High speed rail on track

Bay Area alignment chosen as project heads to voters this November
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steve@sfbg.com

It's crunch time for high speed rail in California, a project 12 years in the planning that will finally go before voters in November, following a controversial July 9 vote in San Francisco on the system's Bay Area alignment and ongoing political struggles in Sacramento.

As envisioned by project proponents, riders would be able to board the sleek blue-and-gold trains in San Francisco's remodeled Transbay Terminal and travel at speeds of up to 220 mph down the Peninsula, cutting over Pacheco Pass into the Central Valley, and arriving at Union Station in Los Angeles two hours and 38 minutes later — or continuing on to Anaheim and arriving 20 minutes after that.

The $9.95 billion bond measure, Proposition 1, would cover about a third of the costs for this initial phase (the plan would eventually extend the tracks to run from Sacramento to San Diego), with the balance borne almost equally by the federal government and private investors. With around 100 million passenger trips per year, and LA-SF tickets projected to cost around $60, fiscal studies show the project will more than pay for itself in less than 20 years, then generate about $1 billion a year in profits.

Perhaps most important in these times of heightened environmental concern, the system is now proposed to run entirely on renewable energy sources and would use about one-third of the energy of air travel and one-fifth that of driving, eliminating 18 billion pounds of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reducing California's oil dependence by 22 million barrels per year.

Yet there are still obstacles that could derail high speed rail, which was set in motion in 1996 by then–state senator Quentin Kopp, a San Franciscan and retired judge who chairs the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA).

Critics of the CHSRA's unanimous vote choosing Pacheco Pass over Altamont Pass are threatening to sue and now have about 30 days to do so. Union Pacific Railroad has complicated the right-of-way acquisition process by claiming it won't allow the project on its property. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his allies have been inconsistent in their support for the project (see "Silver bullet train," 04/17/07).

On top of that, legislation to update the six-year-old language of the bond measure, Assembly Bill 3034, appeared at Guardian press time to have fallen short of winning needed support on the Senate floor before the July 15 deadline set by Secretary of State Debra Bowen. And there was a renewed effort by Republican legislators to try to push the bond measure back to 2010.

Yet for all the challenges the project continues to face, the recent hearings in San Francisco demonstrated that there is a consensus emerging among some of the most powerful political players in the state that California is finally ready to catch up to Europe and Asia and start building the first high speed rail system in the United States.

CHSRA met in San Francisco July 8-9 to take public comment and finalize its last critical decision before the November bond measure — selecting the train's route through the Bay Area and making the legal and environmental findings to support that decision. The stakes were high as the board weighed whether to select Pacheco Pass or Altamont Pass as the route from the Bay Area to Central Valley.

CHSRA staff and consultants, along with most Bay Area politicians and civic groups, favored Pacheco Pass, which is the faster and cheaper option, and one that doesn't require a logistically difficult crossing of the San Francisco Bay to reach the Peninsula.

Most environmental groups favored Altamont Pass, which avoids ecologically sensitive Henry Coe State Park and areas where activists feared the rail line might induce urban sprawl or threaten agricultural viability.