High-speed rail activities to slow down on Peninsula

Rail authority votes to start line between Borden and Corcoran, giving Peninsula cities a chance to focus on Caltrain

California's high-speed rail project will begin between the small city of Corcoran and the unincorporated community of Borden in the Central Valley, the California High-Speed Rail Authority decided Thursday afternoon despite widespread criticism that the design would result in a "train to nowhere."

The authority's board of directors unanimously adopted a staff recommendation Thursday to begin the rail line between the two small Central Valley locations -- a recommendation that shocked legislators across the state after it was publicized earlier this month. Though the board was widely expected to choose a Central Valley segment as the first stretch of the 800-mile line, its choice dismayed and angered officials from Merced and Bakersfield who thought their regions should have been chosen for the first phase of the project.

The rail project, which California voters approved in 2008, has run up against heavy resistance on the Peninsula, with Palo Alto, Atherton and Menlo Park all suing the rail authority over the validity of its environmental analysis. Rod Diridon, member of the rail authority's board of directors, said Thursday that the decision to start the line in the Central Valley, as opposed to the Peninsula, was based in large part on community feedback.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) earmarked $715 million in its most recent grant for the Central Valley region, though it did not specify where exactly this money should be spent. The grant all but ensured that the $43 billion project would begin in the middle of the state.

"There was abject, overwhelming cooperation coming from Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield on the project," Diridon said. "And that was, I think, the controlling reason the FRA decided to mandate to us that the funding is going to be spent in the Central Valley."

The decision means that it will likely be years before the rail project speeds to the Peninsula. Officials from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and other Peninsula cities have spent the past two years hiring engineering consultants, lobbying state officials for an underground rail design on the Peninsula, scrutinizing the authority's environmental reports and holding regular meetings to discuss the rail project.

Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt said he expects the Peninsula group's focus to change now that the line will start in Central Valley. Burt called the rail authority's decision to begin the line between Borden and Corcoran "somewhat mystifying" but noted that Peninsula cities are more concerned about what happens in their own communities.

He said he expects the rail authority to slow down its engineering work on the Peninsula and shift its focus to Central Valley. If that happens, Peninsula cities can attend to another hot rail-related topic -- making sure the cash-strapped Caltrain service gets the funding and the infrastructural improvements it needs to continue operating.

The rail authority had already indicated that it would not release its highly anticipated Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Peninsula segment of the rail line in December, as previously planned. But Burt said it remains to be seen how long the authority will wait before proceeding with the document, which would evaluate and select the design of high-speed rail on the Peninsula. He noted that the rail authority only has about $4.3 billion in federal and state funds -- far short of the project's estimated $43 billion price tag.

"If they proceed to do what I think is foolish, which is drive forward an EIR, we'd probably be obliged to continue to expend resources on something that we think is unlikely to happen," Burt said.

Despite the recent Central Valley decision, Palo Alto officials are proceeding with the city's Rail Corridor Study, an effort to analyze the Caltrain Corridor and identify opportunities for development around the corridor.

The Thursday meeting of the rail authority's board focused largely on the Corcoran-Borden corridor, with some Central Valley officials lauding the staff recommendation as a sensible choice for the first phase of the 800-mile line and many others blasting this selection as a betrayal of earlier promises. Merced County Supervisor John Perdoza said the decision to begin the line between Borden and Corcoran "just plain makes me mad."

Atherton Councilman Jerry Carlson attended the Sacramento meeting and asked the board members why they didn't hold public hearings on this decision before Thursday's meeting.

"Credibility and public support has continued to decline for this project," Carlson said. "It needs to be addressed through your actions and not through a PR campaign."

Tom Umberg, vice chair of the board, reminded the audience that the authority's focus is to build a statewide system and downplayed the importance of where the line begins.

"Wherever we begin is not the endpoint," Umberg said. "Wherever we begin is not the terminus of the project."

Authority board member Lynne Schenk rejected opponents' characterization of the Borden-Corcoran segment as a "train to nowhere" and maintained that "Central Valley is not nowhere." She said she was surprised by the staff recommendation not to start the rail line in more densely populated cities and said she understands "the engineering sense, but not the common sense" behind the recommendation. She ultimately ended up supporting the staff recommendation.

