In a press conference held at the Menlo Park train depot, state Sen. Joe Simitian, Rep. Anna Eshoo and Assemblyman Rich Gordon announced last week that the California High-Speed Rail Authority should back away from building a separate set of tracks between San Jose and San Francisco and instead work out a plan for Caltrain and the high-speed trains to use the same tracks starting in San Jose.
In their message, which was strongly supported by Palo Alto City Council members last week, the legislators said that 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. For example, a high-speed train could arrive in San Jose for a brief stop before quickly continuing on to San Francisco with its full load of passengers, who would not have to change trains.
Sen. Simitian called the plan a "first step in a new conversation" that intends to create "high-speed rail done right."
For Menlo Park and Atherton, the plan would mean property owners along the corridor would no longer have to fear losing their backyards to make room for the additional tracks and that Menlo Park's downtown would not be disrupted by a massive building project during installation of another two-track system.
One critical factor — whether costly grade separations will be required to accommodate electrified trains — was not discussed by the legislators, although Assemblyman Rich Gordon later told the Almanac that it may be up to individual cities to make that decision. There are six intersections in Menlo Park and Atherton that would be candidates for grade separations, unless a street was simply closed at a grade crossing.
During last week's announcement, Sen. Simitian 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 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," Sen. Simitian said in the statement he authored with Rep. Eshoo and Assemblyman Gordon.
"If high-speed rail isn't done right" it simply won't get done at all, he said.
We applaud the legislators for proposing the two-track solution and putting pressure on the high-speed rail authority to be more careful in budgeting and preparing a viable business plan.
But it will take more than pulling back to two tracks on the Peninsula to make high-speed rail a viable project. The state continues to face a huge budget deficit and the outlook is for more of the same in the years ahead. It simply is not prudent to take on billons of dollars in additional debt to carry passengers to Los Angeles by train when airlines offer the same service at comparable fares.
This is a project that is now estimated to cost $42.5 billion but which could far exceed that amount. The outlook for further federal financing looks even more shaky during a climate of trillion dollar budget reductions in Washington. And dreams of attracting billions of dollars in private financing are hardly viable in today's economy.
Nevertheless, the high-speed rail project was approved by voters in 2008, who also authorized a $9.9 billion bond issue. And so far, no proposal has appeared that would reverse the course of this initiative.
So funding issues aside, could Menlo Park and Atherton live with a two-track version of high-speed rail?
The answer depends on whom you ask. Die hard opponents like Martin Engel, who lives in Menlo Park just a stone's throw from the Caltrain tracks, is buying none of it. In his big picture view he sees an under-funded project that could get its foot in the door by starting out sharing the Caltrain tracks as it waits for more extensive funding to build an additional set of tracks dedicated to high-speed rail.
Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline, who has strongly opposed elevated tracks, had a lot to like in the announcement. He characterized the support this way: "Looks like we are more aligned with our state and federal representatives than we have been for a long time."
If the project survives the state's debt crisis, it makes sense for Caltrain and high-speed rail to share tracks on the Peninsula. And by doing so, electrification of Caltrain and the necessary grade separations could be built with high-speed rail funds. But there is a lot more to be done before any work could commence on the Peninsula rail corridor.