Rail authority stumped by Peninsula's proposed 'blended' system

California High-Speed Rail Authority board members question plan to blend rail system with Caltrain, threatens to halt design work on Peninsula

A proposal by three Peninsula lawmakers to blend California's proposed high-speed-rail system with Caltrain ran into opposition Thursday morning from the state agency charged with building the new rail line.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority had its first chance Thursday to discuss a proposal by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, to blend the controversial rail system with what the lawmakers called a "21st Century Caltrain." The three legislators also called for the rail authority to abandon any design options that include aerial alignments and to scale back its environmental analyses for the overall project, which still includes discussion of four-track lines.

Though the proposal has won plaudits in Palo Alto and other Peninsula communities, members of the rail authority voiced concern and frustration about the plan, which they said could derail the agency's ongoing analyses. Chairman Curt Pringle and board member Lynn Schenk both wondered whether the proposal is nothing more than an attempt by Peninsula politicians to take money from the rail project and use it for the cash-strapped Caltrain system.

The three legislators promoted their plan as an example of what they call "high-speed rail done right." In unveiling their plan on April 11, they said blending the two systems on the Peninsula would save billions of dollars by avoiding the need to build a duplicative rail system. They also argued that the rail authority's planned Environmental Impact Report for the full system is considering expensive alignments that may never get built and suggested that the environmental report study the scaled-back system.

The rail authority has about $5 billion allocated for the rail system, which it estimates to cost about $43 billion. Rail watchdogs have disputed this number and said the cost would exceed $60 billion.

The board discussed the Simitian plan after hearing a detailed presentation from its consultant about the latest plan to phase in construction of the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment. The authority's engineering firm, HNTB, is considering a variety of options for the Peninsula segment, include aerial viaducts as well as open and partially covered trenches. But rather than approving the proposed plan and committing to funding further analysis of phased implementation, the rail authority's board decided to delay any action until members learn more about the legislators' proposal.

Pringle even suggested that the rail authority stop spending money on the Peninsula segment until they get more clarity on the new plan.

"I'm stymied," Pringle said. "Do we tell our team to continue to study this process, or do we want to throw it all out and respond to this letter?"

Pringle also said he's not interested in spending high-speed-rail money for projects other than high-speed rail and questioned the motive of the three legislators.

"Is it a true intent to see high-speed-rail service all the way to the (Transbay) Terminal, or is this letter a smokescreen -- just a way we want to capture a greater share for our local rail uses."

Schenk, who is one of the founding members of the rail authority, agreed with Pringle and said she would hate to see "our precious high-speed-rail funds" diverted to other causes, particularly local ones.

"I don't want to see (that) money used to bail out any regional transportation system, including the Surfliner in my own community and especially Caltrain and others."

Jim Hartnett, the newest member of the rail authority, was less hostile to the lawmakers' proposal and asked for a fuller analysis of whether and how their plan could be implemented. He said the lawmakers' two-page letter outlining the proposal does not constitute a specific plan and proposed a more thorough discussion of the proposal.

"It's not a bailout of Caltrain from my perspective," Hartnett said. "It's 'How will this system be most effective if it's funded and have the capacity to carry ridership?'"

The board voted unanimously to continue discussing the Peninsula design options at its next meeting.

Related stories:

Reps: High-speed rail should merge with improved Caltrain system in San Jose

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