tour was convened in response to a sharply worded July 29 letter sent to mayors of those Peninsula cities by Bay Area Council president and CEO Jim Wunderman. In that letter, Wunderman expressed concerns that those communities were blocking the project from coming to fruition.
Elected officials from each community were given time on the bus driver's microphone to elaborate on their concerns with or compliments to the $45 billion project aboard a gleaming San Mateo County Transit bus that shuttled the 30 attendees from San Carlos to Brisbane and back.
The most prevalent concern voiced by officials regarded the authority seizing public or private land in order to accommodate an expanded right-of-way required to lay the high-speed rail tracks next to the existing CalTrain line.
While some communities are anticipating the rail construction and have been diligently preparing for the changes and challenges it will present, other community leaders harbor concerns that the character and commerce of their towns are at stake.
Burlingame rose up in a radius around the train station and has since "flowed back and forth as one city" across the railroad tracks, Mayor Cathy Baylock said. Because the community adapted to the presence of the tracks from its inception, "There is no wrong side of the tracks in Burlingame," she said.
But sales tax dollars derived from Burlingame's auto row represent roughly one-sixth of the municipality's sales tax revenue, Baylock said. She said that income could be threatened by the rail project as right-of-way requirements encroach on private property such as the Putnam automotive dealerships. In San Mateo, the city has been planning for almost eight years and plans to contribute $11 million to $13 million of its own funds toward safety aspects of the project such as grade separations, according to San Mateo officials.
"It's a good thing if it's built properly," San Mateo public works director Larry Patterson said.
Transit-oriented development is also springing up in neighborhoods along the rail corridor. The Bay Meadows project in San Mateo is a redevelopment of a horse race track between the train tracks and U.S. Highway 101 that closed in August 2008. When completed in late 2011, the site will house compact high-density office, retail and residential spaces near the Hillsdale CalTrain station.
"High-speed rail helps to advance the overall concept for the corridor," Patterson said.
Aside from introducing the new high-speed trains, the rail project could also bring improvements to the existing Caltrain corridor.
Electrification of the rail corridor would be a boon for Caltrain and the communities it serves, but the agency cannot afford to upgrade the system on its own. Capital costs to electrify the line between San Francisco and San Jose are estimated at more than $470 million.
Revenue from the fare box does not cover the operating budget of Caltrain, which is collectively subsidized by San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and, according to Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn, does not have a dedicated funding source.
Over the last fiscal year, ridership on Caltrain has decreased nearly 6 percent, Dunn said. In June, Caltrain declared a fiscal emergency for the second year in a row when facing a $12.5 million budget deficit.
By the end of the two-hour freewheeling journey, at least one elected official said he had changed his mind about the project.
"Today has raised more questions than provided answers," said Mayor Clarke Conway of Brisbane, where the authority is proposing to build its train maintenance yard for the trunk line between San Jose and San Francisco.
Conway suggested that the rail design, which could run on the four existing tracks through Brisbane, should be buried beneath the length of the Peninsula despite the increased short-term expenses.
"Not many of us will be around 50 years from now, and none of us will be around 100 years from now. We have to think about our future generations," he said.
Assemblyman Jerry Hill said in light of last week's authority board meeting and a subsequent application for up to $1 billion in federal funding that he is prepared to make his constituents' concerns heard and considered.
"In this case, we're going to do it the right way because that's what we've been elected to do," said Hill, who compared the high-speed rail to a project allowing the Millbrae BART station to serve San Francisco International Airport. "We don't want anything less for high-speed rail on the Peninsula than what we saw with BART to the airport."
As for the alternatives unveiled by the authority last week, Hill said he was confident the authority could reach a solution with the cities.
"The alternatives came from local talks, local issues and local initiatives," Hill said. "It meets the community's standards, the standards of the Bay Area and the standards that we're all accustomed to."
A statement issued by the Bay Area Council after the tour continued to criticize select communities that intend to move forward with a challenge to the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the 800-mile rail network.
"By slowing the environmental process down, Menlo Park and Atherton are trying to run out the clock on high-speed rail," Bay Area Council vice president and spokesman Joe Arellano said in the statement.
Delays could essentially kill the project because the environmental process must be completed by September 2011 to qualify it for federal funding. Arellano called for those cities to work with the authority to reach a resolution to allow the project to proceed on schedule.
"The people of California and the Peninsula are counting on all of us to deliver," Arellano said.