Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 23, 2011

Palo Alto calls for 'termination' of high-speed rail

City Council votes 8-0 on position against $98.5 billion project

by Gennady Sheyner

Solidifying a reversal from its position three years ago, the Palo Alto City Council has adopted as the city's official position a call for termination of California's beleaguered high-speed-rail project.

The council's 8-0 vote Monday night (Dec. 19) was prompted by the California High-Speed Rail Authority's recently released business plan, which showed the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles project's price tag more than doubling from what was presented to the voters three years ago. The project's completion date was also extended from 2020 to 2033.

The council urged voters in 2008 to support Proposition 1A, which provided $9.95 billion for high-speed rail, but has gradually turned against the project as questions began to emerge about the rail line's design, ridership projections and funding plan. Last year, the council took a position of "no confidence" against the rail authority. It has also decided to join Menlo Park, Atherton and a coalition of nonprofit groups in a lawsuit that challenges the rail authority's environmental analysis.

The position adopted by the council states that the city "believes that the High Speed Rail (HSR) project should be terminated" and that the project in its current form "fundamentally contradicts the measure presented to the voters under Proposition 1A in 2008." That vote, the council's statement asserts, relied on "grossly understated construction costs," "understated fares and overstated ridership" and a requirement that the new system would be operating without a government subsidy.

"Since the revised HSR Business Plan and Funding Plans do not meet the projected ridership, fare, job creation, and other significant requirements, the City believes that the voters were not given accurate information during the 2008 election to make an informed decision on an HSR project for the state of California," the council's new guiding principle states.

In 2008, the rail authority had estimated that the cost for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line would be less than $40 billion. The business plan that the rail authority released last month showed the price tag climb to $98.5 billion.

"This particular project as it's going right now is not what I voted for in 2008," Council member Nancy Shepherd, who co-authored the position statement, said Monday night. "At this point in time, it's important that our community understand that it's not the same project."

The Monday vote underscores Palo Alto's status as the project's leading opponent. It came at a time when the project is facing a storm of scrutiny at both the state and federal levels.

Last week, several members of the U.S. Congress vehemently criticized the rail authority's funding plan, which relies largely on federal grants and on $11 billion in private investment. U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, predicted that the project will be a disaster and said it is "imploding every day." He blasted the project for its cost overruns and questioned the rail authority's choice of a Central Valley segment as the line's starting point.

The Dec. 16 committee hearing also featured testimony from Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of the Palo Alto group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design. The group was among the first to flag problems with the rail authority's ridership methodology and had over the past two years criticized the authority for faulty cost estimates and a lack of transparency. In her testimony at the hearing, Alexis described California's project as "fool's gold" and slammed the rail authority for relying too much on consultants and for low-balling previous cost estimates.

"Do we need high-speed rail in our state? Absolutely," Alexis told the committee. "But the train we're on is on the wrong track, it costs too much and it delivers too little."

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

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