Four-track design back on the table for high-speed rail

Peninsula officials, watchdogs call latest high-speed rail plans a betrayal of earlier promises

A new analysis by the California High-Speed Rail Authority calling for a four-track rail system between the Bay Area and Central Valley has set off a fresh wave of criticism from Palo Alto and surrounding cities, with many calling the latest document a betrayal of the authority's earlier promises.

The authority last month released a revised Environmental Impact Report describing its vision for the Bay Area-to-Central Valley portion of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line. For many, the most surprising aspect of the sweepingly broad document is its description of the line as a four-track system on the Caltrain corridor -- a controversial design that would require a lane reduction over a significant stretch of Alma Street in Palo Alto.

Palo Alto officials and Peninsula legislators had lobbied the rail authority to consider a "blended" system under which Caltrain and high-speed rail would share two tracks on the Peninsula. A reference to this blended approach, which was spearheaded by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, was included in the rail authority's 2011 business plan, much to the delight of the legislators and many of their constituents.

But the revised program EIR (which is broader than the segment-specific project EIR) appears to adhere to the original, highly controversial vision -- a four-track system through the Pacheco Pass. Its plan, the document states, "anticipates the local Caltrain and freight trains travel predominantly on the outside two tracks and the high-speed trains and express Caltrain to travel predominantly on the two inside tracks."

"However, depending on additional operational study related to integration of the HST with existing passenger and freight services, any of these train services could potentially run on the tracks placed on the outer portion of the newly expanded right-of-way," the revised EIR states. "This would result in trains, including freight, running closer to existing homes, schools, and other noise-sensitive land uses."

The new document also includes a list of potential road closures on the Peninsula that could be expected because of the rail system. These include one lane of Central Expressway between San Antonio Road and Rengstorff Avenue in Mountain View. In Palo Alto, it includes a lane of Alma Street between Homer Avenue and Embarcadero Road and two lanes of Alma between Embarcadero and California Avenue. A lane of Alma in Menlo Park, between Oak Grove Avenue and Ravenswood Avenue, could also be removed.

"This reduction in lanes may result in circulation, access, or parking impacts," the revised EIR states. "Some of these impacts could include complete closure of streets with circulation diverted to surrounding roadways; conversion of two-way streets to one-way streets; increasing congestion and reduced levels of service as discussed below; changes to adjacent on-street bicycle facilities; limitations or elimination of access to some parcels; requirements for new frontage roads or new access routes; and reduction in on-street parking which could have secondary impacts related to land use viability. In some locations, there could be land-use implications (acquisitions) resulting from mitigation for circulation and parking impacts."

The Peninsula Cities Consortium, which includes Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame, Belmont and Burbank, discussed the document and expressed concern about the new revisions and the dissonance between the revised EIR and the rail authority's prior promises to consider a blended two-track system, said Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt, who chairs the consortium.

On Thursday, Feb. 9, the Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee came out swinging against the document, which Burt said abandons the blended approach. Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie called the authority's new position "duplicitous at best."

"We're back where we were a year ago on this and we thought this thing was dead," Burt said.

Mountain View Mayor Mike Kasperzakalso supports the "blended" two-track concept, and said it was "pointless" to continue to pursue four tracks and "create even more animosity in the community." But he was hesitant to criticize the Authority over the EIR.

"I think the EIR is studying the worst possible scenario," Kasperzak said. "That doesn't preclude them from moving forward with the blended system the community has been talking about. I actually don't think it is fair to jump all over to the High Speed Rail Authority and say they've broke their promise."

The city's concerns about the new document has prompted the rail committee to request an extension of the comment period and an "indefinite delay" in approval of the new document.

"As you know, recirculation is required by court order to address the impacts of potentially moving freight tracks closer to adjacent land uses along the San Francisco Peninsula and to address impacts of reduced access to surface streets from potential land closure along the San Francisco Peninsula," the letter from Klein to the rail authority states. "Yet, for our Transportation Division to effectively and fully respond to this recirculated document, all supporting data for the Authority's assertions must be provided to understand how the conclusions were reached."

"Until these documents are provided there should be no expectation that the City of Palo Alto can fully and accurately comment on this document," Klein's letter states.

The rail committee also on Thursday endorsed proposed legislation, Senate Bill 985, which would bar further expenditure of bond proceeds for high-speed rail.

Revisions to the EIR were prompted by a lawsuit filed by Palo Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park and a coalition of nonprofit groups. The suit challenged the rail authority's choice of the Pacheco Pass over the Altamont Pass as the preferred route for the rail line's Peninsula segment. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled in November that the authority must revise the EIR and include, among other things, a more adequate description of traffic impacts along the Caltrain corridor.

The rail authority's strategy to mitigate these impacts, according to the revised EIR, include "improvements to accommodate the diverted traffic, roadway realignments to replace any loss of capacity" and creation of "one-way streets to maintain access." Even so, the document states that the traffic impacts of the project would be "significant but unavoidable."

The Palo Alto-based rail watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design also panned the new document. The group, which has been one of the earliest and most vehement critics of the rail authority's ridership and revenue projections, pointed to a discrepancy between the authority's recent business plan and the design described in the new document.

