“Linking the California High Speed Rail Segments in the North State” - May 5, 2011
Reported by Bill Kerby, RailPAC Treasurer
The California High Speed Rail Authority met May fifth to receive reports and approve consultant reports for further plans on building four segments of the line from San Francisco to Bakersfield and to approve a $700,000 study on closing the Bakersfield gap with a route to Palmdale via the Grapevine. As for closing the gap, the City of Palmdale argued against the expenditure, citing unnecessary delays in the project by half a year; a representative of landowners along the route cautioned the Board that the new alignment may be possible, but that land acquisition would be expensive; the California Rail Foundation thanked the committee for considering alternatives to the “forty to fifty mile kink” in the mix of alignment alternatives.
Under pressure from community groups and the state legislature, the Authority staff introduced and applied the term “value engineering” as they described the elimination of aerial structures, nearly 13 miles worth in the Fresno study segment, and elsewhere in the central valley and peninsula. Appearing in each of the planning segments as cost reduction measures, construction alternatives include trench and cover and “retained fill” techniques. However, not everyone applauded the elimination of aerial structures, as demanded in an earlier public statement from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and Assemblymember Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park) on April 18, 2011 in their press release. New board member Jim Hartnett requested a discussion of the conflict between the demand for elimination of aerial alignments between San Jose and San Francisco and retention of a two track system through peninsula cities as he pointed out that the current CalTrain system is not just two tracks and could not be when high speed trains engage in shared use. (Note: the Eshoo/Simitian/Gordon press release calls for limiting the high speed rail project to borders of the existing Caltrain right of way, at or below grade.) A representative of an ad hoc committee on high speed rail from the City of Belmont suggested that an aerial structure would open up the bifurcated community by allowing cross town traffic and promoting redevelopment funded by the State. Long-time board member Lynn Shenk then inquired about funding flexibility to move project money from Phase I, the SF to LA line, to Phase II, which could include San Diego. She stated that she does not want a bailout of Caltrain, LOSSAN or any commuter system. She was challenged immediately by Mr. Hartnett, who made the point that high speed rail funding does not bailout Caltrain, but creates joint use of the line. Ms. Amy Webb, Authority counsel from the Office of the California Attorney General, declined to define interphase funding flexibility without further study. Board member Shenk requested a study of that option.
Mr. Tim Cobb, manager of the SF-San Jose portion of the line, discussed locating a shared maintenance facility at the San Francisco airport or Bayshore. Mr. Dick Wenzel, project manager on the Merced to Fresno segment, estimated cost savings with the substitution of at grade track placement for aerial structures and construction of underpasses. Citing the downtown Merced station as a hybrid of alternatives, land in Madera would be used to alter track geometry from the aerial version and gradually point to the Merced station. An opponent from the valley, who professed to have attended every technical advisory group meeting on options, labeled the hybrid station “a mutant,” contending that the revised plan to access Merced destroys aspects of irrigation, flood control and public safety. After pointing out that he had participated in the planning process without impacting the plans, a strongly motivated citizen demanded that the HSRA “start listening to us!” Fresno County Henry Pereira expressed his satisfaction with the new alternatives while requesting access to Authority consultants such as Parsons Brinckerhof. Ms Diane Peck, Executive Director of the Farm Bureau, lodged various examples of exclusion from the meeting for elected representatives held in Fresno County. Ms. Peck was followed by a long time dairy farmer who claimed to have been ejected from the same meeting. The chair asked for specific examples of exclusion of the Farm Bureau and specific examples of exclusion and consequence were provided by Ms. Peck whereupon a written copy was haltingly received by Mr. Pringle, who summarized the public input process as a place for public comments, not debate with the presenters. The Board’s newly adopted process of receiving public commentary throughout the meetings was certainly tested in this meeting.
With the approval of three motions to accept Alternative Analyses reports and postponement of a vote on approving the San Francisco-San Jose Alternatives section, the planned executive director’s report was deferred until the June board meeting. With a bare quorum remaining as a result of a concurrent budget hearing in Senator Simitian’s committee in the State Capitol, the remaining members adjourned the Board meeting. Scores of meetings with stakeholders have been held and more are planned for the month of May. They are needed.