Viewpoint - April 27, 2011

Editorial: Sudden switch for high-speed rail

The blockbuster suggestion that the proposed high-speed train system share the Caltrain tracks on the Peninsula should make a huge difference in how the project is viewed in Menlo Park and Atherton and other communities up and down the Caltrain corridor.

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.


Posted by Hank Lawrence, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Apr 26, 2011 at 12:42 pm

High Speed Rail is a fool's folly. We don't have the budget to cover our schools and infrastructure and all of sudden the skies are going to open up and rain money down on California? That dog won't hunt!

Our bond ratings are rapidly deteriorating. The public was hoodwinked with inflated revenue projections and deflated operation & maintenance costs. That was simply fraud in the inducement. This should be put to a second vote with substantiated numbers.

No VC would fund a project with unsubstantiated numbers why should the voters.

Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Apr 26, 2011 at 2:54 pm

"If high-speed rail isn't done right" it simply won't get done at all, he said."

Thank you Senator Simitian. Do these words of yours mean that if they don't do what you want, you will cut off their funding and shut them down? Will you make that decision, despite it thereby threatening the cutting off of all federal funding for California?

Apparently, Sir, you do believe that "it can be done right." That is, you wish to have high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor, only not elevated. That must mean you believe it to be done right if left at grade or trenched, since tunneling is off the table.

Does that mean you are OK with a 60 ft. wide four-track trench along the entire Peninsula? Is that doing it right? How about short sections of trench in the center of each town (one of their proposals)? Senator Simitian, are you OK with ten years of massive construction on the Caltrain corridor? With Shoofly tracks, construction easements on both sides of the corridor, hugely disrupted Caltrain schedules for that length of time, etc.? Is that part of "doing it right"?

If HSR shares only two tracks with Caltrain, it can never meet it's legally prescribed goals of 2:40 hours and minutes of travel time between LA and SF. Further, Senator, are you alright with the expenditures that will be required to meet your goals? Do you believe that a $80 billion plus expenditure on high-speed rail in California is a good thing? Even if it will require operation subsidies for eternity? Senator Simitian, is this not really about the money to be pumped into California's economy, regardless of the adverse consequences?

In other words, Senator Simitian, exactly what do you mean by doing it right? Can this Rail Authority, as currently constituted, do it right? Without further federal funding, should all of us on the Peninsula sit around and wait for the shoe to drop on the rail corridor? Do we hold our collective breath until it's "done right" ten or more years from now?

Do you really believe what Van Ark says when they talk about "phased implementation?"

Senator, you may wish one of your staff to read this blog: Web Link

Posted by Tim Wulff, a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2011 at 8:42 am

Discussing the specifics of a proposal force-fed to the public by the Federal government and special interests, a project which can only be built with borrowed money in an environment where every government level is flirting with insolvency and the tax base and taxation income cannot be realistically assessed as having much of an upside future seems to a reasonable person to be motivated by nothing less than greed-induced madness.

At what point will those who are being placed with greater yokes on their wallets wake up to the fact that they are being manipulated by the press and the government into a project for which there is no money, and that they should never allow additional incurred indebtedness to fund it. A project whose very purpose could not possibly justify the risk and expense in this fiscal environment. (what the heck is this thing for? and how can its use possibly justify this expense under these conditions???)

This is such madness....or self-centered greed.

Mr. Gibboney, your support of this project is reprehensible, in my opinion, but is congruent with the agenda of those in power with whom you are apparently well acquainted.

'Blockbuster suggestion' my petunias....supporting and considering this project is irresponsible and irrational and reveals the capabilities of our leaders, if one can them call that.

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