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."