Vice Mayor Jack Morton of Palo Alto caught City Council colleagues by surprise with a suggestion Monday night that perhaps California's High Speed Rail Authority ought to be dissolved.
He said the $40 billion rail project could be turned over to some other entity with staff that has experience handling large planning/construction projects -- possibly including even Caltrain.
Morton made the suggestion Monday night when he was reporting to the council and public on a trip he, Councilman Pat Burt, Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie and citizens and officials from other Peninsula communities made to Sacramento last Thursday to convey a key message: Don't allow the rail authority to override local concerns.
Morton said authority staff members at the subcommittee hearing revealed a general lack of experience in putting together a large-scale project, and there was a feeling that the planned $40 billion rail project needs a staff highly experienced with large-scale projects.
He said about 50 persons, representing communities from San Jose to Belmont, attended a hearing of a state Senate subcommittee -- the "Budget and Fiscal Review Committee No. 2 on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation" -- chaired by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto). The two other members are John J. Benoit (R-Bermuda Dunes) and Alan S. Lowenthal (D-Long Beach).
They joined with Simitian to defer a request from the rail agency for about $130 million in bond funding and instead indicated they wanted to see more "transparency" in the authority.
Lowenthal also chairs the Senate Housing & Transportation Committee, of which Simitian is a member.
Morton told the council Monday night that the delegation from the south Peninsula seemed to impress the senators, one of whom commented that he couldn't believe "how well-spoken" the contingent was, despite some disparate views.
The delegation represented views that ranged from pushing for a relocation of the Bay Area route from Pacheco Pass to Altamont Pass to skip the Peninsula; trying to kill the rail project altogether; challenging the environmental impact studies done so far; and favoring tunneling the Peninsula segment between Sunnyvale and Belmont, at least.
Morton praised Emslie for two hours of careful briefing on the issues Emslie provided him on the ride to Sacramento, and called on Emslie to make some comments.
But Mayor Peter Drekmeier said high-speed rail will be a regular agenda item next Monday night, and Emslie could speak at that time.
Burt added that because of a "flurry of bills" relating in some way to the rail project that the council may want to delegate the responsibility to testify on the bills to a council subcommittee, based on a "set of principles" adopted by the full council.
He suggested that also be a topic for next Monday's meeting.
He said there are "20 or so pieces of legislation racing through Legislature right now" that will have widely varying impacts relating to the project, relating to the $9.9 billion authorized by the passage of Proposition 1A in last November's election.
Burt said numerous bills are predictable when there is $9.9 billion on the table, but Peninsula cities "will have a flurry of need to comment on these proposals" in a short timeframe -- urging delegation to a subcommittee and city staff.
Simitian, who earlier told the Weekly the senators heard the message "loud and clear," said Monday he heard from speakers that two separate issues need close attention: oversight of the rail authority and project and a broad "outreach" effort that includes intent listening as well as disseminating information.
He repeated an earlier statement that the authority has a basic structural problem: It started out as a "small study organization" promoting high-speed rail and evolved into an agency with funding and broad powers to design and implement a huge construction project leading to a major railroad operation.
Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto also has put together a group representing several cities along the south Peninsula route of the high-speed rail system. The group has proposed holding a "design charette" -- or theoretical planning and design exercise -- on the proposed rail system.
Under the initial concept, two additional sets of tracks would need to be built within the existing Caltrain right of way to leave the existing tracks for the regular Caltrain commute service and freight services operated by Union Pacific railroad.
The high-speed trains would travel about 125 miles per hour through the Peninsula communities, increasing to about 220 miles per hour through open stretches of the San Joaquin Valley.
Travel time between San Francisco or Sacramento -- on separate branches of the system -- to Los Angeles is estimated at about 2 hours 40 minutes or less, according to supporters of the high-speed rail system.
Rod Diridon, a former Santa Clara County supervisor and a member of the rail authority board, has said other high-speed-rail systems in various parts of the world make money, while acknowledging major challenges of building such a system.
He said no design decisions have been made, but when questioned raised concerns about the costs of deep tunneling and possible impacts on disrupting the underground aquifer underlying some affected cities.
Here are links to four bills currently before the Legislature:
■ SB 409 -- Creates a Department of Railroads (DOR) in the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and requires an undersecretary of the agency to be assigned to give attention to rail matters.
■ SB 451 (also listed as SB 455) -- Provides the High-Speed Rail Authority with certain eminent domain powers, establishes a policy for prioritizing investments, and provides a process for reporting on the progress of the high-speed rail project.
■ SB 783 -- Requires the High Speed Rail Authority, prior to seeking an allocation of bond funding for the 2009-10 fiscal year, to prepare an expanded business plan, with a draft submitted to the Legislature by Sept. 1, 2009, and the final plan being adopted by the HSRA's governing board by January 2010. The draft plan must be circulated for public comment, and include high, medium and low ridership projections.
■ AB 289 -- Specifies that the current California Environmental Quality Act exemption for reconstructing an existing railroad grade separation project or eliminating existing at-grade crossings extend to similar projects that are part of the California high-speed rail system.