Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 6, 2012

Legislature to vote on high-speed rail funding

Palo Alto officials remain opposed to controversial project

by Gennady Sheyner

On the eve of holiday celebrations Tuesday night, July 3, lawmakers in Sacramento released a much-anticipated bill for funding the largest transportation project in California's history.

The budget-trailer bill, which the Legislature held a public hearing on Thursday afternoon and was scheduled to vote on as early as Friday, is now the subject of intense back-door negotiations in Sacramento, with Gov. Jerry Brown's administration scrambling to get the votes he needs to get initial funding for the $68 billion project.

The project has become intensely unpopular in Palo Alto, with the City Council voting in December to adopt as the city's official stance a call for the project's termination. John Garamendi, the city's high-speed-rail lobbyist in Sacramento, said Thursday morning that Brown did not appear to have the votes he needed in the Legislature on Tuesday to get the bill passed. The behind-the-scenes dialogues in Sacramento have become particularly tense given a newly released Field Poll showing that the project could jeopardize Brown's proposal to bring a quarter-cent tax initiative to the voters in November. The poll showed 54 percent of the voters supporting Brown's tax. But it notes that the initiative would be "adversely affected" if the legislature were to proceed with releasing funding for the state's controversial high-speed-rail project. One in three voters, the poll found, said they'd be less likely to vote "Yes" on Brown's tax if the Legislature were to fund high-speed rail.

"The unpopularity of the multi-billion dollar project appears to be negatively affecting chances of voters endorsing the Governor's tax-increase proposal," the Field Poll states.

Though Palo Alto officials, like their counterparts elsewhere in the state, are still poring through the budget-trailer bill, on Thursday morning they cried foul over the process that led to the bill's release. Councilman Larry Klein, who chairs the city's Rail Committee, said such a process for pushing through major legislation would never fly at the local level.

"This is a ridiculous, undemocratic process that we're going through," Klein said. "It's interesting to note that cities cannot do this. We'd be prohibited by the Brown Act from releasing something at midnight on July 3 and having a hearing on July 5 and voting on it on July 6."

The committee voted to submit a letter to legislators reasserting the city's opposition to the project and criticizing the process for getting it to legislators.

The proposed bill would authorize $3.9 billion for rail construction out of the $9.95 billion bond voters authorized for high-speed rail in 2008. Of these funds, $2.6 billion would be appropriated for the "initial operating segment" of the line in Central Valley.

It also includes $124 million for property acquisition, mostly in the central and southern portions of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line, as well as $5.1 million for property acquisition between San Francisco and San Jose.

In an overture to Peninsula critics, the bill specifies that the project would be "consistent with the blended strategy" that the rail authority identified in its April business plan. The strategy, which calls for high-speed rail and Caltrain to share two tracks between San Jose and San Francisco, is widely seen as a more palatable alternative to the vision the rail authority had initially proposed of adding two tracks solely for high-speed trains.

The project's critics have been particularly concerned about the California High-Speed Rail Authority's estimation of expected ridership, which many have maintained is far too optimistic. The Palo Alto-based group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) and the Institute for Transportation Studies at U.C. Berkeley have both questioned the methodology the rail authority had used to come up with its projection.

The proposed bill, Senate Bill 1029, requires the authority to submit a new business plan by January 2014 that includes a proposed approach for improving demand projections, cost models and "benefit-cost analysis as applied to future project decisions."

The rail authority will also have to prepare and submit by June 30, 2013, a report analyzing the impact of the rail project on greenhouse-gas emissions.

The bill also specifies that the bond funds would only become available if the project were also to receive the $3.2 billion it expects in federal funding and $1.1 billion in contributions from local sources, including Caltrain, as part of the blended approach.

The bill does not include any language that would fast-track the project through California's environmental-review process — a point of recent and particular concern for environmental groups.

A Joint Committee of legislators discussed the bill Thursday afternoon, with a potential vote scheduled on Friday.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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