A better course for high-speed railIf it can be done without sacrificing its promise of airline-competitive service between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the proposal to have high-speed rail share an upgraded Caltrain line beginning in San Jose instead of building additional tracks looks like a win-win for the Peninsula, including Mountain View.
Such a plan could provide funds for Caltrain to complete grade separations and electrify its engines, a goal the struggling rail line has had for years. And the neighboring cities of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton, which have strongly opposed aspects of the plan to run the high-speed rail line along the Caltrain corridor, would be able to breathe easier, without fear that property owners along the corridor would lose portions of their back yards to eminent domain takings by the rail authority.
Combining use of the Caltrain tracks would eliminate a host of other negative impacts that would come with building an additional two-track high-speed rail line between Gilroy and San Francisco, including years of major upheaval caused by construction of the lines in the cities along the route.
The plan proposed Monday by Rep. Anna Eshoo, state Sen. Joe Simitian and Assemblyman Rich Gordon acknowledged that financially, the state simply cannot afford to add two more rail lines to the corridor, when the existing two tracks could suffice by routing high-speed trains around electrified Caltrain equipment, much as Baby Bullet trains share the rails with local trains today. Such a "blended" system could arrive in San Jose for a brief stop before continuing on to San Francisco with its full load of passengers, who would not have to change trains.
In his presentation, Simitian called the plan a "first step in a new conversation" that intends to create "high-speed rail done right."
During a press conference at the Menlo Park train depot, he noted a series of critical audits of the rail project by various state agencies and the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, which found a series of flaws in the rail authority's business plan, ridership analysis 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 said in the statement he authored with Eshoo and Gordon.
"If high-speed rail isn't done right" it simply won't get done at all, he said.
Another key change recommended by the three legislators was for the rail authority to run Peninsula trains at grade and forget about elevated structures such as aerial viaducts. And they endorsed the plan for the new rail system to run through the existing Caltrain corridor.
The three also urged the rail authority to abandon plans for a larger project that would include a new set of two tracks for high-speed rail running alongside a modernized, electrified Caltrain system on the Peninsula.
"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 enhances and upgrades our existing intercity and regionalized transportation system in California."
If the plan is adopted by the rail authority it could alleviate Mountain View's earlier concerns about a lack of space to fit all traffic modes in a narrow portion of the Caltrain right-of-way, although it remains to be seen whether the rail authority will provide the funds needed for grade separations at Rengstorff and Castro Street.
We expect there will be much more discussion of this alternative plan in Mountain View and other Peninsula communities. But it is hard to dispute the issues raised by the legislators, which many local residents have been speaking about since shortly after Measure 1A passed in 2008. Rather than listening to local residents, the rail authority board has often disputed the comments, which has not made them many friends on the Peninsula. Rep. Eshoo acknowledged as much:
"I really believe they have squandered a great deal of goodwill on the Peninsula by not honoring our communities," she 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."
It is time for the high-speed rail board to understand why there is such high concern in many Peninsula communities about the project. If they do, then real progress can be made.