Rail bill has ups, downs for cityIt may not look quite like what voters envisioned when they approved Proposition 1A in 2008, but despite business plans that first predicted costs near $100 billion and then subsided to $68 billion, the state's high-speed rail project cruised past endless hurdles to win a crucial vote in the state Senate last week.
The decision went down to the wire, with Sen. Joe Simitian shocking most of his colleagues by voting "no" at the 11th hour on a project that he has shepherded through the legislative process for more than four years. The two other Peninsula legislators, Assembly members Jerry Hill and Rich Gordon, were on the prevailing side that passed SB1029 earlier in the week on a mostly party-line vote. In the Senate, no Republicans supported the project, and Simitian, who is termed out at the end of this year, joined several other Democrats in voting no, falling one vote short of stopping the train in its tracks. Simitian said he is convinced that without the promise of more federal or private funding down the road, the state could be left to foot the bill for nearly the entire project.
Hill, who is running against former Mountain View Mayor Sally Lieber for Simitian's seat, has a distinctly different take on the the project. Hill said he made sure the nearly $1 billion in local improvements that sweetened the bill for many legislators can stand on their own, even if a high-speed rail line is never completed.
By passing the legislation before a deadline imposed by the federal government, the project will receive $3.3 billion in federal funds and $2.3 billion in state funds to build 130 miles of conventional (not electric) passenger train track between Madera and Bakersfield in the Central Valley. The bill also provides or frees up some $1 billion each for local projects in Northern and Southern California, which was a major factor in convincing many legislators, including Hill and Gordon, to support the bill.
Unlike Simitian, Hill found a lot to like in the bill. He gave the Voice three key reasons for supporting the much-debated rail line:
• A guarantee from the rail authority that it would stick to its word to build only a two-track, rather than four-track, system on the Peninsula. Hill said the stipulation means that there will be no land taken beyond the Caltrain right of way, including earlier projections that tracks might infringe on Mountain View's light rail line and Alma Street in Palo Alto.
• A key part of the bill provides $705 million for Caltrain electrification, a goal the often-struggling commuter train service has had for years. Hill said with electric trains, Caltrain ridership could increase from 45,000 to 70,000 per day, a tremendous boost for Mountain View-bound commuters. With quicker starting and stopping ability, electric trains can stop more often for passengers and still make the San Jose to San Francisco run in one hour or less. Altogether, Northern California will receive $1 billion for local improvements, Hill said, and a similar amount will go to Southern California.
• Hill said he made sure that all improvements could stand on their own if the full project is never completed. For example, he said, electrification will help Caltrain now, and also will be part of the groundwork for powering high-speed trains if and when they arrive, probably not until 2030 or 2035.
Simitian's concern is much more immediate — that Governor Brown's ballot initiative to raise the income tax on wealthy Californians and impose a small sale tax might not pass in November due to a backlash from voters angry that the Legislature passed such an expensive high-speed rail project. And in his speech on the Senate floor, he also said he still sees trouble in the numerous negative reviews of the project's business plans and has doubts about the rail authority's leadership, which has several major vacancies and a CEO who has been on the job less than a month.
For Mountain View, the good news in the bill is that work can begin relatively soon on electrification, which will not require grade separations, at least until true high-speed trains arrive. With more, faster trains, commuters will have more choices to reach the city. And there will be no more pollution from diesel engines when electric locomotives take over.
And although many of the bill's supporters trumpeted the thousands of jobs that will be created, Mountain View isn't likely to see a huge boost in employment, but residents and commuters will enjoy much faster and pollution-free train service, certainly a worthwhile improvement.