Approved high-speed-rail analysis sets stage for more lawsuits | April 20, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 20, 2012

Approved high-speed-rail analysis sets stage for more lawsuits

Peninsula cities remain concerned about ridership numbers, description of system in revised environmental study

by Gennady Sheyner

The state agency charged with building California's high-speed rail system approved on Thursday a long-debated environmental analysis for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line — a voluminous document that the project's opponents immediately characterized as an invitation to more lawsuits.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority voted to "recertify" the final Program Environmental Impact Report (EIR), a high-level document that describes the voter-approved project and that designates the Pacheco Pass as the rail authority's preferred route to the Peninsula. The authority had previously approved the document on two occasions, but it was forced both times to revise the document after legal challenges from Peninsula cities and nonprofit groups.

Now, Palo Alto, Atherton and Menlo Park are preparing for round three. Stuart Flashman, the attorney representing the Peninsula cities in two lawsuits against the rail authority, submitted on April 13 a notice that the cities will appeal the November 2011 ruling, which required the rail authority to make several technical revisions in the program analysis but which did not force the agency to re-examine Pacheco or ridership numbers. The basic argument from the cities is that the newly revised EIR still fails to comply with state law because of questionable ridership data and a failure to examine a two-track design on the Peninsula.

Much of the legal dispute centered on the rail authority's choice of the Pacheco Pass over the Altamont Pass. Board members acknowledged Thursday that both routes have merit, but they declined to reconsider the preferred alternative for the $68 billion line.

Board Chair Dan Richard called the dispute over routes the "biggest struggle" for him. His board colleague, Jim Hartnett, agreed.

"Frankly, with a lot to commend each, in my heart of hearts I still think the Pacheco is the preferable alternative," Hartnett said.

Several speakers vehemently disagreed. David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (TRANSDEF) and Richard Tolmach, president of California Rail Foundation, both urged the rail authority to reconsider the route. Both groups took part in the litigation against the rail authority.

"If you insist on certifying this document, you will be back in court and lose," Schonbrunn said.

"Have you learned anything from this organization's two previous expensive and time-consuming losses?" he later added.

Tolmach raised questions about the new document's ridership numbers, which have been contested by the Palo Alto-based watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) and by the independent experts from UC Berkeley's Institute for Transportation Studies.

"What you're basing this bad EIR on is a set of already discredited ridership figures," Tolmach said. "You need to get a fresh look."

City leaders in Palo Alto and Menlo Park have also insisted that the rail authority evaluate the "blended" alternative for high-speed rail — a design under which the rail system would share two tracks with Caltrain on the Peninusla. Though the rail authority had agreed to pursue the blended option, the program EIR devotes most of its analysis to a four-track design that has been widely panned on the Peninsula.

The newly approved environmental study specifies that the "blended approach would involve electrification of the rail corridor, advanced signaling systems, and would include some grade separations, but was assumed to be not fully grade separated." It defers a fuller analysis of this option to a future study.

In approving the analysis Thursday, board members tried to assuage Peninsula critics by adding a provision that specifies that future analyses will focus "solely" on the blended system. That blended approach, which was introduced by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, is now expected to be the focus on a segment-specific environmental review that includes more technical and design details than the document approved Thursday.

"I know the issue of the blended approach is a hot topic, obviously," Hartnett said. "That's probably a closer call than some of the other issues, but I think that it's been dealt with the best it can at the programmatic level, based upon the stage of where it is.

"There is substantially more work that will have to be done with that as the second-tier level," he added, referring to the segment-specific study.

The board's recent decision to pursue the blended system is in many ways an overture to the Peninsula communities where opposition to high-speed rail has been most heated. But while the blended system is far more popular than the four-track alternative, the project continues to attract heavy scrutiny from both opponents and independent analysts. Earlier this week, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office recommended that state officials withhold construction funding from the project, which now has an estimated price tag of $68.4 billion. The office also recommended "some minimum funding" to continue planning efforts for high-speed rail.

Though California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the project in 2008, funding remains a major concern. Gov. Jerry Brown has requested in his 2012-13 budget $5.9 billion for high-speed rail, which would be launched in Central Valley. This includes $2.6 billion in state bond funds and $3.3 billion in federal funding. The Legislative Analyst's Office argued in the report that the current plan leaves most questions about funding the project unanswered.

"We find that the (High-Speed Rail Authority) has not provided sufficient detail and justification to the Legislature regarding its plan to build a high-speed train system," the Legislative Analyst's Office report states. "Specifically, funding for the project remains highly speculative and important details have not been sorted out. We recommend the Legislature not approve the Governor's various budget proposals to provide additional funding for the project."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 19, 2012 at 6:59 pm

The discredited High-Speed Rail Authority continues to field dead horse after dead horse. This time, it's their Recertified Environmental Impact Report, complete with spin.

