Palo Alto skeptical about 'new vision' for high-speed rail

City worried its concerns will be ignored under pending agreement between transportation agencies

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."

Related story:

Officials pledge commitment to 'blended' rail system


Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 15, 2012 at 3:53 pm

CREDIBILITY has become the big problem for the High-Speed Rail Authority; HSR has none.

Why would anyone believe a word they say? On virtually every substantive issue, HSR has been wrong, wrong, wrong. Let us count the ways:

NONE of the promises made to win 2008 1A vote are being kept…
- No more than $40 billion to connect San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco
- No more than $9.95 billion from state of California
- No money authorized until investors committed
- Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2½ hours for about $50
- Ridership forecast unrealistically high

BOGUS HSR plans, independent auditors say…
- Peer Review Group January 3, 2012
- Legislative Analyst Office November 29, 2011
- State Inspector General October 27, 2010
- California State Auditor April 2010 Report 2009-106
- Joseph Vranich October 2008

Any village idiot can connect the dots on HSR, yet Simitian, Eshoo, Brown, et al seem unable to do so. Quite the opposite. Until they vote against HSR, my future votes will be for someone else.

'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.'

Like this comment
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Mar 15, 2012 at 4:35 pm

I hope HSR is not another Rickey's or Alma Plaza, when the city does not know when to declare victory and drives the end result to a disaster.

So far, it is getting some good concessions but I fear it will get so unrealistic, it loses in the end.

Like this comment
Posted by will
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 15, 2012 at 10:12 pm

Considering that pretty much everything that emanates from the HSR Authority is a outright lie, or simply made up, why would anyone believe their latest "new and improved" line of BS? As far as I can tell, the so-called blended approach for the Caltrain corridor is simply a placeholder for the 4-track plan that they have always wanted from day one. Simitian, Gordon, Hill, Brown and the rest of the politicians in Sacramento have sold their communities to HSR for a photo op with the biggest swindling of tax payers this country has ever seen. Pathetic. It's time to pull the plug on the CA HSR Authority.

If electrifying Caltrain is the best thing for that struggling poorly run entity, then the MTC should have no problem funding it without HSR. Some how I think that won't happen as the MTC seems to be the latest tool of the HSR machine.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2012 at 10:33 pm

I don't have a reference at hand, but I read that a large amount has been spent on public relations (and lobbying) both by HSRA and by peninsula cities, and likely other entities. Great use of taxpayer money. And HS Rail hasn't even started!
Why do Brown and Obama dig in their heels and insist on this massive project in light of info that has been developed that appears to demonstrate the project is unwieldy, too expensive, lines the pockets of Red China and labor, and just doesn't seem to match the transportation needs of CA? Maybe someone can propose a suitable (more modest) substitute project and get it subbed in quick.

Like this comment
Posted by FrankF
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 16, 2012 at 11:06 am

It's not a matter of believing (or not) the HSR Authority. The issue is to design the system that we want and to have everyone commit to that.

HSR can be very good for all of us. The original members of HSR Authority did indeed do some politically naive things (putting it politely) and several of them have been replaced. I'm not saying to relax and trust the new guys - only that we need to focus on getting done what we need to get done in the way we want it.

As far as 2 track or 4 goes it makes total sense to use the 2 tracks that are there, upgrade them as needed. If we need 4 tracks it will be because the 2 tracks are too busy.

Grade separation? We need that for Caltrain even if there is no HSR at all. These are the things we can accomplish.

Like this comment
Posted by Just don't get it...
a resident of Southgate
on Mar 16, 2012 at 11:27 am

Why isn't anyone questioning the layout/design of the two track system? Will it be above, below or at ground?? Why isn't HSR addressing this issue up front? Not nice to be surprised once the money is out there....assuming there could be the money. We know if they cut funds they won't be underground.

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Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 16, 2012 at 1:12 pm

1. The Golden Gate Bridge took 18 years to get approved.
2. 90% of the people opposing this project won't live to ride on it anyway.
3. The Mayor of Palo Alto opposed it before the plan was submitted for review--Shame on You.
4. The MTC should be involved to bring some sense to this project and to keep the Kleins, Burts, and Yehs out of the decision making process.
5. This City, and its leaders can't even approve a Grocery Store, why should we think they have the intelligence to deal with a highly sophisticated rail system.
6. Keep going, Joe Simitian, you're on the right track; The Citizens of Palo Alto now need to start re-calling leaders who are inept.

Like this comment
Posted by Richard C. Placone
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 16, 2012 at 1:46 pm

I think I will trust the non=government investors in this project. If they believe it is a good investment that will yield long term benefits to the investors, and so are willing to commit to investment before construction begins, then perhaps I will change my current opposition to this project as it is currently designed. So far, the commitments made when we voted for the project bond have not been met and seem likely not to be met, as other posters have pointed out.

Like this comment
Posted by A
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 16, 2012 at 2:28 pm

To FrankF

I do not believe what the CHSRA did was politically naive at all. Their actions better fit the profile of a basically corrupt institution whose real goal is to siphon off as much money as possible to their friends and themselves. When billions are thrown around, you know some bid-rigging is going to occur. In this case, I do not see how the cost ends up at 250 million per mile without massive theft.

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Posted by bill g
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 16, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Where are the private investors that were going to supply a large part of the money? If they don't invest, it will be because they don't see a return on their money. Therefore we can expect any line to lose money and the taxpayers (you and me) will pay for it forever.

