A new proposal by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to invest in rail improvements in the northern and southern sections of the controversial rail system is facing skepticism from Palo Alto and neighboring cities, where some elected officials argue that their cities are still being left out of the statewide conversation.
The revised business plan, which top officials from the rail authority discussed at a crowded public hearing in Mountain View Tuesday night, March 13, will emphasize the "blended" approach -- a design under which high-speed rail and Caltrain would share two tracks on the Peninsula. The rail authority's original design envisioned four tracks running along the Caltrain corridor, with high-speed trains running on the inside tracks and Caltrain on the outside tracks.
Rail authority board Chair Dan Richard and board member Jim Hartnett said Tuesday that the new plan, which the authority plans to release later this month, will rely heavily on existing rail infrastructure and that it would call for "early investments" in the Bay Area and in southern California.
But while the plan provides numerous carrots to the Peninsula, including a potential funding source for the long-awaited electrification of Caltrain, city officials have indicated that they aren't willing to bite just yet. The project continues to face intense scrutiny in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton, three cities that have sued the rail authority over its environmental documents. The Palo Alto City Council called for the project to be terminated, as the city's official position. Early reactions from Peninsula officials indicate that the authority's latest revisions to its business plan are unlikely to change that.
Palo Alto's skepticism over the latest plans by the authority bubbled up Thursday morning, March 15, at a meeting of the council's Rail Committee, which approved a letter to Caltrain summarizing the city's concerns about the new proposal from the authority. The city and its partners in the Peninsula Cities Consortium (PCC) have been particularly alarmed about the rail authority's ongoing negotiations with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) on an agreement that would lay out early investment opportunities by the rail authority in the Bay Area. Some, including Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt (who also sits on the Rail Committee and chairs the PCC) have argued that the MTC, a regional planning agency, may not be the best representative for the Peninsula when it comes to high-speed-rail issues.
At Tuesday's hearing, which was chaired by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, Burt said that while Palo Alto understands the MTC's role in distributing regional funding, the agency "lacks both the ability to speak on behalf of our residents and the local knowledge that our council members possess." Burlingame Councilwoman Terry Nagel, whose city also belongs to the PCC, voiced a similar concern about MTC's ability to adequately represent the Peninsula cities in the "eleventh hour."
Palo Alto's Rail Committee continued to question the MTC's role Thursday morning and stressed in its letter that it believes the agreement should involve Caltrain rather than the MTC. The Peninsula Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain, owns the tracks and has consistently advocated for the blended approach, which was first unveiled about a year ago by Simitian, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park.
Councilman Larry Klein, who chairs the Rail Committee, said Thursday that the greater the MTC's role is in the new contract, the more worried he is about the agreement. He noted that Caltrain, as the owner of its corridor, has the kind of leverage over the rail authority that the MTC does not.
Despite the city's reservations, the MTC is unlikely to withdraw from the process. Jayme Ackemann, Caltrain's government affairs officer, told the committee that the MTC -- which has the authority to disperse federal funding to other transportation agencies -- has indicated its intention to take the lead role in the agreement.
"All federal and state transportation money have to pass through (the MTC) as part of the regional transportation-planning process," Ackemann said. "As Caltrain, we'd not be able to advocate against MTC taking the lead position because they will be the funding agent."
The rail authority is pursuing a similar strategy in southern California, where various cities have banded and are negotiating a contract with the authority over early investment opportunities in existing rail systems. But even as the authority explores projects in the north and south segments on the line, officials made it clear Tuesday that they will not veer from their decision to begin construction of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line in the Central Valley. California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the project in 2008 and the project has so far received about $3 billion in federal funding.
Richard said the authority plans to ask the State Legislature this year for $2.7 billion in bond funding for Central Valley construction. Investments in the system's "bookends" (its northern and southern segments) will not come until later, he said.
Even so, rail officials maintained that the revised business plan is a "new vision" for the agency and that it directly addresses many of the concerns it received from the community and legislators when it released its current business plan last year.
"This is an opportunity for Caltrain as much as it is an opportunity for high-speed rail," Hartnett said Tuesday night, referring to the early investment. "We believe the plan will set out a reasonable way of doing that."
High-speed-rail officials also said Tuesday that the project's estimated $98.5 billion price tag will drop in the new business plan, largely because of its new emphasis on the blended approach. The new plan, he said, will demonstrate the ways in which the capital costs can be reduced.
"The key to it is the blend approach," Richard said. "This is one of the things that will lock us into the course that I think will save us a lot of money."