Rail engineers argued that starting construction between Borden (near Madera) and Corcoran (south of Fresno) gives the agency the flexibility to build either north or south when more money becomes available.

Rail authority CEO Roelof van Ark did not attend Thursday's meeting but released a statement Wednesday urging critics of the staff recommendation to focus on the entire project rather than its starting point.

"It is an engineering and project-management decision, not a political one," van Ark wrote on the blog, Fox & Hounds Daily. "It is an important decision, as it should secure the future success of the program as a whole."

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Like this comment
Posted by morris brown
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Dec 3, 2010 at 11:59 pm

It is hardly mystifying as to why the Authority has gone ahead and approved starting this project with this "sub-set", which in spite of Director Lynne Schenk's statement is indeed a "train to nowhere".

(as was pointed out in a news article Corcoran, the southern end of this plan is home of Corcoran State Prison; maybe you might want to visit Charles Manson, who resides there)

Over-riding the whole decision is the mandate from the Feds, that the Authority must by Dec 31, submit a plan to use the ARRA funds, that the plan had to be located in the Central Valley and that the total budget for this plan with the limited funds available made this "sub-set", of a usable segment, the choice of the Authority. Failure of the Authority to get this paperwork completed and submitted by the end of this year, would result in forfeit of those funds.

So it is all about this Fed grant of the money, and as a result we get this ridiculous proposal, which was unanimously approved by the Board on Thursday.

There are tons of problems with what has been approved, not the least of which is the legality of using Prop 1A bonds funds, which are part of the proposed funding.

Prop 1A demands full funding for a "usable HSR segment". This plan, by the Authority's own admission is not a "usable HSR segment", just a "sub-set" of a usable segment ( as an example: the plan does not include electrification as one omission --- they simply don't have the funds to include electrification)

An interesting exchange on the legal problems of this starting plan can be viewed at:

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by economist
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Dec 4, 2010 at 10:38 am

So how much per mile will this segment cost? What would be the cost of alternatives? My guess is that people could be chauffeured in limos or luxury shuttles for far less.
This is growth-inducing in the valley. The straightest path from LA is not through these towns.
Seems like an unwise decision to me.

Like this comment
Posted by QuoVadis
a resident of another community
on Dec 4, 2010 at 4:17 pm

It seems that nothing makes people happy. You will wish you had it zooming through your area when it is built and in your 70's and 80's no longer wish to expose yourself at airline security stations.
Human nature is the same, rich of poor. I just will continue taking my yacht to San Pedro and then my limousine will take me to the Bel Air Hotel once every six weeks to see my children.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Dec 5, 2010 at 2:57 pm

What’s the biggest danger right now? That the Peninsula relaxes its concerns. “Oh, this will never happen. They will never get the money.”

There’s something called the 80/20 effect. That’s when a project is 80% complete and everyone can now relax for that last 20%. That’s a huge mistake. In short, our fight is far from over.

Many, including Pat Burt, are ready to shift their attention to Caltrain. No, Mayor Burt, the HSR problem has not gone away. There is still enormous support for it in the State Legislature.

Caltrain is a distraction. Once we have finally resolved the HSR issue (with its termination) we can give our full attention to bailing out Caltrain.

The new Governor was a participant in the early days of the pre-cursers to the CHSRA and an avid supporter of this train. There is no evidence that he won’t continue to support it and the rail authority, even if that body is a crazy-house.

The Democratic caucus in California single-mindedly supports the train, regardless of the bad behaviors and mismanagement by its promoters. Why? Because, especially for them, it’s not about the train; it’s about the money.

Just as to a hammer everything looks like a nail, so with our two Senators, several Representatives and Democrats in the State Legislature, the ARRA stimulus bailout funds are the hammer that will solve all of California’s economic problems, simply because they will be spent, regardless of how or for what.

As I say, our fight is far from over. This is not merely a Peninsula problem, HSR is a state problem and it will take all our efforts to get our government to stop this mindless juggernaut.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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