Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 3, 2010

High-speed rail activities to slow down on Peninsula

Rail authority votes to start line between Borden and Corcoran, giving Peninsula cities a chance to focus on Caltrain

by Gennady Sheyner

California's high-speed rail project will begin between the small city of Corcoran and the unincorporated community of Borden in the Central Valley, the California High-Speed Rail Authority decided Thursday afternoon despite widespread criticism that the design would result in a "train to nowhere."

The authority's board of directors unanimously adopted a staff recommendation Thursday to begin the rail line between the two small Central Valley locations a recommendation that shocked legislators across the state after it was publicized earlier this month. Though the board was widely expected to choose a Central Valley segment as the first stretch of the 800-mile line, its choice dismayed and angered officials from Merced and Bakersfield who thought their regions should have been chosen for the first phase of the project.

The rail project, which California voters approved in 2008, has run up against heavy resistance on the Peninsula, with Palo Alto, Atherton and Menlo Park all suing the rail authority over the validity of its environmental analysis. Rod Diridon, member of the rail authority's board of directors, said Thursday that the decision to start the line in the Central Valley, as opposed to the Peninsula, was based in large part on community feedback.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) earmarked $715 million in its most recent grant for the Central Valley region, though it did not specify where exactly this money should be spent. The grant all but ensured that the $43 billion project would begin in the middle of the state.

"There was abject, overwhelming cooperation coming from Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield on the project," Diridon said. "And that was, I think, the controlling reason the FRA decided to mandate to us that the funding is going to be spent in the Central Valley."

The decision means that it will likely be years before the rail project speeds to the Peninsula. Officials from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and other Peninsula cities have spent the past two years hiring engineering consultants, lobbying state officials for an underground rail design on the Peninsula, scrutinizing the authority's environmental reports and holding regular meetings to discuss the rail project.

Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt said he expects the Peninsula group's focus to change now that the line will start in Central Valley. Burt called the rail authority's decision to begin the line between Borden and Corcoran "somewhat mystifying" but noted that Peninsula cities are more concerned about what happens in their own communities.

He said he expects the rail authority to slow down its engineering work on the Peninsula and shift its focus to Central Valley. If that happens, Peninsula cities can attend to another hot rail-related topic making sure the cash-strapped Caltrain service gets the funding and the infrastructural improvements it needs to continue operating.

The rail authority had already indicated that it would not release its highly anticipated Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Peninsula segment of the rail line in December, as previously planned. But Burt said it remains to be seen how long the authority will wait before proceeding with the document, which would evaluate and select the design of high-speed rail on the Peninsula. He noted that the rail authority only has about $4.3 billion in federal and state funds far short of the project's estimated $43 billion price tag.

"If they proceed to do what I think is foolish, which is drive forward an EIR, we'd probably be obliged to continue to expend resources on something that we think is unlikely to happen," Burt said.

Despite the recent Central Valley decision, Palo Alto officials are proceeding with the city's Rail Corridor Study, an effort to analyze the Caltrain Corridor and identify opportunities for development around the corridor.

The Thursday meeting of the rail authority's board focused largely on the Corcoran-Borden corridor, with some Central Valley officials lauding the staff recommendation as a sensible choice for the first phase of the 800-mile line and many others blasting this selection as a betrayal of earlier promises. Merced County Supervisor John Perdoza said the decision to begin the line between Borden and Corcoran "just plain makes me mad."

Atherton Councilman Jerry Carlson attended the Sacramento meeting and asked the board members why they didn't hold public hearings on this decision before Thursday's meeting.

"Credibility and public support has continued to decline for this project," Carlson said. "It needs to be addressed through your actions and not through a PR campaign."

Tom Umberg, vice chair of the board, reminded the audience that the authority's focus is to build a statewide system and downplayed the importance of where the line begins.

"Wherever we begin is not the endpoint," Umberg said. "Wherever we begin is not the terminus of the project."

Authority board member Lynne Schenk rejected opponents' characterization of the Borden-Corcoran segment as a "train to nowhere" and maintained that "Central Valley is not nowhere." She said she was surprised by the staff recommendation not to start the rail line in more densely populated cities and said she understands "the engineering sense, but not the common sense" behind the recommendation. She ultimately ended up supporting the staff recommendation.

