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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: Major high-speed rail hearing Tuesday night -- who will come?

Uploaded: Mar 9, 2012

A major state Senate public hearing has been scheduled next Tuesday evening to hear about possible new directions for high-speed rail in California -- directions that could rebuild public and legislative confidence in the much-criticized project.

Or not.

The hearing is billed as a "sneak preview" of what the California High Speed Rail Authority has done in response to the criticisms and loss of public support, as shown in recent opinion polling.

The Authority was to have published a final report on current plans in December, following a draft report issued last November. But an infusion of new members of the Authority's board of directors and staff changes are believed to have delayed that report. The Authority's staff is now racing to complete the "new final" report by the end of March -- a high-speed effort to beat the deadline.

The Authority board as of now is scheduled to vote on the new plan in early April.

The "informational hearing" is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., a venue that can hold more than 600 people. The hearing is co-hosted by three senators who hold influential positions in the Senate: Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee responsible for transportation funding; Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who chairs the Senate's Select Committee on High Speed Rail; Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.

Simitian says he is as interested in anyone in seeing what the Authority has come up with for its final report, and expects some good information at the hearing. He said he is staying with his longstanding position that he supports high-speed rail "if it's done right."

But "to date I've not seen a proposed plan that fits that description," he said.

Meanwhile, a Peer Review Group and the state Legislative Analyst's Office have issued withering criticisms of much of what the Authority has done in terms of ridership studies, costs estimates and decisions about where to start the project.

Simitian says he doesn't know if 50 or 500 people will show up Tuesday evening. The last significant Senate hearing in January 2010 (which he and Lowenthal co-hosted) overflowed the Palo Alto City Council chambers, filling up a side meeting room and much of the main City Hall lobby, with about 500 persons.

"We could have a big mostly empty hall," he said in a telephone interview from Sacramento Thursday.

It probably won't be mostly empty -- even though a drumbeat of press releases from the Authority and its official and citizen critics may have caused eyes to glaze over on the part of both the public and the media. So Tuesday's update may be a good chance to catch up, with comments from all sides and time for both local officials and the general public to comment.

The agenda is loaded.

A presentation by the Authority will be by Dan Richard (no "s"), current chair of the Authority's board of directors and a relatively recent appointee by Gov. Jerry Brown. (Richard is no relation to Dan Richards of the state's Fish & Game Commission, who stirred up a storm of protest for killing a mountain lion in another state and posing gleefully with the lion.)

Richard will be joined by another board member, James H. Hartnett, a Democrat from Redwood City. Hartnett, an attorney is a former Redwood City mayor and council member, was named to the rail board in April 2011. He is a former chair and board member of the CalTrain Joint Powers board and San Mateo County Transit District board.

Two other key presentations will follow: by Will Kempton, chair of the High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group; and by Farra Bracht and Brian Weatherford of the Legislative Analyst's Office.

The big questions are whether they feel their harsh criticisms of the Authority have been heard and whether the agency is responding appropriately.

Then public officials from cities and counties will be invited to ask questions or speak, followed by members of the general public -- limited to 2 minutes each, however. Simitian said the hearing will continue as long as there are speakers.

There are huge issues and questions at stake, both financial and in terms of the impact of the project on the state's economy and on communities up and down the proposed route, including the Peninsula in addition to agrarian communities in the Central Valley. Plans for an initial, 130-mile segment in the valley have also come under intense fire because of concerns about future funding once the $3.5 billion in federal funds and $2.7 billion of state funds are expended, out of the nearly $10 billion in bonds approved by state votes in 2008.

That's far short of a $98 billion project, which could be even higher, of course. The total-project estimate, remember, was about $43 billion when people voted on the plan and bond funding in 2008.

There are no guarantees that additional federal funds will be forthcoming, although it is considered likely that there will be, especially in an election year due to strong union support for high-speed rail.

Officials have said another state bond vote is way beyond being highly unlikely.

Private investors don't seem to be lining up to throw in funds, but that could change.

One fear is that should funding fall short after the initial link is built -- without high-speed trains or electrification -- that it could be a case of "tracks to nowhere," or to hardly anywhere. (Apologies to valley communities, but that's the fear.)

Finally, Simitian expresses concern about the just six to eight weeks that officials and state legislators will have to review the final report before they will be asked to vote on it.

This reveals a real dilemma for Aurhority officials. If there are really major changes in the plan then that time period is hardly adequate for people to digest an essentially new approach.

But if the changes are relatively minor then the sharp criticisms of the earlier plans will likely still be valid.

And there's the hanging question about what "done right" means.

NOTE: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] with a copy to [email protected]