Officials pledge commitment to 'blended' rail system

Members of California High-Speed Rail Authority say revised business plan will include early investments in Peninsula rail

A lower price tag, fewer tracks and a fresh commitment to fund rail improvements in north and south California are among the features that the California High-Speed Rail Authority plans to unveil in its revised business plan, rail officials told a state Senate committee Tuesday night, March 13, at a public hearing in Mountain View.

The revised plan, which the rail authority's board of directors plans to release later this month, will also emphasize what has become known as the "blended" approach for the rail system -- a design that would have the new rail system share two tracks with Caltrain along the Peninsula corridor. This design, which was proposed by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, a year ago, has been the subject of much debate in recent months, with many city officials along the Peninsula urging the rail authority to commit to the two-track alternative.

At Tuesday's packed hearing in the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, rail officials indicated that with the new business plan, they are preparing to do just that. Dan Richard, chair of the rail authority's board of directors, and Jim Hartnett, a board member, both said that the "blended" approach is central to the agency's new vision for the project. The members made these comments at a meeting hosted by Simitian, who chairs a Senate budget committee on resources, environmental protection and transportation.

Last year, rail officials resisted the "blended approach," suggesting that it would run counter to Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion bond for the rail system that voters approved in 2008. The agency's latest environmental analysis for the major project sill refers to a four-track system, much to the consternation of officials in Palo Alto and elsewhere.

But Hartnett said Tuesday that the agency, in its revised plan, now embraces the idea of a "blended system" for both the northern and the southern sections of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles system. Hartnett called the new emphasis on the "blended system" a "rethinking of the whole high-speed-rail approach."

"The new direction for high-speed rail is a high-speed-rail system that is dependent on its success on a blended approach both in the north and in the south," Hartnett said.

This new vision could have dramatic implications for Caltrain, which has also been adamant about scrapping the four-track design in favor of the less disruptive blended system. The new business plan, Hartnett said, would place greater emphasis on relying on existing infrastructure in what the rail authority is calling the "bookends" of the line (its northern and southern segments). Specifically, he said, it will lay out a plan for "early investment in the north and in the south that will have direct positive impact on the regional transit systems" and lay the foundation for high-speed rail.

For Caltrain, this early investment could mean getting the funding it needs for electrification -- a project that the cash-strapped agency has been planning for more than a decade. The project, which the agency sees as key to raising its ridership numbers and achieving long-term financial stability, also includes positive train controls and a new stock of electric trains. It would cost more than $1 billion, money that the agency currently does not have.

The rail authority's new vision for the rail system could change that. The authority is preparing a "memorandum of understanding" with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTC) that would identify "early investment opportunities" that the authority can make in the Bay Area. Though the document is still in the works, Caltrain electrification is widely expected to top the list of the Bay Area's transit priorities.

"This is an opportunity for Caltrain as much as it is an opportunity for high-speed rail," Hartnett said, referring to the early investment. "We believe the plan will set out a reasonable way of doing that."

But even as they talked about making early investment in the "bookends," rail officials on Tuesday defended the authority's decision to begin the line's construction in the Central Valley. This decision had prompted many critics of the $98.5 billion project to refer to the system as a "train from nowhere to nowhere." Some, including the agency's own peer review group, have challenged its earlier business plan for inadequate discussion of funding sources and for its vagueness in discussing plans to build the system beyond the initial segment.

Aside from the voter-approved bond and about $3 billion in federal money, the project has no other committed funding sources. The agency's business plan anticipates private investment in the later stages of the project.

The challenge, Richard said, is to demonstrate that the first segment of the line would provide significant improvements even if the agency doesn't get the funding it needs to build the entire system. The revised business plan, he said, "will have a more rational basis for showing how the system develops over time so that each station that we'll have in front us will have something that is useful -- like Caltrain electrification, for example."

Richard, who was recently appointed to the board of directors by Gov. Jerry Brown, defended the decision to start in the Central Valley. Starting the rail system in this region will allow the agency to test the new 225 mph trains, he said. On the Peninsula, the trains would reach speeds of up to 125 mph.

Richard also said the agency believes that the new system's ridership will be sufficient to cover its operating costs. The rail authority's ridership and revenue numbers have been a subject of major criticism on the Peninsula and elsewhere. Uncertainties over these projections, along with the project's escalating costs, were among the major factors that prompted the Palo Alto City Council to officially adopt a position last year calling for the project's termination.

But Richard said that the numbers show that even in the line's "initial operating segment" (the first constructed segment that would be capable of accommodating high-speed trains), ridership would be sufficient to pay for operations.

"We believe that the ultimate ridership projections will mean that there will be sufficient riders on the high-speed rail so that we will not be needing a public subsidy in order to operate," Richard said.

Though Richard did not specify how much the rail system would cost under the "blended" approach, he said the number will come down from the prior estimate of $98.5 billion. He called the price tag (which was a major jump from the agency's prior estimate of about $40 billion), a "sticker shock" for many people. It will be incumbent for the agency to show, in its new business plan, the ways in which the capital costs can be reduced.

"The key to it is the blend approach," Richard said. "This is one of the things that will lock us into the course that I think will save us a lot of money."

Though the rail authority's new vision is more consistent with the views of many Peninsula officials, some said Tuesday that they remain skeptical about the latest plans. Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt, who chairs the Peninsula Cities Consortium (a coalition that also includes Atherton, Menlo Park, Belmont, Burlingame and Brisbane) said that when it comes to early investment opportunities on the Peninsula, the "devil will be in the details" of the agreement between the rail authority and the MTC. He noted that the MTC signaled that cities along the Peninsula would not have any direct participation in the process.

