Mountain View Voice

News - July 9, 2010

Cities issue rail challenge: 'build right or not at all'

by Council still hesitating on MV's stance

"Build right or not at all," Palo Alto and four other cities in the Peninsula Cities Consortium have challenged the California High-Speed Rail Authority, urging the agency to step back and resolve issues.

The cities issued a statement Monday calling on the authority to "step back and resolve troublesome issues" with the rail project days after an independent review uncovered flaws in the ridership projections for the proposed line.

They said the authority has "an enormous credibility problem" because of the recent seriously critical analysis by state officials and, most recently, a professional group commissioned by the state legislature.

The consortium, which includes Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame and Belmont, alleged that the authority is more focused on meeting deadlines for federal-stimulus funding than on building a system that works.

Mountain View has taken a less aggressive approach to high speed rail issues and has not joined the consortium, which has also sued the Rail Authority. But Mayor Ronit Bryant, who attends consortium meetings, said she agreed with the concern over the project's quality. "It's a massive project, it better be built right and we better plan it correctly so we don't regret it forever and a day."

As to Mountain View not officially joining the PCC, she added, "We've kind of put ourselves in a wait-and-see position. In Mountain View we've been focusing on figuring out what would be right for us."

Rich Cline, mayor of Menlo Park and chair of the consortium, said in the statement issued Monday afternoon that the cities are concerned that "key problems may not be resolved because of the intense pressure being exerted by the Authority's desire to qualify for federal stimulus funding. The rail authority has to begin construction on the San Francisco-to-San Jose line by September 2012 to qualify California for a $2.25 billion grant.

"Common sense is absent from the high-speed rail discussion," Cline said. "Right now the Authority plans to select a final alignment and release its draft environmental impact report by December of this year under an extremely rushed project schedule that is dictated solely by the desire for federal funds."

Federal funds play a prominent role in the authority's plan to fund the project, which carries an estimated price tag of about $43 billion. The authority expects to get about $17 billion in federal grants for the project, though so far only $2.25 billion has been committed.

California voters also approved $9.95 billion in state funds for high-speed rail and related improvements in 2008 when they passed Proposition 1A.

But many of the project's earliest supporters have lashed out at the authority over the past year about what they perceive to be the agency's inadequate outreach and shoddy planning.

Two of the consortium partners, Menlo Park and Atherton, had also joined a coalition of nonprofit groups in challenging the rail authority's selection of Pacheco Pass over the Altamont Pass as the preferred route for the new line.

The authority's ridership projections took a hit last week when the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that the models these projections were based on were flawed and unreliable as a basis for decision-making. The conclusion followed similar criticisms expressed by the Palo Alto-based watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design earlier this year.

The latest review, along with critical recent reports from the Office of the State Auditor and the Legislative Analysts Office, have created a "credibility problem" for the rail authority, Cline said. He also challenged the authority's assertion that the system, once built, would be financially self-sustaining.

"There also is no stated plan for paying to operate high-speed rail once it is built, and we fear local taxpayers may be left holding the bag," Cline said.

—Daniel DeBolt contributed to this report.

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