Mountain View Voice

News - March 16, 2012

Rail chief pitches new high-speed plan

Officials promise price drop with blended system at MV hearing

by Daniel DeBolt

Leaders of the California High Speed Rail Authority said a new business plan will include fewer tracks on the Peninsula and a lower price tag for the controversial project.

New CHSRA director Dan Richard and board member Jim Hartnett told a near-capacity crowd in the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts Tuesday evening that the Authority has embraced a blended system. A yet-to-be-released business plan calls for sharing Caltrains' existing pair of tracks on the Peninsula mostly as proposed last spring by state Sen. Joe Simitian, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon.

"The new direction for high-speed rail is a system that is dependent on a blended approach both in the north and in the south," Hartnett said.

Work has stopped on planning a four-track system on the Caltrain corridor, he said.

Hartnett called it a "rethinking of the whole high-speed-rail approach."

Richard said it was "logical" that the price of a blended system with fewer tracks would be lower than the $98.5 million estimate in the rail authority's last business plan. That estimate was high enough to spur Palo Alto officials to pass a resolution calling for a stop to the project because its price tag has more than doubled since voters approved a $9.95 billion bond for the project in 2008, and analysts found the ridership projections questionable.

"We believe that the ultimate ridership projections will be sufficient so we will not need a subsidy to operate," Richard said Tuesday.

Electrify Caltrain

Rail officials said the Bay Area could see money to electrify Caltrain, a $1 billion project allowing faster service and infrastructure for high-speed rail.

Cash-strapped Caltrain has been planning electrification for more than a decade, but hasn't been able to fund it. The project, which agency officials see as key to raising ridership numbers and achieving long-term financial stability, also includes a new stock of electric trains and positive train controls.

The rail authority's new vision for the high-speed system could change that. The authority is preparing a "memorandum of understanding" with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTC) that would identify "early investment opportunities" that the authority can make in the Bay Area. Though the document is still in the works, Caltrain electrification is widely expected to top the list of the Bay Area's transit priorities.

"We are very responsive to this notion there must be immediate benefits for the region and long term benefits of high speed rail," Richard said.

Central Valley doubts

Simitian expressed concern that the business plan is to be released at the end of the month, just eight weeks before state legislators must approve $2.7 billion in Prop 1A bonds if a 130-mile segment is to start construction in the Central Valley.

Rail officials on Tuesday defended the authority's decision to begin the line's construction in the Central Valley. This decision had prompted many critics of the $98.5 billion project to refer to the system as a "train from nowhere to nowhere."

Will Kempton, of the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group that oversees the rail authority, described the Central Valley segment that could start construction this year as "not connected to anything." Simitian said it was his impression that it would save commuters in the Central Valley 45 minutes on their commute times.

But Richard insisted that the plan would be financially viable. He said a connection between Merced and Sylmar could provide service to 2.5 million riders who commute on trains every year in the region. "We only need 2.2 million (riders) 10 years from now with superior service to break even," he said.

"It will be capable of operating a high-speed rail system, but not immediately," Richard said of the Central Valley segment.

Richard, who was recently appointed to the board of directors by Gov. Jerry Brown, said that starting the rail system in this region will allow the agency to test the new 225 mph trains. On the Peninsula, the trains could reach speeds of up to 125 mph, or 110 miles per hour where grade separated street crossings don't exist.

The CHSRA has a $3.3 billion federal grant to build the Central Valley segment, but the state Legislature must approve the $2.7 billion in 2008 voter-approved bonds to be spent as matching funds. Kempton said the federal funds would be put in jeopardy if the Central Valley focus is ditched for improvements to the Bay Area and Los Angeles area "bookends" first.

Richard said the agency's new plan was to build the system in "more bite-size and achievable chunks. It was just taking too long before anybody saw any trains. It was going to be 10 years before anybody saw a high-speed train in California."

Gennady Sheyner contributed to this report

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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