It is no wonder their massively flawed proposals are drawing numerous lawsuits while turning off a general public who no longer wants any part of this turkey.

Californians have become unwilling passengers in a train wreck which, unfortunately, we and generations following us will be paying for through the nose for in perpetuity. This one project could be the tipping point that bankrupts California.

It is a sad indictment of our political system, and the ability of special interest groups to create marionette pols with big bucks, to see elected Democrats continue to back this loser.

My voting and contribution support will no longer go to any politician who supports HSR from here on out.

Like this comment
Posted by Howard
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 19, 2012 at 7:20 pm

This nonsense demonstrates why it is essential for Jerry Brown to push through legislation exempting HSR from CEQA.

Like this comment
Posted by Will
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 19, 2012 at 8:15 pm

I agree, the CA HSR Authority is a bunch of nonsense! Not to mention, arrogant and incompetent. They will do anything for that photo-op at the hole in the ground in SF called the TransBay terminal, which I imagine will shortly be re-named the Senator Feinstein Pork Station by the bay.

Any credibility the HSR project ever had has long since vanished, all that's left are the political rats that can't abandon the sinking ship. Thanks to our local 'leaders' Simitian and Gordon who help HSR limp along, refusing to kill this disaster because "high speed rail done right" surely must be coming around the corner soon.

Like Paul, I will vote for whom ever appears on the ballot opposing Democrats at all levels of state and federal office. Obama is foisting this train wreck on CA, oblivious to the long term financial disaster that surely will follow. He's lost my vote too.

Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 20, 2012 at 2:14 am

Boys and their trains.

The discredited High-Speed Rail Authority has eight board members, seven old white guys and a token female. Two are card carrying construction trades union members from the Central Valley. Another is a Fresno contractor/real estate agent. No wonder the proposed ‘tracks to nowhere’ slice through Central Valley farm land, never to be connected to where the people are.

It was two soon-to-retire Bay Area pols, Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon, who shepherded this HSR turkey through political back alleys for over a decade before finally slipping it onto the 2008 ballot as Proposition 1A, all the while laying down a barrage of cover stories loaded with what turned out to be the BIGGEST PACK OF LIES EVER.

When I say BIG, I’m calling a $65 billion-and-counting overrun on the original $35 billion HSR proposal BIG.

To fulfill the promises made to squeak Prop 1A through in 2008 would today cost north of $100 billion. What HSR has done is pure bait and switch.

In 2008, HSR promised to connect Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego to win the vote. Now HSR has sliced Sacramento and San Diego from their map, and used local rail in the SF and LA areas.

HSR says $65 billion will do it, and calls this 'a $35 billion savings.' That’s not savings, it’s HSR project chopping.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Like this comment
Posted by Way to go Paul
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2012 at 9:08 am

Well said Paul. To add insult to injury Kopp and Diridon then named public property after themselves (the San Jose train station and the 380 Freeway). Shame on them.

Like this comment
Posted by george
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Apr 20, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I concur with Paul in everything he writes. Also note there is no public investment which means private industry doesn't see any profit if they put money into it. And the Prop A specifically anticipated some funding from private industry. Will Congress contribute our tax dollars to HSR? Looks iffy.

Any politician who now votes for HSR in any guise has lost my vote.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 20, 2012 at 12:27 pm

If you build it they will come.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm


You wrote: "This nonsense demonstrates why it is essential for Jerry Brown to push through legislation exempting HSR from CEQA."

And WHY exactly should HSR be exempted from CEQA, Howard?

There is a reason why the National Environmental Protection Act was passed in 1970 and all you can do is to urge that I-need-a-legacy Jerry Brown use his political power and exempt HSR from its provisions.

I guess you don't give a hoot about the construction price tag, the magnitude of California debt, what more important state needs would be further shortchanged to sink $100 billion into this fiasco, whether this project would operate in the black, and its environmental impact.

Fortunately, according to the latest surveys, over 60% of the electorate want a revote on a project that is radically different than what they barely passed (by 52.7% to 47.3%) in November 2008 when the route along the Peninsula was deliberately kept beneath the radar.

This particular project deserves to be terminated.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 20, 2012 at 1:45 pm


Your mantra-like invocation of "If you build it they will come" is absurd. That prediction didn't apply to an earlier state-of-the-art transportation system like the Concorde SST, did it?

Whether 'they will come' would depend on many factors, including ticket cost, route, convenience, alternatives, comfort, aesthetics, options at either terminus, and various other factors, not just on whether 'you build it.'

