Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 14, 2014

Price walks fine line in supporting high-speed rail brief

For Palo Alto councilwoman, Caltrain funding trumps local politics in VTA vote

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto may be one of staunchest opponents of California's proposed high-speed rail system, but one council member took a small step in favor of the $68 billion project when she voted last week in favor of a brief in support of the agency building the controversial train line.

Councilwoman Gail Price, who recently began her term on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, joined the rest of the VTA board of directors in supporting an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief in support of the California High Speed Rail Authority, the entity charged with building the voter-approved but increasingly unpopular train system between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The project suffered two legal blows last year, when a Sacramento County Superior Court judge declined to authorize the selling of $8 billion in bonds for high-speed rail and ruled that the rail authority's business plan is inadequate and needs to be revised.

In response, the rail authority is asking the Third District Court of Appeals to review the lower court's rulings. Because the high-speed rail project also provides funding for the long-awaited electrification of Caltrain, other transportation agencies have stepped forward to offer their support to the rail authority's appeal. According to a report from the VTA's General Counsel Robert Fabela, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which operates Caltrain, is also filing a brief in support of high-speed rail. The Caltrain board in 2012 signed a memorandum of understanding with the rail authority to partner on the Caltrain "modernization," an agreement that also includes as its signatories six other agencies, including the VTA.

In an interview with the Weekly, Price said she decided to support the brief because of the "linkage between high-speed rail and Caltrain modernization." She noted that all six partnering agencies have taken a similar stance.

"It was my feeling that as a member of the VTA board, it was in our best interests to go along with it,": Price said.

She called the vote a "difficult choice," which came down to Caltrain funding.

"If we don't have the funding source for this, it will fall back on the partnering agencies," Price said.

Unlike high-speed rail, the $1.5-billion modernization of Caltrain has broad support from Palo Alto and surrounding cities. The well-used commuter service still has no dedicated funding source and the project is expected to allow Caltrain to run more trains and to improve safety. In addition to replacing diesel trains with electric trains, the program includes a new "positive train control" signal system. Under the agreement between the rail authority and the transportation agencies, about $706 million for Caltrain modernization would come from Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion bond voters approved for high-speed rail in 2008.

Since then, the rail project has become increasingly unpopular in Palo Alto, with critics complaining about the rail authority's initial proposal to build elevated tracks (the proposal has since been scrapped) and the City Council voting in December 2011 to take an official "no confidence" stance toward the rail project.

The VTA board took its vote after members added the item to the board's agenda upon request from the agency's General Counsel Robert Fabela. In his report, Fabela noted that the amicus brief needed to be submitted by Feb. 10 and pointed out that the board would not have any more meetings before this deadline. He also wrote in a report that VTA staff only learned about the opportunity to participate in the appeal on Feb. 5, which was too late to add it to the regular agenda in advance of the meeting.

Though Price defended her vote as consistent with the council's support for Caltrain and its acceptance of the "blended system" design in which Caltrain and high-speed rail share tracks on the Peninsula, she acknowledged that it could become a political liability. Price is now in the final year of her first council term and she told the Weekly that she plans to seek a second term in November. She also stressed that to characterize her vote as in support of high-speed rail would be to ignore the complexity of funding Caltrain's modernization, a project that has been in the works for more than a decade and that finally has a chance to come to fruition.

"There could be fallback on this, but it does not undercut the city's position," Price said.

READ MORE ONLINE

An article about the California High Speed Rail Authority's updated business plan, released this week, is posted on Palo Alto Online.

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