"They are yelling from the rooftops that they've changed their ways, but when the legal documents quietly come out, it is clear that they are doing exactly what they want to do: a four-track system up the Peninsula and the Pacheco Pass," CARRD said in a statement.


Like this comment
Posted by Old Ben
a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 10, 2012 at 11:14 am

It's high time that these scam artists were investigated and charged. Let's get back the money we already spent on this grift, and spend no more on it.

Like this comment
Posted by m
a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 10, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Just a thought....., maybe moving it all next to highways and away from residential area

Like this comment
Posted by Ron
a resident of Waverly Park
on Feb 10, 2012 at 2:10 pm

So where would that be? How many thousands of homes and businesses do you bulldoze to put this "next to the highways". Not saying the current solution is the best, but it IS based upon an existing rail corridor.

Like this comment
Posted by kman
a resident of Monta Loma
on Feb 10, 2012 at 2:33 pm

You gotta be kidding me, when will this madness end? This just shows how out of touch government is. Railroads are a thing of the past, were it failed before, look at the Zeyher train, out of business after 30 yrs. Electric cars are the wave of the future.

Like this comment
Posted by Waldo
a resident of Waverly Park
on Feb 10, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Send it down the middle of the bay; the bridges are already tall enough, and that would limit it to two stops: San Jose and San Francisco.

Like this comment
Posted by Hugh Jardonn
a resident of another community
on Feb 10, 2012 at 5:17 pm

It’s time to cancel the California high speed rail project and disband CHSRA. This is due to the ballooning project costs and continuing dishonesty on the part of the California High Speed Rail Authority. The latest revelation is that claims that high speed rail would create a million jobs have been proven false. The San Jose Mercury explains “The 1-million figure came from the project’s technical studies. It actually was the number of “job years,” a statistical term that counts years of work rather than actual jobs. One person working for five years adds up to five job years in this parlance.”

Governor Moonbeam should pay attention to the HSR peer review group, the legislative analysts office, the state auditor, the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies and other impartial observers who have raised legitimate objections to this project. Focusing on the relatively minor lobbyist issue glosses over the serious deficiencies of the high speed rail project.

The high speed rail project now being pushed by the Governor and the High Speed Rail Authority is not the same project that the voters approved in 2008. The Authority is guilty of pulling a “bait and switch” on taxpayers, who live in a state in deep denial of its financial problems. If not canceled immediately, the revised and more expensive project needs a re-vote.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of another community
on Feb 10, 2012 at 5:20 pm

The high speed rail project stinks and the fact that CHSRA is not being responsive to Peninsula concerns are just another manifistation of this.

For example, the argument that we need high speed rail because the alternatives are more expensive is hogwash. The LA Times reported on it here:
Web Link

“Now, that alternative is coming under attack by a state-appointed panel of experts, who will soon release an assessment of the rail project’s business plan and cast doubt on the accuracy and validity of the $171-billion figure,” The Times reported.

“There is some dishonesty in the methodology,” said Samer Madanat, director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies, the top research center of its type in the nation. “I don’t trust an estimate like this.”

Furthermore, the LA Times reports that the city of Burlingame weighed in too. “The astounding figure is completely divorced from any reality over the next 50 years,” city officials wrote urging the authority to stop using the number. Madanat said the rail authority has rebuffed offers to have UC Berkeley, UC Irvine and UC Davis, which have among the top five university transportation departments in the nation, help analyze the bullet-train system.

Now Rich, why would the rail authority resist offers for UC to analyze the HSR system? Is CHSRA claiming that the University of California cannot be objective?

“You have a tremendous conflict of interest,” said Elizabeth Goldstein Alexis, co-founder of the watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design. “You can’t see where the authority ends and the private consultants begin because they are so intertwined. It is extraordinary the institutional conflicts of interest that exist all over this project.”

And you can’t wash away the report of another independent agency, the State Auditor Elaine Howle, who said that “the program’s overall financial situation has become increasingly risky.” Web Link

Highlights of the State Auditor report:

1. The cost estimates do not include phase one’s operating and maintenance costs, yet based on data in the plan these costs could total about $96.8 billion from 2025 through 2060.

2. There are no details about the current largest potential funding source, the federal government.

3. There have been inappropriate contracting practices such as splitting Information Technology services totaling $3.1 million into 13 individual contracts with one vendor. The State Contracting Manual prohibits agencies from splitting contracts to avoid competitive bidding requirements.

4. The authority is missing statements of economic interest for some of its contractors despite the conflict-of-interest code requirements; and the authority does not require any of its subcontractors to file statements of economic interest. As a result, the authority has no way to verify that subcontractors do not have real or perceived conflicts of interest.

5. “There is no way the high-speed rail can meet the latest forecast of 36.8 million rides a year on a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles system. Where will the riders come from? There are only about 3.2 million airline riders a year going to and from Los Angeles and San Francisco and another 1.7 million traveling between Los Angeles and Oakland and San Jose.

And estimates of jobs created by the high speed rail project have been misleadingly inflated by using weasel-words like “job-years” as described in this report:
Web Link

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