And let's not forget two other intertwined questions: (i) even if 'they did come,' how many of the public would use the system how often? Would those levels be enough to keep the system's annual operating budget running in the black? (ii) what would be the financial consequences for the State of California of building it even if 'they did come'? Howard, would you personally be prepared to pay incremental state income tax for many years to cover system cost overruns, bond debt servicing, and annual operating deficits? I await your answer on that.

Thanks for migrating your tidy little mantra from the ideal world of cinematic baseball stadiums into the real world of the early 21st century mega-transport systems. It provides a real boost to rational decision-making.

Like this comment
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm

No state should be undertaking such a risky business venture in good economic times or bad. This project is so risky private investors are staying away in droves. Taxpayer money shouldn't be gambled with, and CA HSR is definitely a gamble. Union Pacific, the successor to Southern Pacific which used to operate railroads in California, won't go near this project. Why is the state of California contemplating a project private industry won't even touch? More to the point, why is the state of California getting into the railroad business? The railroads have traditionally been the domain of the private sector in this country, not the government. In addition, cities up and down the state which won't benefit in the least from HSR because they are located too far away should be thinking about lawsuits at the prospect of spending tens of billions on something which will never benefit those cities.

Like this comment
Posted by Choice
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2012 at 9:00 pm

What about this idea?

Build all of it except the part that goes through the three cities that don't want it. Then have buses transport the people through to the other side.

Like this comment
Posted by Jack O'Reilly
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 21, 2012 at 1:07 pm

We currently live in France, when not in Palo Alto, and enjoy the benefits of the great TGV service.
There are two things that seem to have been overlooked in the discussions:
1. Even after the recent "reduction" in estimated costs, why is the proposed cost per mile twice that of the line from Marseille to Nice? This new TGV line will go through some of the most difficult terrain in France, have to deal with active earthquake faults and involve real estate costs not far off those in the Bay Area, and yet it is still 50% cheaper per mile (or kilometer) than the proposed California High Speed Rail.
2. One of the most important needs for successful high speed lines is large amounts of parking at stations. Even in France, a country with very widespread public transport, the preferred way to get to a TGV station is by car. Currently both our local TGV stations (Avignon and Aix-en-Provence) are having to increase their already very large parking areas to cope with demand. This seems to have been largely ignored in California's plans.

I would be very willing to discuss this further -

Like this comment
Posted by Greg
a resident of Southgate
on Apr 21, 2012 at 3:13 pm


You failed to mention the enviromental benefit of TGV, which is based on electricity generated by nuclear power. France is the only country I can think of where HSR makes environmental sense, in terms of CO2 production (global warming).

The economic equation of TGV is very complex, as I am confident you know. Some lines are profitable, others not. Ownership of tracks is part of a separate government entity, and it is a profit center, to build more tracks around the country, thus is rents out track to the highest bidder...which makes many routes unprofitable, and subject to government subsidy or increased ticket prices.

The California HSR concept is a state subsidy case from the beginning. The electrical generation will not, mostly, come from nuclear power. It will mostly come from coal. There is no serious environmental case in favor of HSR in our state.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 21, 2012 at 7:56 pm

We've been through a lot of revelations about this highspeed rail thing.
I am underwhelmed by the actions of local politicians, who seem stuck between a rock and a hard place, considering Pres. Obama is supporting CA highspeed rail.
Why doesn't ANY investigative journalist get to the bottom of why a)local CA politicians & Gov Brown and b)Pres. Obama 3,000 miles away (and uninformed, perhaps, of the specifics?!) continue to insist this project is the right thing for CA? As far as I can see, China - and American unions - are the beneficiaries of the project and our billions of taxpayer money and it's crazy to proceed with this...

Like this comment
Posted by keenplanner
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Apr 24, 2012 at 8:41 pm

All this NIMBY-ism really makes Palo Alto look like a town of Luddite fools.
In every other industrialized country HSR is now regarded as "normal". The US is embarrassingly far behind in clean transportation, and CA is at least doing something about it.
The claim that HSR is expensive is shortsighted. Given the growth of the population of CA, and the fact that most airports and highways are nearly at capacity, contrasted with expanding these "dirty" transpo systems, HSR is a bargain.
The trains are fast and quiet, much more so than the cumbersome CalTrain rolling stock. When Caltrain is modernized and HSR is added, there will probably be less noise than Caltrain makes now. Add that to removing 30-40% of the flights which are Bay Area to LA Basin, you know, the ones circling over your back yard when you're trying to have a BBQ, the lack of noise will be deafening.
I hope Palo Alto wakes up soon, because in the planning community, PA is the poster child for suburban NIMBY-ism.