Mountain View Voice

Opinion - December 3, 2010

City needs to step up on high-speed rail

All of a sudden the multi-billion dollar high-speed rail juggernaut that has dominated the Peninsula transportation agenda since voters approved Proposition 1A in 2008 vanished into the Central Valley last week.

Instead of releasing its long-awaited draft environmental impact report for the project's Peninsula segment in December, the EIR "...will need to be rescheduled for a future date," said Robert Doty, director of the Peninsula Rail Program, a partnership of Caltrain and the rail authority. Without the EIR, no decisions will be made on whether Peninsula trains will run on elevated tracks, at grade, in a tunnel or open trench.

The stunning news came soon after the Federal Railroad Administration designated a $715 million grant specifically for a Central Valley segment. Now the Peninsula portion of the project has been pushed back, and already two Peninsula mayors have used the delay to call for much better analysis of the project's viability before it is put back on track.

At this stage, no one knows how long the Peninsula EIR will be delayed, but it easily could be a number of years, rather than months. And already the newly rejuvenated Republicans in Congress are saying funding for some of President Obama's high-speed rail initiatives may be in trouble.

Although Mountain View has not been as vociferously opposed to high-speed rail as other Peninsula cities, now looks like the time for the city to join Mayors Pat Burt of Palo Alto and Terry Nagel of Burlingame, who are asking their counterparts to "come together as a powerful force dedicated to moving forward on transportation planning on the Peninsula.

And along with seeking better research to lessen the impact of the rail project, it appears there may be pressure from Washington for all Peninsula cities to accept a workable high-speed rail plan.

In an open letter, Burt and Nagel said that in a meeting with five Peninsula mayors (not including Mountain View), Congresswomen Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier emphasized the need for local cities to agree on a plan for moving forward with high-speed rail.

"They made it clear that our region will not receive federal funds for transportation projects until we demonstrate that we have a common vision for future transportation," the mayors said, adding that the U.S. Department of Transportation is more likely to fund projects where local leaders have reached agreement.

At this point it is not clear if agreement is necessary for local communities to receive any federal transportation funds, or just high-speed rail grants. Either way, it looks like at least five Peninsula communities will want the rail authority to authorize new, independent research before they will support the project. This is a position that Mountain View should support now.

Specifically, the mayors want new studies of estimated ridership, a budget and business plan, assessment of freight issues on the Peninsula, restoration of the alignments originally sought by the cities, and more thorough vetting of alternative transportation options.

Given that a Central Valley segment is the first to get funding, there is time for the rail authority to mount the new studies and put to rest the relentless criticism of the project's underlying viability. Although the High-Speed Rail Authority is likely to balk at throwing out its original research, its flawed conclusions are hardly enough to justify the multi-billion dollar cost of the rail project, especially when federal and state funding is increasingly scarce.

By joining Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and other Peninsula cities, Mountain View would add considerable weight to this very reasonable proposal to make sure that high-speed rail is a project worth undertaking that will produce an adequate return on investment. And, a sound reappraisal could result in uniting Peninsula cities under a clear transportation policy, an understanding that has been lacking for far too long.

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