Mountain View Voice

News - April 22, 2011

Merge high-speed rail with improved Caltrain, legislators urge

by Gennady Sheyner and Jocelyn Dong

Saying that government funding for California's High-Speed Rail program will be "severely limited ... for the foreseeable future," local federal and state representatives are calling upon the California High-Speed Rail Authority to essentially link the high-speed rail route from Los Angeles with an improved and electrified Caltrain system running from San Jose to San Francisco.

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park) made their announcement on April 18 at the Menlo Park Caltrain station. The three legislators described the "blended" system of high-speed-rail and Caltrain as the best way to save money, protect Peninsula communities from unnecessary construction and to ensure the continued viability of Caltrain, which is facing a financial crisis.

Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon said California's high-speed-rail plans should include what they called a "21st Century Caltrain" -- a definition that includes electrification, positive train controls and new rolling stock.

Simitian called Monday's announcement a "first step in a new conversation" that aims to create what he calls "high-speed rail done right." The rail authority's failure to come up with a viable proposal for the voter-approved rail project has prompted the lawmakers to present their own vision for the project, he said.

Simitian pointed to a series of critical audits of the rail project, including ones from the Bureau of State Audits, the state Office of Inspector General, the Legislative Analyst's Office and the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. These reports had found a series of flaws in the rail authority's business plan, ridership analyses and revenue projections.

"Frankly, a great many of our constituents are convinced that the High-Speed Rail Authority has already wandered so far afield that it is too late for a successful course correction," Simitian, Eshoo and Gordon wrote in the statement. "We hope the Authority can prove otherwise."

If high-speed rail isn't "done right," Simitian said, it simply won't get done at all.

The three agreed that any proposal for a new rail line should be "sensitive and responsive" to local concerns. Eshoo told the crowd at the Caltrain station that the rail authority has failed, thus far, to listen to the communities' concerns. Three of her constituent communities -- Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton -- are in the process of suing the rail authority over its environmental analysis.

"I really believe that they have squandered a great deal of goodwill on the Peninsula by not honoring our communities," Eshoo said. "Each community is unique, each community has its own history, each community has its own traditions and they're proud of it and they're entitled to this source of pride."

Among the most contentious proposals on the table is an alternative to run the new trains on elevated structure such as aerial viaducts. The three lawmakers called on the rail authority to scrap any proposal that includes an elevated structure on the Peninsula. They also affirmed their support for the new rail system running through the existing Caltrain corridor.

Most significantly, they called on the authority to abandon plans for a larger project, which would involve running the high-speed rail line alongside a modernized, electrified Caltrain system on the Peninsula. Instead, they urged the rail authority and the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (which oversees Caltrain) to improve the existing system without building what they characterized as a "duplicate" one.

"Given the current financial straits at the federal and state level, amassing the funds to build this across California will take time," Gordon said. "In the interim, there will be funds spent on high-speed rail and I believe it's imperative for the High-Speed Rail Authority to guarantee that whatever funds are spent are spent in a way that enhance and upgrade our existing intercity and regionalized transportation systems in California.

"Where high-speed rail is built it needs to be able to connect and interface in a seamless fashion with local transit systems."

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