Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 13, 2012

Editorial: Medicine doesn't offset poison of HSR bill

While Caltrain and the Peninsula come out as winners from high-speed-rail vote, state still can't afford this 'plan'

In a political drama that has potentially massive financial ramifications for California, last week's razor-close vote to move forward with high-speed rail will keep the uncertain project alive but give the Peninsula the benefit of Caltrain electrification.

The two different visions were dramatically on display last week when the Peninsula's three Democratic legislators split their votes, with Assemblymen Rich Gordon and Jerry Hill supporting Governor Brown's proposal based on the good they saw in it for their constituents and Senator Joe Simitian opposing it because of the state's financial predicament.

Simitian, who has often said he is a supporter of high-speed rail done right, shocked his colleagues when he announced on the floor of the Senate that he could not bring himself to vote "aye" on the bill.

As one of the three senators on the high-speed-rail committee, Simitian had worked hard with local, state and federal officials to negotiate improvements to the plan and find a way to move forward that addressed both local objections and the flaws and uncertainties of the business plan. But in the end, Simitian (and his two colleagues on the HSR committee) decided the risks and uncertainties of the overall project were just too great.

Gordon and Hill enthusiastically supported the bill, saying the Peninsula got virtually everything it wanted and had been fighting for, including no high-speed rail between San Francisco and San Jose. Gordon said the vote does not constitute a commitment to build the entire project, only the Madera to Bakersfield segment in the Central Valley, which he said would bring valuable improvements to the current Amtrak line even if high-speed rail doesn't materialize.

Perhaps the biggest prize for Hill and Gordon was the Caltrain electrification, a long overdue project that will increase the number of stops possible in a one-hour trip from San Jose to San Francisco, and could push ridership to 70,000 a day. And the bill protects the blended, two-track system on the Peninsula, meaning that there will no eminent domain taking of property or encroachment onto Alma Street to make way for trains.

Simitian said he is convinced that without the promise of more federal or private funding down the road, the state could be left to foot the bill for nearly the entire project.

By passing the legislation before a deadline imposed by the federal government, the project will receive $3.3 billion in federal funds and $2.3 billion in state funds to build the 130 miles of conventional (not electric) passenger train tracks in the Central Valley. The bill also provides or frees up some $1 billion for local projects in Northern and Southern California.

Unlike Simitian, three key reasons convinced Gordon and Hill to support the bill:

• A guarantee from the rail authority that it would build only a two-track, rather than four-track, system on the Peninsula. Hill said the stipulation means that there will be no land taken beyond the Caltrain right of way, including earlier projections that tracks might infringe on some homes and portions of Alma Street.

• $600 million for Caltrain electrification, a goal the commuter train service has had for years. Electric trains, in addition to eliminating the noise and pollution of diesel engines, can travel faster and stop more often for passengers and still make the San Jose to San Francisco run in one hour or less.

• Rail improvements on the Peninsula that could stand on their own even if the full project is never completed.

Simitian's concerns are both immediate and long-term. He fears that Governor Brown's ballot initiative to raise income taxes on wealthy Californians and impose a small sales tax might not pass in November due to a backlash from voters angry that the Legislature passed the high-speed-rail project. And he still sees trouble in the project's business plans and has doubts about the rail authority's leadership, which has several major vacancies and a CEO who has been on the job less than a month.

While some are quick to attribute the votes of all three local legislators to politics, we think all three voted for reasons they found sound, compelling, and practical. Gordon and Hill see a unique opportunity to obtain a lot of money that will benefit the Peninsula, and argue if the rest of high-speed rail doesn't pan out, our region is still a winner. They may be right. Simitian says he hopes he is wrong, but can't support setting in motion a plan that has so many financial risks and uncertainties, even if his district will benefit.

Simitian's reasoning is the more principled in the broader context of how taxpayer money should be prioritized and spent, and we share his worry that in a state with a continuing budget crisis, high-speed rail should not take precedent over other needs.

And now that the bill has passed, like Simitian, we hope to be proven wrong.

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