After gaining some momentum in the Central Valley, California's beleaguered high-speed rail project is now hoping for a fresh start and a smoother journey on the Peninsula.
The California High Speed Rail Authority, the state agency charged with building the controversial, $68-billion system, is now preparing to launch its environmental reviews for the two northern segments of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line. One stretches between San Francisco and San Jose and the other between San Jose and Merced.
The rail authority plans to complete the environmental analyses for the two segments by late 2017 and begin construction shortly thereafter. If all goes well, the new rail system will be in place by 2029.
To date, all has not gone well for the rail authority on the Peninsula, where the project remains a dicey and deeply polarizing proposition.
The Palo Alto City Council officially took a stance in 2011 opposing high-speed rail, and rail authority hearings have consistently attracted angry crowds of opposition. Atherton and Menlo Park have also been skeptical, and have taken part in several lawsuits against the rail authority.
Things have quieted down somewhat since 2010, when the rail authority decided to launch the system in Central Valley. Now, the conversation is starting up again and the rail authority is hoping to strike the right tone this time around.
The re-launch began Tuesday, with a community meeting in San Francisco. Some things have changed since 2009. No one, for example, is talking any more about building a four-track system with Caltrain on the outer tracks and high-speed rail on the inside the preferred alternative five years ago.
The deeply unpopular plan to elevate the tracks is also off the table. Now, the only alternative being considered is the "blended" approach in which high-speed shares the rail corridor with Caltrain on existing tracks a design championed by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, Assemblyman Rich Gordon and then-state Sen. Joe Simitian. This proposal was also deemed palatable by local communities.
"Part of beginning this outreach is as much to talk about what this isn't as what it is," Ben Tripousis, who as the rail authority's Northern California Regional Director is overseeing the construction of the Peninsula segment, told the Weekly. "There's significant concern about the full build-out and what has gone before and it's not that. It's blended service on existing Caltrain tracks. It's about rail integration at its best."
At the Tuesday event, Tripousis was joined by more than a dozen members of the rail authority's staff and about 50 residents. Thea Selby, vice chair of the rail authority's board of directors, told the audience that the project faces challenges throughout the state, each unique to its region. But she said the authority feels "confident that this is going to happen." Just two years ago, she said, the rail authority had fewer than 20 staff members. Today, it has the authority to hire 219.
"It's a question I get asked the most: 'Is this going to happen? Is this really going to happen?' And the answer is, 'Yes! It's going to happen.' And with your input, it's going to happen the right way," said Selby, who joined the board in March 2014.
Yet the project continues to face a series of formidable challenges, including lawsuits and a budget shortfall in the tens of billions. Though the project's price tag dropped when the rail authority committed to a shared-tracks approach, it is still roughly twice the estimate in Proposition 1A, the successful 2008 measure that provided $9.95 billion for the new rail system and related improvements.
Lisa Marie Alley, the rail authority's deputy director for public affairs, told the Weekly that the goal of the meeting was mostly to remind residents that the project is still here. The rail authority hasn't held any meetings on the Peninsula in a while, she said, and it was time for an update.
While the project has been a tough sell on the Peninsula, rail officials on Tuesday pointed to signs of success elsewhere in the state. San Francisco is well on its way to building the new Transbay Center, which will serve as the northern terminus of the proposed line.
Construction in the Central Valley began last year. And on the Peninsula, Caltrain is now preparing to begin the long-awaited electrification of the rail corridor, a project that will both boost the capacity of the commuter service and set the stage for high-speed rail. The rail authority is providing $705 million for the Caltrain project.
Yet several steep obstacles remain, including funding. While Proposition 1A authorized the expenditure of $9.95 billion for the rail system, and related improvements, that amount falls far short of the project's cost.
James Janz, a former Atherton mayor who is a member of the grassroots group Community Coalition on High Speed Rail, said the uncertainty over the project's cost remains a concern.
"They say it will cost $68 billion," Janz told the Weekly after Tuesday's meeting. "Even if that's right, that's a bit of a shortfall."
Tripousis said the rail authority will address the issue of funding next year, when it releases its updated business plan. In its prior iterations, the funding plan has relied heavily on private investment that has not materialized. Officials indicated Tuesday that this has not changed.
"The funding will come from most likely the private sector and potential state funding," Alley told the Weekly when asked about the funding shortfall. "What the ultimate price tag is those details will still be worked out."
Another obstacle is political. Though the "blended" system has squelched long-held anxieties about elevated tracks and four-track designs, officials remain concerned about the rail authority's transparency and the project's compatibility with state law.
Councilman Pat Burt told the council on Aug. 31 that he and other members of a policy-working group were surprised to learn earlier in the month that the rail authority had already issued a request for information for an environmental analysis on the Peninsula segment (the board of directors authorized the request at its Aug. 4 meeting). The effort, Burt and other local officials in the group said, went ahead without prior notifications.
"It really doesn't mean the authority has the funding to go ahead, but it will make it an open issue on the Peninsula again," he said.
Burt said virtually all representatives expressed "concern over both the substance and the process by which it had been done."
"They're not being very transparent and that's one of the big pushes we made to the authority: to open up," Burt said.
Tripousis said one of the goals of the new outreach tour is to re-open the conversation and convince the communities throughout the state that the system is worth supporting.
"Our greatest goal in this effort is to ensure the high-speed rail project is actually an asset to each community and not an eyesore," Tripousis said.