With a fresh new business plan in hand, officials with the California High Speed Rail Authority updated Mountain View leaders on Tuesday about how the complicated statewide project would impact the Peninsula.
For Mountain View, perhaps the biggest news of the night is that the city won't be a local stop for high-speed trains -- for the near future, at least. Originally, planners with the rail authority had suggested a Midpeninsula station should be located either in Mountain View, Palo Alto or Redwood City.
But on Tuesday, May 3, Ben Tripousis, the project's northern California regional director, said his latest projections didn't show enough ridership to justify an additional stop between San Jose and the San Francisco International Airport.
"For the time being, the stations we'll pursue are those that I've identified," Tripousis said. "But that doesn't preclude us from having a station (in Mountain View) sometime in the future."
Now scaled down to a $64.2 billion price, high-speed rail is moving from a conceptual dream to a real project, Tripousis said. For the first time, he said, the project is grounded in a real budget, whereas earlier plans were largely "aspirational."
"This plan focuses on the system we can deliver with the funds we have available today," he said.
But plenty of money is still needed, he admitted. While construction is already commencing in the Central Valley, full completion of the project will require billions more in investment, some of which will need to come from the private sector. Tripousis exuded confidence that lenders would help fund the high-speed line, so long as the government agencies demonstrated they were committed to moving it forward. The business plan noted that other money could be raised by borrowing against future cap-and-trade revenues, which are expected to generate $500 million in the next fiscal year, as well as borrowing against future revenues.
Yet there is still plenty of uncertainty looming over the project, as noted in a March review by the Legislative Analyst's Office of the authority's business plan. That report noted the rail authority still hasn't fully identified how it would raise about $33 billion needed complete the full San Francisco to Los Angeles line. The report urged elected leaders to keep vigilant oversight of the project's cost, scope and schedule.
Mountain View officials seized on these vague elements in a letter outlining their concerns. City Manager Dan Rich advised the rail authority to adopt a "detailed, comprehensive and less-speculative" financial plan. He also urged rail officials to provide better clarity on the scheduling of their future projects.
For now, Tripousis said his team's emphasis is on preparing the environmental-impact reports so that more stretches of the rail line could be built as soon as funding is available. For the 51-mile Peninsula corridor, those environmental reports will likely be complete by the end of 2017, he said.
The bullet trail project is also tied to several other upgrades to local transit networks, he pointed out. Among those improvements, about $600 million is slated to electrify the Caltrain tracks, allowing additional trains, longer platforms and possibly more rail-cars. That project is scheduled to be completed around 2020, and it is currently contingent on high-speed rail being built on the Peninsula, Tripousis added.
Mountain View City Council members pressed for details about how the bullet train -- expected to zip by at 110 mph along the Peninsula -- would interact with city streets at crossings. They pressed for details about how and when the rail authority would consider grade separation projects to bring local streets either over or under the train tracks. Tripousis was supportive of the idea, but he said that grade separations could be 10 to 15 years away.
City officials noted that the rail authority's latest business plan included as much as $500 million for grade separation, but they pointed out this was hardly enough. As one example, San Mateo County officials recently estimated it would cost $134 million to elevate the Caltrain tracks for a single grade separation near Highway 92.
Saying he was echoing the concerns of other regional cities, Councilman Lenny Siegel said he was very worried that grade separation needed to be made a higher priority. Local policy makers were trying to establish a unified strategy to do this, he said, since it was being treated like an afterthought by transit agencies
"There's no strategy for it," Siegel said. "There's a lot of concern about making sure we get grade separation sooner rather than later."
Some public speakers expressed disbelief that the lone stop at the San Jose Diridon Station would be adequate to serve the entire South Bay. Mountain View or Palo Alto may need to take initiative on building a local high-speed rail station, especially if riders expect to use high-speed trains for routine commuting, Siegel suggested.
Mayor Pat Showalter expressed support for the project's environmental benefits, especially its estimates that it would eventually reduce millions of metric tons of greenhouse gases.
Tripousis noted an upcoming scoping meeting for the Peninsula high speed rail is tentantively scheduled for May 25 in Mountain View, in a location still to be determined.
"Whether it's commuter rail or high-speed rail, it's about moving as many people as possible and getting folks off Highway 101," Tripousis said. "Mountain View is not Palo Alto is not San Francisco. We're trying to ensure we're getting as broad of a cross-section of input from all the respective communities."
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