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With high-speed rail, we must help ourselves
August 11, 2010, 02:46 AM

In November 1962, 61.2 percent of the voters in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties voted to be a part of the new rapid transit system, approving a $792 million construction bond, with another $133 million to come from Bay Bridge tolls. The entire cost was to be nearly $1 billion — an unprecedented amount in that time. But the project was ambitious.

Originally, BART was to have reached both San Mateo and Marin counties, but this county was cool to the idea since there was already a commuter train system through it and the cost didn’t seem worth it. Marin County dropped out because the remaining cost would have been too high and there were issues with adding trains to the Golden Gate Bridge.

The project was said to have been needed to take cars of the increasingly congested freeways and to make up for the transit cars that had been taken off the Bay Bridge in the 1950s. Something had to be done. But even before the vote, many believed the project’s massive scale and issues ranging from geology, politics and the need for eminent domain would surely prove to be too problematic.

With the vote, however, a new 75-mile light-rail 33-station system connecting 17 communities through hills, underground and under the Bay took its first step. Through the years, it was met with financial peril, a difficult economy and political strife. It needed constant infusions of federal money but ran its first train on Sept. 11, 1972. The final project budget reached $1.6 billion.

Growing concern over the idea of an above-ground rail line through the city of Berkeley was enough for the liberal City Council to join with Republican Mayor Wallace Johnson in supporting a bond issue to keep the Berkeley BART line underground. The idea was that the new rapid system would not visibly divide east and west Berkeley as rail lines had in the past. The cost of this bond measure was $12 million and the city was assured it would remain with its downtown as it was before — but with a new connection to other communities.

The history of BART and its construction could be seen as a case study in navigating a challenging political and economic climate. But the project was completed — albeit years late, millions over budget and after significant legal challenges.

The comparison to the current push for a new high-speed rail system from Los Angeles to San Francisco is not hard to make. The times are different but the project is eerily similar. Freeway congestion is no longer a mere irritant, its harm to the environment is evident. There was a need for new connections, there was a need for jobs. That holds true today. And there was a vote of the people to get both projects going.

Put aside the irritation that the High-Speed Rail Authority doesn’t seem to give a damn about what a few "bad apples” want for their cities, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is aiming to run its train through the Peninsula and those trains will not be in a tunnel. It may be time for Peninsula residents to take a cue from the people of Berkeley in the 1960s and find a way to ensure the system is one that does not destroy the character of the communities through which it will run. Extrapolating the 1966 numbers of the bond compared to the overall bond of $792 million and eventual project cost of $1.6 billion would mean the $12 million Berkeley bond would be in the neighborhood of either $600 million to $1.2 billion in today’s dollars for the high-speed rail systemprojected by some to cost up to $80 billion. The Berkeley bond paid for three stations to be underground — Berkeley, Albany and North Berkeley and the portion we want to tunnel may run the same length without stations. This is an extremely rough estimate, but if the political powers-that-be on the Peninsula want certain sections to be placed underground, there should be some effort put into exploring how to get their hands on that kind of money. It might be a regional bond, site-specific federal money or a combination of both. It’s a massive political and financial undertaking, but one that is becoming increasingly clear in its necessity.

The other option is to try and work with the High-Speed Rail Authority which doesn’t seem to be budging, try a complicated and expensive legal route, waste time at planning meetings and scream at each other over whether we want it or not. But that’s not productive. Or we can stick to the belief that the project somehow won’t be built. That may end up being the case, but rather than debating the merits while it speeds ahead, it is time for a little self reliance.

***

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is organizing a bus tour Friday along the Peninsula rail corridor for members of the Bay Area Council, SAMCEDA, the Peninsula Cities Consortium and Caltrain as a way for those interested in high-speed rail to see first-hand what the impact could be on a number of Peninsula cities. Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman had previously lambasted certain local leaders for slowing down the process for what he described as a much-needed project.

"There’s a lack of familiarity and this is an opportunity to clear that up,” Hill said.

Hill had organized a previous tour with High-Speed Rail Authority Chair Curt Pringle with a similar intent.


Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at jon@smdailyjournal.com.


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