Burlingame Councilwoman Terry Nagel also said she is concerned about the MTC's ability to adequately represent the Peninsula cities in the "eleventh hour."

"I don't think the majority of the cities are opposed to high-speed rail if it's done right -- and that's a big if," Nagel said. "It would require money that is well spent on the Peninsula."


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Posted by Dubious
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 14, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Beware of wolves in the henhouse. Despite Sen. Simitian's repeated attempts for confirmation that the blended system would not ultimately grow into a four-track aerial structure (per the Program EIR), the two Board members would not commit beyond their personal preference for a two-track system. Sen. Simitian asked them to be creative in how to guarantee a lesser impact on the Peninsula, such as by tying funding to the smaller footprint, but they would not bite. Mr. Richard coyly noted that his personal preference didn't matter since the project needs to conform with Prop 1A's aggressive goals. Mr. Hartnett added that Authority conversations are now about the blended approach, appearing to imply that the larger plan was off the table, but without committing that it was or that he would put his personal effort into making this the case. Electrification is the ploy to get HSR legally linked to the Caltrain corridor. Without a guarantee that the blended plan will be the final design, by agreeing to take Prop 1A money for electrification, the Peninsula is only making itself more vulnerable to a potentially much more disruptive and divisive HSR program down the road.

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Posted by Will
a resident of another community
on Mar 14, 2012 at 3:52 pm

..."blended system" a "rethinking of the whole high-speed-rail approach." Yes the new idea will be a Not Very High Speed Rail or Partly High Speed their not sure yet, brilliant. That's why they getthe big bucks.

Doesn't anyone see there is a bigger issue.
It’s like, if a TV salesman promised that if you sign the papers now your 60 inch wall mounted HD flat panel would only be 1400 dollars but only 700 with a factory rebate. Then after you signed the price was tripled and the factory rebate was in doubt. Oh and the wall mount may not be doable and certainly won’t be included in the price. Also delivery date is a bit questionable. But you did sign the contract so you'll have to start paying. So you're a little peeved. But wait don't feel bad, what about if the salesman throws in a battery for the TV remote? How about that deal? Please are you all that cheap to bribe?

Why not just scrap the thing with a voter proposition? With the same proposition use the same money for real insrustructure, rail, and highway up grades and maybe include a relatively small pot for seed investment in new energy and transit technologies. Real California jobs and real progress, what a concept.

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Posted by Ralph Waldo
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 14, 2012 at 6:59 pm

The fancy video showing an HSR consist passing a new CalTrain, both going in the same direction, is a fantasy. FRA would have to alter long standing prohibitions against operating fast trains on freight ROW for this to come true. All it takes is one signaling screwup and the wreckage will be frightening.

As California politicians drive all of us over the financial cliff, one wonders if there is any individual in the Legislature who can call this for what it is?

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Posted by Tim Wulff
a resident of another community
on Mar 14, 2012 at 7:00 pm

To borrow billions in this environment is simply the most irresponsible madness imaginable.

And this for the sake of the special interest of unions and at the expense of the individual and several future generations.


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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 14, 2012 at 7:14 pm

NO. There isn't a politician out there that will call this for what it is - a boondoggle. They are all beholden to organized labor who will be the primary recipients of jobs to build this ridiculous project. Guaranteed they also figure on being the people employed to run it. This project is nothing but political payback for the support of labor unions. Period.

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Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Mar 14, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Plenty of local electeds have stepped up and taken a stand. Keep it factual.

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Posted by Ralph Waldo
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 15, 2012 at 9:45 am

Well truth, I would appreciate it if you could provide a list. My observation of the locals is that most have resorted to the straddle of supporting HSR so long as it is "done right". This, of course, is not really taking a stand at all, on the off chance that they can cash in politically if by some miracle the project gets underway in the local region, or, if public opinion finally blocks it they can claim that it was "done wrong" and they were against it from the start.

As others have noted above, this entire project typifies the ultimate in fiscal irresponsibility. Is that factual enough?

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Posted by george
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 15, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Open trench through the Peninsula cities, with park space and high-density mixed use development above the trench, and I'm all for it.

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Posted by Some Guy
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 15, 2012 at 1:58 pm

This all reminds me of the Simpsons episode Marge vs. The Monorail.

Web Link

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Posted by R.Gordon
a resident of another community
on Mar 15, 2012 at 4:36 pm

In the past, we did not turn to comic strips or satirists like Jon Stewart or Colbert, but they are the best source for the news on a large scale.......Maher does it weekly and is better at it because he is an Atheist and doesn't have religion make decisions.
The OFFICIALS, for a rare instance, are doing something right on the road to introduce electricity back into our rail is just a sign of the beginning.
Our old electric system was killed after the war not for any reason except the auto and the rubber industries......How many bil and mil lionaires came out of those industries.
BTW Maher is probably 1/100th as rich as most of the local upper 1%, but has probably, with his million dollar support for Obama has probably outdone almost ALL of you to help not only California, but the Country....My hat is off to Lorene Jobs...Mrs Steve to you for the millions she is putting into the citizens who most of you have nothing but contempt for.....the Latinos who are even legalized.

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Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Mar 16, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Waldo, here is a hint. It is called Google. Put in a name of a council member and high speed rail and see for yourself. Our city led the initial resistance and that was a result of electeds taking note. Since that time our city has continued to hold the position that this is underground or two tracks. How is that straddling? You want us all to reject it outright? No, this council has not done that.

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