In spite of the rhetoric about the success of HSR in other countries, all require heavy taxpayer subsidies. The only lines that come close to breaking even are in densely populated areas which the California HSR does not serve. Check the internet for this information. We are buying a pig in a poke.

Like this comment
Posted by Just say NO
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Mar 16, 2012 at 3:51 pm

@ senor blogger

On your #2 point, "2. 90% of the people opposing this project won't live to ride on it anyway."

And 90% of those FOR the project won't live to see it paid off.

Like this comment
Posted by Still against HSR
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm

The HSRA seem to be planning this rail the way I make cookies adding this and that. First it was 4 track elevated, then maybe tunneled. They were going to start in the Central Valley, but now they will start there, and also on the peninsula, and in Southern Ca. They keep saying that they have not yet completed their plans- yet they have spent about 100 million so far on research, consultants, trips to Europe to look at other HSR.
I believe China is not building more HSR since their last HSR accident. And several US states have decided not to build a HSR- both for good reasons.
Will this new 2- track-blended idea really work? The Union Pacific has significant rights over the tracks along Central Expressway- is the HSRA talking to them? I read that Alma St. may be reduced by one or two lanes. Alma is a very well traveled street and we could not afford to lose any lanes.
The 2008 vote explained that this HSR would require all of the funding to be available prior to beginning any construction- but now this new chair, Dan Richard said that they do not need to wait for all of the money before they start. He needs to read the description. Yes they do! And it is not reassuring that Mr. Richard has only been the chair for one month.
Neighbor- the HSRA decided to spend 9 million on PR. Odd- once it was voted in, you would think that no money would be needed to be spent on convincing citizens that it is the right thing to do. But- it has changed so much that many who voted it in- would now vote against it.

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Posted by Kay Djordjevich
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 16, 2012 at 6:55 pm

I think I must have misunderstood the Blended plan??
This is a stopgap plan to use Caltrain tracks, knowing that at a later date the intention is to build on the peninsula the required high-speed rail track. Excuse me, but I find this absurd. Have I missed something? If there is a high speed train on the tracks, any contact with the public must be avoided. Would they not have to build “grade crossings” at every street crossing the tracks?

To build them only for one set of tracks, and then later redo each crossing to accommodate the eventual plan of a second set is a no-brainer! So the destruction of existing businesses, structures, etc. at each crossing would be the same even if high-speed rail could use the old Caltrain tracks, which seems unlikely to me.

As for the double set of tracks eventually planned...
I wonder if the high-speed rail enthusiasts factored in the COST of taking down thousands of old growth trees, probably including the old Palo Alto redwood grove along the tracks. (I remember what it cost to take out a single Monterey pine on our property a few years ago!) And the cost of the certain demolition of many long-established businesses, office buildings, maybe the Stanford Park Hotel, apartment houses, railway stations along the Peninsula, reimbursement to the owners and communities affected, not to mention private homes which will be lost!

Did they ever decide if they would build the new tracks on the East or West side of the Caltrain tracks?

And how to manage the redirection of traffic now using the major arteries affected – Alma Street and the Central Expressway.

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2012 at 11:53 pm

If they don't put an end to this mess soon, the HSR Authority is going to spend all $10 Billion allotted by the 2008 referendum on "proposals" and "administrative costs."

Like this comment
Posted by FD
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 18, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Here’s a simple question. Politicians promoting the November 2008 HSR ballot proposition promised, legally, that the Bullet Train would cost only $33 billion to construct (which included San Diego and Sacramento costs), that California would contribute only $9 billion in one-time bonds without further obligation, and without the project being a “pay as you go” blank check from taxpayers.

But, the HSR Authority’s November 2011 business plan now estimates construction costs at $98.7 – 117.8 billion, not including San Diego or Sacramento, with California liable for all but $3 billion of that cost.

The simple question is why politicians are allowed, ethically, morally or legally, to change what was promised to voters in favor of a project they never approved? Three separate polls show California voters overwhelmingly reject this new “bait and switch” HSR project, instead wanting money spent on K-12 education, seniors, mental ill, not for a blank check HSR boondoggle.


Web Link

And this new January 14, 2012 Survey USA Poll shows that most Californians want the sale of HSR bonds to be stopped, and most believe the train will never be built:

Web Link
and here: Web Link
and Web Link.

So it's simple. Don't release the bonds, unless there is a $33 billion project that is going to be completed. The problem is that the HSRA's new business plan says that at a minimum the cost is now $98.7 to 117.8 billion. So by definition, the plan must be killed and bonds not released.

Like this comment
Posted by BrendonV
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 18, 2012 at 7:23 pm

By its nature, this is one of the most complicated, difficult, politically contentious projects California has undertaken. This was never going to be quick or easy, and it is naive to think so. At the first sign of difficulty people want to bail out. It is instructive to read the history of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Where is the vision and chutzpah that built this country? We are raising legitimate concerns on issues such as number of tracks, grade separation etc, but thanks to people like Joe Simitian, they are being heard and resolved as we move forward.

Like this comment
Posted by rocky rhodes
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 19, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Palo Alto is going to have to stop kicking and screaming and I hope it's soon. PA seems to think it's the authority on everything. It's like being in some backwards stepford where even things that will benefit the city are shot down.
HSR is coming. Please embrace it. After it's running, PA will say to itself "what was all the hubub about?".
I'm sure the CHSRA would be delighted to put the train through a tunnel in Palo Alto and Atherton, if you can come up with the constsruction expenses. You could sink Caltrain to, and create a "low line" park above it, but PA would probably object to that too.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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