Rail engineers argued that starting construction between Borden (near Madera) and Corcoran (south of Fresno) gives the agency the flexibility to build either north or south when more money becomes available.

Rail authority CEO Roelof van Ark did not attend Thursday's meeting but released a statement Wednesday urging critics of the staff recommendation to focus on the entire project rather than its starting point.

"It is an engineering and project-management decision, not a political one," van Ark wrote on the blog, Fox & Hounds Daily. "It is an important decision, as it should secure the future success of the program as a whole."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by commuter, a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 2, 2010 at 4:41 pm

The NIMBY effect is increasing the cost and decreasing the usefulness of this service.


Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 2, 2010 at 4:48 pm


As the whole project is a criminal boondoggle---- better it fail now before it gets too big to fail


Posted by wary traveler, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2010 at 7:52 pm

To commuter, not sure where you're getting your information, but frankly the High Speed Rail Authority is doing a better job at shooting itself in the foot than anything anyone else is saying or doing against the project. Left to themselves, they're more effective in screwing up the project than even the lawsuit folks.

The problem is enforcement. The legislature doesn't have the cojones to say no to funding when these guys don't follow the law. The longer they wait to say enough's enough, the harder it gets.


Posted by Geoff, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 3, 2010 at 8:22 am

'Tracks to nowhere' is more like it.

$4.3 billion to build tracks (no HSR trains will be bought)running between populations totaling less than 25,000 wins the 'Boondoggle of the Century' Award.

The High Speed Rail Authority can't wait to spend a big chunk of taxpayer money.

Shameful.


Posted by HSR-doubter, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 3, 2010 at 10:44 am

The fact that they were unwilling to compromise and work out something for the Peninsula where rail (note: note necessarily HSR) can do the most good just goes to show that the HSR authority is just interesting in spending money to benefit the contractors. They don't care if what they build is actually useful. The money should go into creating a viable commuter rail instead of an HSR.


Posted by MT, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 3, 2010 at 12:24 pm

To HSR-doubter: the money will be spent not only to the benefit of the contractors. Don't forget the unions - the HSR and the politicians will do everything in their power to ensure union support for themselves.


Posted by Against HSR on the Caltrain corridor, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2010 at 3:14 pm

They should get their stories straight, for once- not that it would make believers out of us, as all along this kind of thing has happened. So Diridon said. "And that("overwhelming cooperation coming from Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield on the project") was, I think, the controlling reason the FRA decided to mandate to us that the funding is going to be spent in the Central Valley."
And then later on in the article van Ark is quoted as saying:
"It is an engineering and project-management decision, not a political one,". So, which is it? I think that the board wants to start anywhere and will then say we need to continue it now that it is started. But remember there have been other projects in the States that have been started and then stopped. It just would be better to stop it before it is started.
BTW- Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein contacted Ray LaHood to request the HSR funding from those states who came to their senses and said that they do not want HSR and so do not want the funding. What are Boxer and Feinstein thinking? Don't they represent us? Don't they find out what the majority of their constituents and voters wantprior to acting?!


Posted by Alphonso, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Dec 3, 2010 at 3:32 pm

By the time this 65 mile HSR rail is complete, China will have completed 9000 HSR miles.


Posted by maguro_01, a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 3, 2010 at 4:39 pm

If the HSR were being built in China by a US company, all sorts of technology transfer/local supply arrangements would be required in the contract. Are there any US-based suppliers of train and bus equipment in the US at all any more, let alone HSR? The US has no way of doing HSR and the shoe is on the other foot. In fact a consortium from China is likely to be the low bidder on the project, though it doesn't matter which country a satisfactory bid comes from. So why haven't we heard a peep about local vendors and tech transfer for such a large contract? US corporations are still bailing from the US and have bought subsidies in Washington to do it. We really, really need to get over ourselves, times have changed.

Running HSR up the peninsula will take decades just for the "Palo Alto Process" and equivalents all up the line. We can foresee acrimonious Nimby Meetings because the route demanded by one town doesn't connect with the route demanded by the next one. The project somehow has to maximize the real estate value of every house from SJ to SF. Time to drop the whole thing and I hope that Caltrain doesn't drop with it.

