The state agency charged with building a high-speed rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles has yet to convince Peninsula residents about the merits of having electric trains zip through their communities at 125 mph.
But on Thursday, officials from the California High-Speed Rail Authority took a step toward quelling area fears with the first of three "scoping sessions" this month on what should be included in an environment-impact study on the 800-mile project.
The meeting, held at the SamTrans headquarters in San Carlos, attracted nearly 150 residents, some whom raised concerns about the cost, noise and traffic impacts of the project, which was approved by voters as Proposition 1A last Nov. 4.
The scoping session addressed only the stretch between San Francisco and San Jose.
Other sessions are scheduled for next Tuesday and Thursday, 3 to 8 p.m., in San Francisco and Santa Clara, respectively. (Details below.)
Dominic Spaethling, regional manager for the project, said the new rail system would ultimately be quieter and safer than any system in place today. The trains would run on a four-track system, with two tracks being used by Caltrain and freight trains.
"We're talking about upgrading this to a point where the vibration is reduced, the noise is reduced and it's a safer and better operated railroad than we have today," Spaethling said.
Some audience members asked whether Palo Alto or Redwood City will end up with a high-speed rail station. Palo Alto city staff is evaluating potential impacts of a high-speed rail station downtown and the city has not come out with an official stance.
The question over which city would join Millbrae as a stopping point between San Francisco and San Jose probably won't be answered for at least a year. The authority is in the "amoeba phase" of putting together its environmental impact report (EIR) for the project. The authority expects to work on the analysis and engineering for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment until 2011.
Thursday's scoping session was one of the early steps in the process of putting the EIR together. Residents were asked to submit written comments about issues they want to see addressed in the study.
Timothy Cobb, project engineer for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the high-speed rail, said engineering for the project will begin in February. It would likely take about six months to put together possible scenarios that could be presented to the officials from Palo Alto and Redwood City for consideration, he said.
"Before we do the engineering, we really won't know what is feasible," Cobb said.
Cobb described the proposed system as "state of the art" and as a much-needed tool for bringing the United States in line with Europe, where such systems have been in place for more than 25 years. The trains would travel at speeds up to 220 miles per hour, delivering passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 38 minutes. Speeds on the Peninsula would be around 125 miles per hour, Cobb said.
But even though California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the system in November, it's not yet entirely clear where the rest of the funds for the $45 billion project would come from. The federal government is expected to provide another $10 billion to $12 billion and local and regional agencies are expected to contribute up to $3 billion. The rest would have to come from private sources.
Quentin L. Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said 28 private companies, including Goldman Sachs, had previously expressed interest in investing in the project.
But he said it's not clear what effect the worsening economy would have on private contributions.
Kopp said the authority's consultant and management group are now reaching out to potential investors to gauge their current level of interest.
Palo Alto City Councilmember Yoriko Kishimoto attended the meeting and asked authority officials about potential parking facilities at the proposed stations. Kopp said the agency has yet to resolve that question, though the answers may lie with the host cities.
"I think in the end it will probably be up to each city," Kopp said. "We may make a recommendation, but I don't personally believe in usurping local authority."
The next scoping session will be held Tuesday, Jan. 27, at San Francisco State University, Rooms 673-674, 835 Market St., San Francisco. It will be followed by a third one Thursday, Jan. 29, at the Santa Clara Convention Center, 5001 Great America Parkway, Meeting Rooms 1 and 2, Santa Clara.
Both will be from 3 to 8 p.m.
Residents also have until March 6 to submit written comments on the scope of the environmental review for the Peninsula segment of the project. Comments should be sent to Dan Leavitt, deputy director, attention San Francisco to San Jose, California High-Speed Rail Authority, 925 L St., Suite 1425, Sacramento, CA 95814, or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "San Francisco to San Jose HST."