Rail authority stumped by Peninsula's proposed 'blended' system

California High-Speed Rail Authority board members question plan to blend rail system with Caltrain, threatens to halt design work on Peninsula

A proposal by three Peninsula lawmakers to blend California's proposed high-speed-rail system with Caltrain ran into opposition Thursday morning from the state agency charged with building the new rail line.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority had its first chance Thursday to discuss a proposal by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, to blend the controversial rail system with what the lawmakers called a "21st Century Caltrain." The three legislators also called for the rail authority to abandon any design options that include aerial alignments and to scale back its environmental analyses for the overall project, which still includes discussion of four-track lines.

Though the proposal has won plaudits in Palo Alto and other Peninsula communities, members of the rail authority voiced concern and frustration about the plan, which they said could derail the agency's ongoing analyses. Chairman Curt Pringle and board member Lynn Schenk both wondered whether the proposal is nothing more than an attempt by Peninsula politicians to take money from the rail project and use it for the cash-strapped Caltrain system.

The three legislators promoted their plan as an example of what they call "high-speed rail done right." In unveiling their plan on April 11, they said blending the two systems on the Peninsula would save billions of dollars by avoiding the need to build a duplicative rail system. They also argued that the rail authority's planned Environmental Impact Report for the full system is considering expensive alignments that may never get built and suggested that the environmental report study the scaled-back system.

The rail authority has about $5 billion allocated for the rail system, which it estimates to cost about $43 billion. Rail watchdogs have disputed this number and said the cost would exceed $60 billion.

The board discussed the Simitian plan after hearing a detailed presentation from its consultant about the latest plan to phase in construction of the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment. The authority's engineering firm, HNTB, is considering a variety of options for the Peninsula segment, include aerial viaducts as well as open and partially covered trenches. But rather than approving the proposed plan and committing to funding further analysis of phased implementation, the rail authority's board decided to delay any action until members learn more about the legislators' proposal.

Pringle even suggested that the rail authority stop spending money on the Peninsula segment until they get more clarity on the new plan.

"I'm stymied," Pringle said. "Do we tell our team to continue to study this process, or do we want to throw it all out and respond to this letter?"

Pringle also said he's not interested in spending high-speed-rail money for projects other than high-speed rail and questioned the motive of the three legislators.

"Is it a true intent to see high-speed-rail service all the way to the (Transbay) Terminal, or is this letter a smokescreen -- just a way we want to capture a greater share for our local rail uses."

Schenk, who is one of the founding members of the rail authority, agreed with Pringle and said she would hate to see "our precious high-speed-rail funds" diverted to other causes, particularly local ones.

"I don't want to see (that) money used to bail out any regional transportation system, including the Surfliner in my own community and especially Caltrain and others."

Jim Hartnett, the newest member of the rail authority, was less hostile to the lawmakers' proposal and asked for a fuller analysis of whether and how their plan could be implemented. He said the lawmakers' two-page letter outlining the proposal does not constitute a specific plan and proposed a more thorough discussion of the proposal.

"It's not a bailout of Caltrain from my perspective," Hartnett said. "It's 'How will this system be most effective if it's funded and have the capacity to carry ridership?'"

The board voted unanimously to continue discussing the Peninsula design options at its next meeting.

Related stories:

Reps: High-speed rail should merge with improved Caltrain system in San Jose

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Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of Mountain View
on May 6, 2011 at 11:32 am

Good news, I don't want the entire system to be shut down if someone on the peninsula jumps in front of a train or parks on the tracks. The same people supporting this option are the ones who would rather see this project shut down. I guess they don't believe in the democratic process, as the high speed rail initiative was approved by a majority of voters (and by a wide margin on the peninsula) who had full access to information stating that the caltrain row was the preferred route.

Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on May 6, 2011 at 11:51 am

No one on Caltrain like it shut down when someone "jumps in front of a train or parks on the tracks." either.

This solution is better for all - it is much more cost effective to improve Caltrain and even to increase it to 4 tracks as demand warrants. This solution can avoid the endless law suites that will come if HSR insists on building a separate rail system.

It seems HSR is letting Perfection be the enemy of the good.

