Nearly a month after California legislators passed a bill to begin construction of high-speed rail, Palo Alto officials are still trying to sort out the bill's ambiguities and considering ways to insert "cleanup language" that would ease local anxieties about the highly controversial project.
The City Council Rail Committee had a lengthy discussion on Friday afternoon about Senate Bill 1029, which legislators passed on July 12 and which Gov. Jerry Brown subsequently signed into law. The bill cleared the state Assembly and the Senate largely by a party vote, with Democrats promoting high-speed rail as a necessary aid for the state's economy and transportation system and Republicans characterizing it as a boondoggle that would further exacerbate California's considerable financial woes. The state Senate approved the bill by a single vote, with Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, among a handful of Democrats who voted against it.
The Palo Alto City Council has been among the project's most vehement opponents. In December, the council unanimously adopted as the city's position a call for the project's termination. The council, which supported the project in 2008, gradually turned against it after the price tag more than doubled from the 2008 predictions and after local watchdogs and independent analysts found major flaws in the California High Speed Rail Authority's ridership projections.
The committee on Friday focused on a number of perceived "ambiguities" in the newly passed appropriation bill. One issues is the bill's commitment to the northern and southern ends of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles system. While most of the funding would go to construction of the rail line's first segment in the Central Valley, the bill also provides $705 million for to electrify Caltrain. However, as the Weekly reported last month, the bill also includes a clause that could allow the shifting of funds from the ends of the line to the Central Valley if there are cost overruns.
From the perspective of Peninsula communities, which see Caltrain's electrification as a major bright spot of the bill, this clause creates a major problem. Palo Alto hopes to convince legislators to pass a high-speed-rail "cleanup" bill that would clarify some of these ambiguities and guarantee that funds would not be shifted to the Central Valley. Councilman Larry Klein, who chairs the Rail Committee, said it will likely be hard to get a commitment from the legislators to guarantee that the northern and southern "bookend" projects get funded.
"If they have cost overruns in the Central Valley, how are they going to cover that?" Klein asked. "The answer is -- they will take the money from the bookends. They have a commitment to get the Central Valley thing done, otherwise they won't get the federal money."
The Rail Committee on Friday directed staff to put together a memorandum listing its concerns. The memorandum could then be used by the city's Sacramento lobbyists to influence future legislation relating to funding of high-speed rail. In addition to seeking a guarantee of bookend funding, Palo Alto also hopes to get a guarantee from the California High-Speed Rail Authority that all future funding allocations (not just the one in SB 1029) would be used for a two-track "blended" system. Under that rail design, high-speed rail and Caltrain would share two tracks. The rail authority had initially proposed a four-track system before backing off in the face of intense Peninsula opposition.
Palo Alto is also looking for a guarantee that funding for high-speed rail would be contingent on compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, without alteration or weakening. City officials also want to make sure that Caltrain would serve as the lead agency for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the line.
While city officials hope to see Sacramento lawmakers address this cleanup-language bill as soon as possible, the debate might have to wait until early next year, according to the city's lobbyist, John Garamendi, Jr. Legislators are currently focused on pensions, Garamendi said, adding that he would be surprised if they get to clean-up language during the current session, which ends in three weeks.
The city's memorandum, Garamendi said, would allow his firm to submit letters as needed when the subject of high-speed rail returns to Sacramento's center stage. In the meantime, Palo Alto plans to continue to reach out to state officials, analysts and members of the local watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) in hopes of getting some clarity about the recently passed bill.
"The devil's in the details," Councilman Pat Burt said. "How the legislation is described and what the actual wording is are two different things. People tend to take others' words for the characterization of the content of the legislation."