If it can be done without sacrificing the promise of airline-competitive service between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the proposal to have high-speed rail share an upgraded Caltrain line beginning in San Jose instead of building additional tracks looks like a win-win for the authority, the city and the many residents along the route who have huge issues with the project.
State Sen. Joe Simitian spoke to an adoring Palo Alto City Council Tuesday about the plan that he, Rep. Anna Eshoo and Assemblyman Rich Gordon presented earlier in the week. Their proposal acknowledged that financially, the state simply cannot afford to add two more rail lines to the corridor, when the existing two tracks and occasional "passing" tracks could suffice, much as Baby Bullet trains share the rails with local trains today. Such a "blended" system could allow high-speed rail trains to arrive in San Jose for a brief stop before continuing on to San Francisco with its full load of passengers, who would not have to change trains.
City Council member Nancy Shepherd told Simitian that the announcement "struck a good note" and gives her the feeling that the city is finally getting heard. Larry Klein, who chairs the council's Rail Committee, said the plan is "constructive" and he congratulated Simitian for putting the plan together.
Klein's support was significant since he led the council in adopting a "no confidence" stand on the rail project in its present form.
If such a plan is adopted by the rail authority it would be a tremendous boost for Caltrain, which would finally be able to electrify its engines and complete at least some of the grade separations necessary to run truly high-speed trains. And the neighboring cities of Menlo Park and Atherton, as well as Palo Alto, would be able to breathe easier, without fear that property owners along the corridor would lose portions of their back yards to eminent-domain takings by the rail authority.
Combining use of the Caltrain tracks would eliminate a host of other negative impacts that would come with building an additional two-track high-speed rail line between San Jose and San Francisco, including years of major upheaval caused by construction of the lines in the cities along the route.
Speaking for himself, Eshoo and Gordon at his initial presentation, Simitian called the plan a "first step in a new conversation" that intends to create "high-speed rail done right." He noted a series of critical audits of the rail project by various state agencies and the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, which found a series of flaws in the rail authority's business plan, ridership analysis and revenue projections.
"Frankly, a great many of our constituents are convinced that the High-Speed Rail Authority has already wandered so far afield that it is too late for a successful course correction."
"If high-speed rail isn't done right" it simply won't get done at all, he said.
Another key change recommended by the three legislators was for the rail authority to run Peninsula trains at grade and forget about elevated structures such as aerial viaducts. And they endorsed the plan for the new rail system to run through the existing Caltrain corridor.
"Given the current financial straits at the federal and state level, amassing the funds to build this across California will take time," Gordon said. "In the interim, there will be funds spent on high-speed rail and I believe it's imperative for the High-Speed Rail Authority to guarantee that whatever funds are spent are spent in a way that enhances and upgrades our existing intercity and regionalized transportation system in California."
We expect there will be much more discussion of this alternative plan in Palo Alto and other Peninsula communities. But it is hard to dispute the issues raised by the legislators, which many local residents have been speaking about since shortly after Measure 1A passed in 2008. Rather than listening to the public, the rail authority board often has disputed the comments, which has not made them many friends on the Peninsula. Eshoo acknowledged as much:
"I really believe they have squandered a great deal of goodwill on the Peninsula by not honoring our communities," she said. "Each community is unique, each community has its own history, each community has its own traditions and they're proud of it and they're entitled to this source of pride."
This proposal is an opportunity for the rail authority to acknowledge local concerns about their plan to build — at great expense — an unnecessary second set of tracks between San Francisco and San Jose. There may be many hurdles to overcome, but this is only the beginning of what should become a much longer and productive discussion. Regardless, for Palo Alto, it is the first positive news about high-speed rail in many months.