As far as the grade level crossings goes - they all should be changed (trains or cars go over or under - makes little difference)

Like this comment
Posted by Bernard & Jane Leitner
a resident of Midtown
on May 6, 2011 at 12:35 pm

The proposal by Simitian/Eshoo/Gordon seems to offer a much more reasonable plan for rail on the Peninsula than any so far proposed by the HSR authority. And it makes good economic sense.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 6, 2011 at 3:52 pm

@Robert -- I don't think most would agree with you about information available to voters. Many felt quite deceived once the real plans came out and have stated that they would not have voted for the proposition if information revealed later was available.

Improving car/train intersections to avoid accidents would be a positive change; however, neither aerial tracks or a 4-track system are not needed to accomplish this.

I think this proposal and is realistic and will minimize negative impact along the peninsula.

Like this comment
Posted by cmr
a resident of Midtown
on May 6, 2011 at 4:21 pm

The blended rail system is an excellent example of a win-win-win situation. Caltrain will serve local stations, deliver folks to the high speed rail stations, and get upgraded. High speed rail would gain community support and additional ridership. Plus the plan would save a lot of tax payer money - our money. Everybody benefits.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 6, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Apparently the folks behind HSR are not just having fun here in NorCal....Web Link At least there's evidence that they CAN change their minds.....though that decision seems not particularly popular either, from the LA Times coverage. Hmmmm.

Like this comment
Posted by Sid
a resident of Professorville
on May 6, 2011 at 10:40 pm

I am glad that this idea is getting an airing. I always wondered why an additional set of tracks and all the disruption it would cause was really warranted. I hope that the inertia of the ongoing study does not become a justification for shelving what appears to be a good idea.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 7, 2011 at 6:29 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

In any event, closing of ALL grade crossings is a priority. Second is electrification. This all or nothing crap gets old quick.

Like this comment
Posted by Carlito waysman
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm

>The three legislators promoted their plan as an example of what they call "high-speed rail done right."<

"Done right", according to who? The winning minority backed by their spineless state representatives, their argument against HSR is old and typical NIMBY attitude. Now they have concocted a "plan" that will please to these few naysayers, by making the prehistoric Caltrain system part of HSR and save a very few folks some minuscule backyard real state by reducing the number of tracks from 4 to 2. And well you can see how this is very pleasing to these nincompoops, HSR and bankrupt Caltrain would share the tracks, no new tracks to be built, the number and the speed of HSR trains going to San Francisco would be reduced because the arthritic Caltrain slow-poke trains would get in the way, so at the end the only ones enjoying the real benefits of HSR would be from Anaheim to San Jose. Are you kidding?

When the majority voted for HSR, we voted for real HSR trains from Anaheim to San Francisco, we did not include Caltrain as part of the system, neither we voted with intent to please the winning minority.

If winning minorities have had their way in the past, all these big projects of infrastructure that we get to enjoy nowadays, would not had been built.

The majority of the People of California have spoken loud and clear with their vote and decided to go with HSR.
The minority can either get on with the program or get out of the way.

Like this comment
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on May 7, 2011 at 9:00 pm

The majority of the People of California had no idea what they were voting on in 2008. They had no idea how ill-conceived HSR is. If built, it will be an economic albatross for decades to come.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike Eager
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 9, 2011 at 11:19 am

I voted for HSR and still believe that it's a good idea. But I would not have voted for a design which proposed destroying many homes along the CalTrain right-of-way, nor for a design which builds a wall through the cities along the Peninsula. In this respect, I think that the ballot issue was bait-and-switch.

We have multiple public transportation systems none of which integrate well with each other. Light rail doesn't connect well with CalTrain. CalTrain doesn't work well with BART. Getting from CalTrain to either SFO or SJC is difficult. Light Rail doesn't go th SJC. With all the engineering talent here, how is that we keep doing things badly?

Integrating HSR on the Peninsula with the existing rail system seems like an obvious design. Rather than myopically viewing this idea as a way to stop HSR, the HSR board should say "Gee, why didn't we think of this earlier?" and move ahead with an in-depth design and evaluation.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 9, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Perhaps the HSR folks will take the new influx of Federal funds and apply it towards taking HSR & CalTrain below grade on the Peninsula.


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