But last Thursday, officials from the California High-Speed Rail Authority took a step toward quelling fears with the first of three "scoping sessions" this month on what should be included in an environmental impact study on the 800-mile project. The other two meetings were Tuesday and Thursday of this week, in San Francisco and Santa Clara, respectively. All three addressed only the stretch between San Francisco and San Jose.
The first meeting, held at the SamTrans headquarters in San Carlos, attracted nearly 150 residents, some whom raised concerns about the cost, noise and traffic impacts of the project, which was approved by voters as Proposition 1A last Nov. 4.
Dominic Spaethling, regional manager for the project, said the new rail system would ultimately be quieter and safer than any system in place today. The trains would run on a four-track system, with two tracks being used by Caltrain and freight trains.
"We're talking about upgrading this to a point where the vibration is reduced, the noise is reduced and it's a safer and better operated railroad than we have today," Spaethling said.
Mountain View is in the very early stages of figuring out how to accommodate additional tracks for the trains along the Caltrain corridor downtown. There is currently no room for the two additional tracks that would have to be built alongside the Caltrain line, as the light rail stop takes up space there. And unless Castro Street is closed off at that end, a grade-separated crossing of some sort will have to be built so that the trains can rush through downtown without posing a danger to cars and people.
The authority is in the "amoeba phase" of putting together its environmental impact report for the project. Thursday's scoping session was one of the early steps in the process of putting the report together. The authority expects to work on the analysis and engineering for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment until 2011.
Mountain View officials attended the scoping session in Santa Clara on Thursday and will be providing written comments to the authority by March 6.
Timothy Cobb, project engineer for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment of the high-speed rail, said engineering for the project will begin in February. It would likely take about six months to put together possible scenarios that could be presented to local city officials for consideration, he said.
"Before we do the engineering, we really won't know what is feasible," Cobb said.
Cobb described the proposed system as "state of the art" and as a much-needed tool for bringing the United States in line with Europe, where such systems have been in place for more than 25 years. The trains would travel at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour, delivering passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours and 38 minutes. Speeds on the Peninsula would be around 125 miles per hour, Cobb said.
But even though California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the system in November, it's not yet entirely clear where the rest of the funds for the $45 billion project will come from. The federal government is expected to provide another $10 billion to $12 billion, and local and regional agencies are expected to contribute up to $3 billion. The rest would have to come from private sources.
Quentin L. Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said 28 private companies, including Goldman Sachs, had previously expressed interest in investing in the project. But he said it's not clear what effect the worsening economy would have on private contributions.
Residents also have until March 6 to submit written comments on the scope of the environmental review for the Peninsula segment of the project. Comments should be sent to Dan Leavitt, deputy director, attention San Francisco to San Jose, California High-Speed Rail Authority, 925 L St., Suite 1425, Sacramento, CA 95814; or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "San Francisco to San Jose HST."
Staff writer Daniel DeBolt contributed to this report.