Running HSR from Sacramento to the upper East Bay with a special BART connector to the new SF transit terminal would be just fine. Through baggage transfer is easier and more reliable than it was a few years ago. If someone insists on going to PA the SF terminal will connect them. Perhaps some upgrade money for Caltrain can be secured. But it might be cheaper to put electric car charging stations along 101 for the people stuck more than 12 hours in gridlock.


Posted by Morris Brown, a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 4, 2010 at 7:07 pm

It is hardly mystifying as to why the Authority has gone ahead and approved starting this project with this "sub-set", which in spite of Director Lynne Schenk's statement is indeed a "train to nowhere".

(as was pointed out in a news article Corcoran, the southern end of this plan is home of Corcoran State Prison; maybe you might want to visit Charles Manson, who resides there)

Over-riding the whole decision is the mandate from the Feds, that the Authority must by Dec 31, submit a plan to use the ARRA funds, that the plan had to be located in the Central Valley and that the total budget for this plan with the limited funds available made this "sub-set", of a usable segment, the choice of the Authority. Failure of the Authority to get this paperwork completed and submitted by the end of this year, would result in forfeit of those funds.

So it is all about this Fed grant of the money, and as a result we get this ridiculous proposal, which was unanimously approved by the Board on Thursday.

There are tons of problems with what has been approved, not the least of which is the legality of using Prop 1A bonds funds, which are part of the proposed funding.

Prop 1A demands full funding for a "usable HSR segment". This plan, by the Authority's own admission is not a "usable HSR segment", just a "sub-set" of a usable segment ( as an example: the plan does not include electrification as one omission --- they simply don't have the funds to include electrification)

An interesting exchange on the legal problems of this starting plan can be viewed at:

Web Link


Posted by Forced into acceptance, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2010 at 6:04 am

I can see the long range scenario now; they'll slowly build the whole thing in sections until the only section not built will be up the peninsula and into SF. That way we'll look like the big spoilers for not wanting HSR, and we'll be forced to accept it.

Meanwhile, did you see the huge fight they're having in England. The new Prime Minister wants to build HSR between London and Birmingham right through the most beautiful part of England's countryside the Chiltern Hills. Some very powerful people including members of the PM's Conservative party are vehemently protesting the degradation of the countryside.


Posted by galen, a resident of Ventura
on Dec 6, 2010 at 7:15 am

Rather than throw billions of dollars on a project that is illegal per the terms of the ballot proposition only to watch HSR die a slow and inevitable death we should pull the plug on this criminal monstrosity now before it gets "too big" to fail. Anyone who thinks HSR is a great idea is either on the payroll or woefully uniformed.

If you think HSR is "green" you must also think that a carbon break-even point of 76 years is acceptable. Well, i have news for you HSR fanatics, it's absolutely insane to think that in 76 years this train is going to be anything more than an expensive albatross around the necks of our grandchildren.

We must stop this madness now before we waste any more time, energy, and money on a project that makes absolutely no sense on any level.


Posted by RTD, a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 21, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Since it is apparent that B.A.R.T. doesn't have the chutspah to force
a new bay crossing which has been needed for nearly half a century {50yrs) Maybe the pushy folks at HSR couold change their tune and
could realign for a slightly more remote Transit Center with Airport Terminal parking in Santa Clara County and connecting to FREEWAYS and VTA LIGHT RAIL.

Thence at HIGH SPEED up the bay and come ashore further North, say Redwood City or even San Carlos which has over half a mile of open space along the current CalTrain waiting for redevelopment.

Annother nice spot for great FREEWAY ACCESS to balance the Bart
parking at Milbrae

I think if there are enouogh Parking Lots located
next to EXISTING FREEWAYS then HSR might compete with Auto Traffic
and not bother with trying to steal,complement , whatever from/with
Airlines, buses, Limos, charters, etc.

There would be a slim chance of economic utility.$ $ $

Otherwise this whole project smacks of a GIANT OBSOLETE TECHNOLOGICAL BOONDOGGLE.!


Posted by ThomasD, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 29, 2010 at 1:14 pm

If Palo Alto would stop trying to gold-plate its rail and station plans, HSR would get to the SF Bay Area faster.


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