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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: Will cities get a voice in high-speed-rail debate? Or just have to keep shouting?

Uploaded: Mar 20, 2012

The long-awaited final report giving a "new vision" for the proposed high-speed-rail system for California will become public within the next week or two, unless there is some new derailment or other delay.
That was the pledge of the president and a board member of the California High Speed Rail Authority at the state Senate subcommittee hearing March 13 in Mountain View, at least. A capacity crowd of about 600 persons jammed the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts at the hearing, chaired by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and attended by three other senators.
But the new vision is colliding head on with an old skepticism, and Peninsula cities are still angry about not having a direct seat at the discussion table.
No one asked for a show of hands of supporters vs. opponents, but occasional murmurs of approval indicated that a solid majority fit the opposition side -- despite a solid contingent of labor-union representatives and some individuals voicing support.
Simitian kept his pre-hearing pledge to stick it out until everyone had a chance to speak. But as 12:30 a.m. approached, the audience had dwindled to fewer than 50, and Simitian had to read out a half-dozen cards to find one or two speakers.
As the hearing progressed from presentations by two CHSRA board members to the chair of a Peer Review Group and two representatives of the state Legislative Analyst's office, it became clear that few minds were being changed.
And just about everyone remotely connected with the evolution of the rail plan is awaiting the publication, and some are already sharpening their knives and legal positions in anticipation.
For several years now Peninsula cities have led the way in a building and increasingly bitter opposition to the plan, ever since CHSRA board member Rod Diridon appeared at a Palo Alto City Council meeting and deeply angered officials by his presentation, which included a reference to NIMBYs (not in my backyard folks).
But the board members at the hearing -- President Dan Richard (no s) and member Richard Hartnett -- said the new report will signal a major switch in the authority's approach. First, it will pursue a "blended system" on the Peninsula and in Southern California, working with Caltrain and local officials and agencies -- and not rely just on a 130-mile "test bed" track in the Central Valley for its early phases.
Richard, recently named to the Authority board by Gov. Jerry Brown, disclosed that during his 12 years on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) board he was initially deeply skeptical about high speed rail -- especially the proposed 130-mile link in the valley. The depth of his doubts escaped initial press coverage of the hearing.
"I came on as a real skeptic," Richard said at one point, in response to questions from the senators.
"The phrase 'train to nowhere' may have escaped my lips," he added of the valley link.
But he now believes that the new approach of adding "book ends" projects that provide direct, tangible benefits for both Northern and Southern California transit systems is the right one.
And, he disclosed, there is no staff work going on at the Authority other than on working out details of the "blended systems."
For the Peninsula, where opposition has been heaviest and among the earliest, that would mean helping Caltrain achieve its decades-old vision of electrification and -- perhaps most important to residents along the tracks -- eliminate the need for four tracks. A two-track system would eliminate taking a lane from Alma Street in Palo Alto and reduce the number of homes that would have to be acquired or would lose part of their properties.
It would not eliminate the debate about depressing the tracks and grade separations, and it would not answer the critics, some of whom (such as Palo Alto) have officially asked that the entire project be killed off.
But strong federal- and state-level support for high-speed rail still exists, despite it being a presidential-election year and vocal opposition from conservative Republicans.
Supporters cite creation of jobs and continuing population growth in California.
But critics tend to believe most new jobs would go to overseas companies, where high-speed rail has been around for decades. And they still question the validity of CHSRA ridership studies, which would assuredly undermine the long-term financial balance sheet and require huge subsidies from somewhere if the CHSRA projections are wrong.
As an observer who has written about the transportation challenge in the Bay Area since the 1960s, and who has watched ever more freeways being built and jammed with traffic, I can see that happening in a more massive scale statewide.
I also covered the early construction of BART, and was on the initial press ride from Union City to San Francisco -- where we sat for three hours due to glitches in the system. I climbed aboard the ribbon-breaking dedication ride (one block) of the Santa Clara County Light Rail system in San Jose, when Diridon took the controls and almost triggered a union labor action about non-union hands on the controls.
Despite shortcomings, regional transit has enabled the highways and local bus systems to survive impacts of population growth.
A huge element of the current debate over high-speed-rail plan relates to whether the north-south connection is truly needed, versus the need for improvements in local bus and traffic-management systems. Both positions seem to have valid arguments, and no wonder the public may be confused.
There is a growing push to put the matter back to a statewide vote, a repeat of the 2008 election that approved a $9.95 million bond issuance -- now that the system-wide cost estimate has ballooned from about $43 billion to $98 billion (maybe a bit less under the "blended" approach).
Meanwhile, the Authority board is still searching for a new CEO and some other key officials to help put together the system. This leaves members of the state Legislative Analyst's Office puzzled about who's supervising whom at the Authority -- raising the issue of one big consulting firm supervising another.
And Will Kempton, chair of the Peer Review Group, whose "day job" is heading up a transit agency in Orange County, remains skeptical about the 130-mile link in the valley, if it is in fact a link. He said if future financing of the whole system fails it would be a "stranded investment."
Kempton said his personal view is that closing an existing 94-mile transit gap between Bakersfield and Palmdale would make more sense, despite substantial added costs. But he expects the new plan to be a "very substantial improvement over previous plans."
Sen. Alan Lowenthal noted that because of the Bakersfield-Palmdale transit gap a rider now must "either hitchhike or take a bus."
And a sense of growing impatience came from the senators at the head table, through questions and comments, one of the most pointed from Simitian:
"It's taken us 3 to 3 1/2 years to drag a new business plan out of CHSRA."
The new plan will have to be a really really good one to convert skeptics, or win support of what surveys show is a dubious public.
NOTE: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] with a copy to [email protected]

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