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Rail authority pursuing four track system
May 04, 2011, 05:01 AM By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff

The California High-Speed Rail Authority is sticking to its plan to pursue a "full buildout” of the system between San Francisco to San Jose despite the objections of three heavyweight local lawmakers.

A full buildout means high-speed trains will ultimately run on a four-track system it will share with Caltrain, possibly on an elevated viaduct, a plan staunchly opposed by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park.

In the meantime, however, the authority’s board will consider Thursday whether to include a phased implementation approach to be incorporated into an environmental impact report for the full buildout on the Peninsula. Phased implementation will allow for major upgrades to the Caltrain corridor while accommodating high-speed trains on an "interim” two-track system.

"The goal is to get trains into San Francisco as soon as possible,” Jeff Barker, deputy director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority told the Daily Journal yesterday. "San Francisco is where the riders and revenue are.”

But just three weeks ago, Eshoo, Simitian and Gordon urged the authority to eliminate an aerial viaduct from consideration for the Peninsula and abandon its preparation of an environmental impact report for a phased project over 25 years.

The three said high-speed trains should run on the Peninsula without having to reach beyond Caltrain’s current right-of-way, causing less disruption to cities on the corridor during construction and eliminating the need for major property takings.

A full buildout will cost in excess of $6 billion to complete. Simply electrifying the Caltrain corridor to accommodate high-speed trains is estimated to cost about $1 billion.

With the statewide project now under way in the Central Valley, a draft EIR for the Peninsula will not likely be completed for up to two years.

This should allow for the conversation to "restart” on how the system will integrate with Caltrain, Simitian said.

A blended system, Simitian said, could allow high-speed rail arriving in San Jose to continue north in a seamless fashion on Caltrain tracks, using a combination of electrification, positive train control and new rolling stock while maintaining the currently projected speeds and travel time for high-speed rail.

Simitian’s stance on the proposal has come under fire, however, from Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Merced, the author of the voter-approved $10 billion high-speed rail bond, Proposition 1A, passed in November 2008.

"This amounts to a bait-and-switch effort by certain interests to take money away from the high-speed rail system, and use it to cover shortfalls in funding the Caltrain commuter rail system on the San Francisco Peninsula,” according to a prepared statement by Galgiani Thursday. "It is highly suspect that the same few wealthy communities on the San Francisco Peninsula who want to stop the high-speed rail project would cynically work to divert the money to meet their existing obligations to the Caltrain system.”

Three Peninsula cities, Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto, have previously sued the rail authority to force it to consider other options to get the high-speed system into San Francisco without using the Caltrain corridor.

But Simitian supports the authority’s intent to use the Caltrain corridor, just not a four-track elevated viaduct that came out of the alternatives analysis document the authority released in August 2010 for the Peninsula section of the line.

The authority constantly refers to the language of Proposition 1A and its mandate to have a system stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just under two hours and 40 minutes.

The goal can still be achieved with a blended system, Gordon said.

"It’s a cheaper, better and more reasonable way to develop the system,” Gordon told the Daily Journal yesterday. "The capacity is not there and the money doesn’t exist for the full-blown system.”

The authority should simply prepare an EIR for the blended system now, Gordon said, and do another EIR years later if it wants to pursue the full-blown four-track system.

For now, however, the authority is pursuing an EIR for the full buildout of the system that will include building the Peninsula section of the line in phases, if the board approves the proposal Thursday.

A trimmed down blended system that Simitian proposed could work on the Peninsula for the first five years, Barker said.

Ditching the EIR for the full buildout, however, is inconsistent with Proposition 1A and could open the authority up to lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act, Barker said.

So far, Simitian said, the authority has failed to present a plan that is right for the Peninsula.

The authority expects to have completed the full buildout of the $43 billion statewide system by 2035, although high-speed trains could use the Caltrain corridor in a blended system much sooner than that, Barker said.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority board meets 9 a.m., Thursday, May 5, 915 I St., City Hall, Sacramento.

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by email: silverfarb@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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