Mountain View Voice

Opinion - July 16, 2010

Simitian puts rail project on deadline

With state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, adding his voice to the growing criticism of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, challenges to the huge project from Peninsula cities north of Mountain View are gaining credibility.

Although the City Council at first welcomed high-speed rail, some members believe they could have gained clout with the authority by following the lead of Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and two other northern cities into the Peninsula Cities Consortium. Now, although rail critics from those cities often are referred to as NIMBY (not in my backyard) opponents because the planned route would impact many of their residents who live along the rail corridor, recent glitches in the authority's ridership claims and oversight ability have caught Mr. Simitian's attention.

He said last week that these and other problems reflect "an unfortunate trend that needs to be turned around." He and his colleagues have decided to give the authority until Feb. 1 to present a list of ways to remedy the identified problems or risk losing some state funding for the estimated $43 billion rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, he said.

Earlier in the week the consortium (Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Burlingame and Belmont) issued a statement that said the authority has "an enormous credibility problem" after an independent review uncovered problems in the ridership projections.

The statement from the consortium's chair, Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline, is highly critical of the authority, citing mistakes found by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, a professional group commissioned by the state Legislature. Only with a high number of riders can the authority justify the huge construction costs of the project.

And that wasn't all from Mr. Cline, who also noted recent critical reports from the Office of the State Auditor and the Legislative Analysts Office, and he challenged the authority's assertion that when built, the system would be financially self-sustaining.

The consortium also is concerned that the "key problems may not be resolved because of the intense pressure being exerted by the authority's desire to qualify for federal stimulus funding." Construction must begin by September 2012 on the San Francisco to San Jose segment to qualify California for a $2.25 billion grant. Overall, the authority hopes to get about $17 billion in federal grants, although only $2.25 billion has been committed so far.

Looking ahead, Mr. Cline and the consortium are concerned that "there 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."

Given the High Speed Rail Authority's lackluster performance so far, Mountain View, as well as the entire state, should be worried about the ability of the authority to manage and build this multi-billion-dollar project on time and on budget. City leaders should be concerned about the project's impact around the transit center, Central Expressway and to the homes and businesses near the rail corridor. Mayor Ronit Bryant now attends consortium meetings on an informal basis, but maybe it is time for Mountain View to reconsider its reluctance to join this group, which is simply making sure that the rail authority keeps its promises and does all it can to minimize the impact on all Peninsula cities.

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